A Small Issue at Movie Theaters Is Becoming a Major Problem

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People texting on their phones. Exorbitant ticket prices. People talking on their phones. Sound that’s either way too loud or way too soft. People taking pictures of the screen with their phones and then posting them to Facebook in the middle of the film. Going to the movies in 2016 can be a frustrating situation. An experience designed to take us away from our everyday troubles is now fraught with them.

For a lot of these problems, there’s no easy solution. But there’s one issue that I’ve noticed happening more and more that, if properly addressed, would make a significant improvement on the theatrical experience. It’s a problem that requires a small fix, one so small I’m surprised it’s become an issue in the first place: Theaters not properly masking their screens.

Screen masking involves expanding or shrinking the borders of a theater screen so that a film fills its dimensions exactly. Most mainstream movies are released in one of two aspect ratios: 1.85:1, also known as “flat” and the taller of the two, and 2.35:1, known as “scope” and the wider of the two. Masking ensures that both aspect ratios are displayed on the same screen with none of the image being lost, and none of the unused areas of the screen left visible. Here’s a basic comparison (that also includes 1.33:1, the size of old tube televisions) to give you an idea of the difference:

Because movies come in both sizes, and because theaters often show multiple movies at the same time, screens must be built to accommodate both aspect ratios and then masked, either on the sides or on the top and bottom, with black curtains. If you’ve ever arrived early at the theater and noticed motorized curtains retract between the multiplex’s pre-show (which is typically flat) and the feature presentation (which in this case would be scope), you’ve seen screen masking in action.

But it’s increasingly likely you haven’t seen it in action, or at all. In my experience, fewer and fewer theaters are going to the trouble to pay attention to screen masking. With the move to digital projectors, the layoffs of many experienced and knowledgeable projectionists, and the rise of various formats like 3D, some theaters (and even some entire chains) have abandoned screen masking. It’s even an issue at film festivals; at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, I saw several movies projected on unmasked screens.

The most common screen masking problem I see is scope movies projected on flat screens, with the image letterboxed between black bars. It’s the difference between these two screengrabs from Reservoir Dogs.

Letterboxed:

Full frame:

Even in this random example grabbed from the first 2.35:1 DVD I found in my collection, there’s an obvious difference in the two images. Without the black bars, the gangsters fill almost the entire frame; in slo-mo, their swaggering attitude makes them seem almost mythic. Even though the letterboxed image is technically the same size, the black bars in that version seem to diminish the characters; they seem less imposing and less powerful.

There’s a reason why theaters have masked their screens for half a century. A key one is explained in this excerpt from a smart 2015 article by Jonathan Lack about the chain in his area, Cinemark, doing away with the practice:

When a widescreen image is properly masked, it ideally creates an ‘immersive’ viewing experience – this was the idea behind anamorphic widescreen, when it was initially introduced as ‘Cinemascope’ in 1953. The image is as wide as the human eyespan, allowing a viewer’s vision to be completely consumed by the screen ... when you project a Scope image onto a Flat display with letterboxing, that effect is lost. The image itself is still wide, but it is now bordered by thick, visible bars, and rather than feeling immersed, the viewer is prone to notice how the image is ‘confined’ by these visual boundaries. Unlike black curtains, these letterboxed bars – which are, in these cases, hard-coded into the image, projected alongside the film itself – are not ‘invisible’ when one watches a movie. They are very visible indeed, and especially for a film-literate viewer like myself, they can prove incredibly distracting.

A properly masked 2D movie is just as immersive as 3D. An improperly masked 2D movie looks flatter, and less convincing in its illusion of depth. It’s one more barrier between us and the world of the movie, one more thing to get past before you can give yourself over completely to the film. And I personally find that shots that accentuate the boundaries of the frame in unmasked movies, like extreme close-ups, draw my eye up to the black bars, and repeatedly distract me from the story.

That’s anecdotal evidence, I know, but there’s a larger issue here beyond the visual impact of the bars. Even if a letterboxed movie is fine in every other regard, it is still a letterboxed movie. And letterboxed movies look like television. Television is where letterboxing originated, to accommodate the differences between TV’s square frame and film’s rectangular one. Just look back at those two images of Reservoir Dogs. Which one looks like something you’d watch on your TV or computer?

Meanwhile, as theatrical movies look more and more like television, our televisions are looking more and more like film. Good HD TVs now cost just a couple hundred dollars. A ticket for the next screening of Sully at my neighborhood theater costs $15.30 (plus fees if you plan on buying your ticket in advance online). Why pay almost $20 to watch something that basically looks like a slightly larger version of what you’d see on your television at home? That’s an increasingly difficult question to answer.

In researching this issue, I spoke with one projectionist who confirmed his theater, a Regal Cinema, still masks their screens. A few days later, the same projectionist sent me a private message on Twitter; he and his wife had gone to see a movie at a different theater (a “recently renovated one,” no less) and they saw a scope movie letterboxed on a flat screen. “It bothered me the entire time,” he told me.

It bothers me too. Almost every modern theater (except some IMAX and large-format screens) have the curtains they need to properly mask these movies, it’s just that some of them stopped doing it. Is this a deal breaker that’s going to destroy the theatrical movie business? No. I’ll be the first to admit, this issue isn’t as serious as cell phone use or dim projector bulbs. But it’s just one more problem on top of the others; one more reason to skip the theater and stay home. And this issue should be a lot easier to solve.

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