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More on ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and Why Bad 3D is Still Ruining Moviegoing

While Blade Runner 2049 plays through what will probably be its final week in first-run cinemas, I thought I’d share with you some more musings on the movie, which I have had an opportunity to see yet again.

First, a surprising box office update: the film’s domestic gross has inched up to $85 million—still underwhelming but this is a far cry better than what the industry typically qualifies as a “bomb.” With the movie’s $240M total global gross handily surpassing its 150M budget, the film now has a good chance of paying off its marketing spend and then earning a profit for its investors.

I’ll ’fess up: I’ve seen Blade Runner 2049 three times completely. But there’s more: as a newly minted Moviepass member, I’ve also been taking advantage of their one-free-movie-per-day offer, and during some lunch breaks I’ve been catching the movie in bits and pieces at unfamiliar theaters, sampling the film on as many different area screens at as many competing venues as possible. You could say my brain has been a stew of Blade Runner 2049 since the day it opened and, as I suspected it would, the movie has lingered in my daydreams ever since.

My theater-hopper pass has afforded me an opportunity to see the movie in pieces at least a fourth time, probably a fifth, so I’m definitely the guy to talk to about the many audio and visual Easter Eggs throughout Blade Runner 2049 that not only harken back to the original 1982 film but also give a wink of acknowledgment to some pivotal modern-day sci-fi pictures informed by Blade Runner that have happened in the interim—notably Total Recall, RoboCop, Minority Report, A.I., The Fifth Element, Tron Legacy, and Her.

While I don’t use the Moviepass card every day, having it has afforded me an opportunity to finally visit a wider radius of theaters to evaluate the range of quality of presentation, and maybe even step closer to proving a theory I’ve long had that not all theater screens are created equal.

Having sampled Blade Runner 2049 on over a dozen screens in regular 2D, Real-D 3D, and IMAX 2D formats, I can say for certain which venues offered significantly brighter images and which theaters—specifically, which auditoriums—tend to project 2D movies using 3D projectors improperly calibrated to show a 3D movie.

First, let’s address the 3D elephant in the room. Warner Bros. routinely commissions a fake post-production 3D conversion of all their perceived “tentpole” movies, but whoever had the bright idea to sanction a 3D version of Blade Runner 2049 ought to be relegated to an eternity of viewing dimly projected and poorly converted 3D movies in a shoddy theater with popcorn butter smeared on the lenses of their glasses. By design, the visual scheme of Blade Runner 2049 is dark and hazy to begin with, so further reduction in image luminosity by faking a 3D conversion can only have hampered the overall viewing experience for untold numbers of viewers.

Many of these first-weekend viewers—and I know this from personal experience—were bullied into seeing 3D showings at the most desirable times, with standard 2D showings happening very early or very late. My local theater offered Blade Runner 2049 in IMAX 2D at the preferred 7-8PM evening slot so I was glad to avoid the 3D showings altogether, but for the many viewers who did not want to pay the IMAX ticket premium, or who didn’t even have the option, those 3D showings were far more abundant than 2D showings and so there was surely a lot of “settling” for 3D opening weekend, and maybe more “thanks, but nevermind” than Hollywood is willing to admit to. I’m sure this played into the movie’s softer-than-expected debut, and directly impacted word-of-mouth.

More on 3D: Ever since the resurgence of 3D in 2009 with Avatar we’ve been living in a world of 3D ticket premiums. Problem is, there has never been any distinction between the extra fee for viewing a 3D presentation of a movie legitimately made in native 3D and the extra fee for viewing any one of the ensuing onslaught of artificial post-production 3D conversions of varying quality.

Movies like Tron Legacy, Hugo, The Hobbit, Prometheus, and X-Men: Apocalypse are some good examples of native 3D productions, and they all look smashing in 3D. Faring less are the spate of cheaper 3D conversions—Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans, Gravity, the new Star Trek and Star Wars movies, Pacific Rim, Kong: Skull Island, King Arthur, Wonder Woman, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and so forth)—that give the entire format a bad name because they look atrocious.

Nevertheless, the 3D upcharge is the same—this has always seemed inherently unfair, especially when one considers the 3D premiums were sold to the public as a way to pay for all the shiny new digital 3D projectors exhibitors were forced to install and also, presumably, offset the higher budgets of real 3D productions.

As for those real 3D productions, today far fewer movies are being created in native 3D than in the few years immediately following Avatar, and most of the legit 3D pictures nowadays are animated movies, which really isn’t the same animal as a live-action 3D movie. More tellingly, after nearly a decade of 3D surcharges, surely these projectors have been paid off by now, and then some. Should the surcharges become permanent—they sure seem permanent already—studio marketers and theater exhibitors ought to be required to indicate somewhere on a film’s one-sheet and also at the actual ticket kiosk at the theater when a 3D presentation is for a legitimate “captured with 3D cameras” movie versus when the 3D presentation is for a movie artificially converted to 3D in post-production.

This should happen at the bare minimum, but there should also be a new pricing tier to correspond to a “real-versus-fake” 3D movie. Sure, charge me full-price for 3D Avatar 2 (if that long-delayed sequel ever arrives—Quick! Before the world finally sours on 3D entirely!), but for any one of those hasty post-production conversions, the “fake 3D” ticket surcharge should summarily be lowered. Fat chance, I know, but I said it anyway.

