In the newspaper you see an advertisement for a 50th anniversary screening of Psycho at your local art house movie theater.
What do you think they’re going to be showing?
A 35mm print of the film, right?
A few weeks ago I saw this very advertisement in the paper for my neighborhood art house. The theater is a non-profit run by people dedicated to having a venue that exclusively shows independent and foreign films that you’re never going to see at the multiplex.
I love Hitchcock and Psycho, I just got the brilliantly restored Blu-ray, so I was pretty pumped about getting to see it on the big screen. Weeks ahead of the screening I e-mailed a bunch of my friends telling them to clear their calendars for the evening of the screening. Thankfully, they all flaked out on me at the last minute.
My friends had various unexpected conflicts and I ended up at the theater alone. I was still excited about the screening and while waiting for the film to begin I was tweeting my anticipation. But when the film started, it only took seconds for the outrage to set in.
When the curtains opened and the projector came on, the first thing I saw was “DVD Play.” The movie theater was showing a DVD (as opposed to a 35mm print). For the first time in a decade I walked out of a movie theater before the end of the film (the last time was Dancer in the Dark), and for the first time ever, I walked out of a movie during the credits. The fact that I had paid to watch a DVD — a DVD I own — infuriated me to a near ballistic rage. I’m not the kind of person who throws tantrums, but I had to quickly leave the theater before I started screaming at its staff.
The first thing I did when I got home was write a long and justifiably bitchy letter to the theater manager, carbon copying everyone on the board of the theater. The salient points from the letter were:
- Given that the [name of the movie theater] is a movie theater, and that the event was billed as a special 50th anniversary screening, I had ever reason to believe that a 35mm version of the film would be shown, especially considering that you were charging full price admission.
- Why would I pay to watch a film on DVD when I already own it on DVD and Blu-ray?
- The theater should have advertised that they were showing a DVD instead of a film print.
- I believe you should never show a DVD or Blu-ray version of a film unless a 35mm or 16mm print does not exist. What makes movies theaters special is that they show films – celluloid. The unique look of a projected film on celluloid is what continues to drive people to theater to see repertoire films like Psycho even though so many of us own it on home video and can watch it on our home theaters.
The response I got back boiled down to it being increasingly difficult and expensive to get prints of repertoire films, DVD offers great quality, and most people are happy just to see the movie on a large screen regardless of format. Or in other words, the theater takes advantage of the fact that most people don’t know any better. (Even if I had not seen the words “DVD Play,” I would have known it was a DVD because the picture had artifacting from the MPEG compression, the quality was poor, and the black & white tint were off.)
What pisses me off the most, is that I was the only person upset about a DVD being shown. You’d think that a film like Psycho would bring out a more sophisticated crowd than something like Sex & The City 2.
I admittedly fixate on picture quality more than most people. Since I bought a Blu-ray player in 2008 I have hardly touched a DVD, I won’t watch anything on TV unless it’s in HD, and Netflix streaming isn’t up to my standards. But I think I’m more than justified in my outrage over a movie theater showing a DVD, and especially nobody else caring.
If movie theaters can really get away with showing consumer level video, then the whole industry might as well just fold and distribute first run films on pay per view. The whole point of movie theaters is they have something better than what we have in our homes. It used to be 35mm prints, now it’s 4k digital projectors and 3D.
I’ve always been cynical and pretentious towards the mass audience, but the fact that a whole theater of people either didn’t realize that they were watching a DVD or care that they were, and that it was an art house theater that perpetrated this chicanery, I feel like that cynicism and pretension have actually been justified. I used to think that Blu-ray would help people rediscover the beauty of the photography in films, but now I know I’m just kidding myself. It actually depresses me.