Photo: Tilde531 /Flickr

An ugly problem with the prevalence of Sony 3D projectors when used to show standard 2D movies was brought to the forefront in 2011 after a series of anti-3D screeds written by the likes of Boston Globe critic Ty Burr and the late Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert. They rightfully cried foul because too many 2D movies are being shown on projectors improperly set up for 3D and the images look downright terrible (the image gets split, and in the splitting there is in inherent and drastic diminishment of image brightness and color fidelity). Six years after the industry stuck its head in the sand in response to the Burr/Ebert tirades, the 3D/2D problem continues to be that these Sony 3D digital projectors are too frequently left in 3D mode.

Apparently, according to the original 2011 Burr article, AMC’s unspoken policy is to leave 3D splitters on 3D projectors even when showing 2D movies because it’s too time-consuming and evidently too complicated to shuttle back and forth between formats. Also, the projectors are so safeguarded against potential piracy that one false move during a manual adjustment can potentially shut down the whole system.

As such, any theater would rather offer a refund than fiddle with a Sony 3D projector, and because most folks won’t complain anyway, even if they’re intuitively aware of why they’re not getting immersed into the movie, the theater gets away with ripping off a paying customer who purchased tickets to a movie but sees only a fraction of the projection needed to properly experience that movie. I’ve seen plenty of 2D movies improperly projected with the 3D splitter activated, and the dimmer resulting image is a far cry from the bright picture intended. It’s most decidedly not how any filmmaker would want their film to be shown or viewed. Having spot-checked Blade Runner 2049 on over ten movie screens now, I can confirm an improperly projected 2D image is demonstrably darker than it ought to be, so when the nice manager tells me the beam splitter is not projecting a darker image, my eyes go crossed a little bit because I know I’m being fed a load of baloney.

One of The Good Ones: IMAX’s Laser Projector / Photo via Gizmodo

Try this out: If you’re viewing a movie in a 2D theater, when you look behind you at the projector window, you should see a single image flickering in the glass partition. If for any reason you see two identical images stacked vertically, then you know the projector is one of those Sony 3D projectors and it is mis-calibrated to split a 3D movie image…and you’re automatically losing a significant percentage of image brightness. A 3D movie will naturally be projected with the 3D splitter, the image will be that much dimmer compared to 2D, but then viewers must don the plastic goggles to observe the 3D effect, further filtering the image. It would be extremely generous to say the light bounced back from a properly projected 3D presentation viewed while wearing 3D glasses is 50% darker than untrammeled 2D projection. Try dialing down the brightness setting this drastically on your TV while watching a dark movie on Blu-ray and you’ll get the gist.

Once any movie image is reduced to this level of darkness, colors get muted and things intended to appear foggy and hazy look positively muddy and smeary. The longer and darker the movie, the more fatiguing the strain on the eye and the brain—Blade Runner 2049 and Batman v Superman are both very dark and both clock in at more than two-and-a-half hours—and so this 3D nonsense has very likely impeded the entire viewing experience of untold films for many thousands of viewers for nearly ten years.

If you find yourself at a 2D movie and the projector is improperly splitting the image for 3D, please seek out the theater manager and ask (politely, of course) if they can adjust the projector, make it brighter, deactivate the 3D splitter, etcetera. Depending on their knowledge and customer relations skills, they may be happy to oblige or call the projector booth operator, if any, to fix the issue. Most likely, they’ll tell you this is how the movie is supposed to look and it’s as bright as intended, but if you prefer you can have a refund or a free pass for a future movie.

If there’s not one already, there ought to be a monkey switch on every 3D projector—a simple manual override button that a manager or an usher or a projectionist or even a monkey could press to bypass the 3D beam splitter and reset the projector to its basic and brightest 2D projection mode. With so much at stake in the ongoing fight between traditional theatrical exhibition and home video/streaming, you’d think studios, theater chains, and especially influential filmmakers would be more interested in ensuring a trip to the cinema offers the best and most immersive viewing and listening experience possible. You’d think it more important to the studios and filmmakers that theater chains do their minimal due diligence to make their films—their products, their dreams—look and sound as good and as larger-than-life as possible. The perpetual apathy of theater operators does nothing but portend the utter doom of cinema exhibition, and what a sad day that will be when public movie theaters finally cease to operate.

Failing the unlikely quick manual fix in the projector booth, the only sure-fire method I’ve devised for avoiding 2D movies shown on 3D projectors is to learn the auditorium numbers of my favorite theaters, keep running notes of which particular screens are the ones with the problematic Sony 3D projectors, and then I avoid those screens like the plague. Movie-ticket apps are generally very helpful when it comes to informing you before you purchase a ticket precisely which screen your movie will play on, and the box office agent at the theater will always be able to tell you what movie is playing in which auditorium.

 

As for Blade Runner 2049, I suspect we haven’t seen the last of it before it arrives on home video early next year. The film handily qualifies for so many technical achievement Academy Awards that a limited Oscar-season reissue seems a very good possibility. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins is all but assured his 13th Oscar nomination, and he might finally win the gold for Blade Runner 2049. Other major and minor categories of evaluation the film handily qualifies for: music; editing; production design; costume design; sound design and editing; visual effects; and don’t count out Harrison Ford for a sentimental-favorite supporting actor nomination—the unexpected poignancy of the film’s payoff is all about Deckard’s journey, and Ford really sells it (he seems more fully invested here than in some of his other recent roles and revivals).

Depending on the upcoming crop of holiday Oscar-hopeful releases, Blade Runner 2049 has enough critical cachet to snag major nominations for director Denis Villeneuve, and perhaps even a dark-horse nomination for Best Picture. If this happens, I’d trust the studio will do a proper theatrical reissue—and that it will be a 2D issue only.

Until next time… “Within cells, interlinked.”

 

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