I could have been friends with Jack Black. I was at the after party for the movie premiere of Gulliver’s Travels 3D, but I was too embarrassed to say hi even though he was the star of the movie and standing five feet away. We made eye contact but I think he was checking out my date. All I know is that we could have met and become friends but we didn’t because I was afraid and said nothing. Sorry Jack. If you’re reading this: I think you’re hilarious and love your movies. We can still be friends.
Earlier that day we were late to the premiere of the movie. My friend Daniel had to iron his tie or something, so my date and I waited in the car while I hoped the premiere had assigned seats.
It was at the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood. A lot of big movie premieres are there. It’s a huge old theater that seats like 20,000 people. At least, it feels like 20,000 when you’re the only one searching for a seat to a general admission premiere and you’re late, but it’s probably only 1200 seats.
There’s nothing more embarrassing than walking into a movie premiere late while famous people stare at you. A lot of famous people were there, so I was embarrassed searching for a seat in front of them. Luckily the movie hadn’t started yet and the lights were still up, but all the good seats were gone. We got the worst seats in the house. The Worst.
We’ve all had bad seats for a movie. It’s horrible. I think it should be illegal to sell tickets to bad seats. It’s like a two hour torture fest that ends with a headache and whiplash.
Most movie theaters are not designed for good viewing. With all the space in a movie theater auditorium, expensive technology, utilities, cleaning and maintenance, and all the other costs, theaters drive attendance to sell the most tickets and cover their overhead. By default, most seats are terrible.
If you walk into any screening room in any big studio in Hollywood it looks nothing like a commercial movie theater. The designers, producers, directors and various other production professionals know the secrets of good and bad theaters. They only go to specific theaters and they always know in a few seconds if a theater is good or not. But do you?
I’m going to teach you the ten secrets of the movie gurus so you can find the best theater in your area and always have a great movie experience.
When insiders go to movies they know the best auditoriums, and can assess a good auditorium in about 1 minute using these secrets.
When the lights are up…
1. get an awesome seat – Look at the seat layout in the auditorium. Are all the seats located within the width of the screen or are they tapered wider so some seats are beyond the edges of the screen? Are they like a stadium or are they flat? You want a seat nearest the center, about 2 screen heights away. Light is most evenly viewed from the center of the screen, and with the proliferation of silver screens seating position is crucial (used in most auditoriums equipped with 3D; silver screens do not reflect light evenly). Stadium seating is also best to avoid looking at the back of someone’s head, as long as you are not above/below the screen.
2. Now look at the screen – Does it look silver or white? Are there noticeable marks? Is it curved? ? How wide is it? Does it look more square or rectangular? A white screen is the best – white screens typically have lower “gain” (reflectivity) measuring around 1.0, meaning projected light is evenly reflected back at the audience. Silver screens (required for 3D like RealD, MasterImage or Volfoni) almost always have higher gain of 2.0 or more, which means light reflects less evenly. A curved screen is meant to direct light back at the center of the auditorium, but it also means that seats at the right and left sides of the auditorium have lower image quality (less light reflected at them) and cause distorted images.
3. Look at the projection booth and projector location (the room in the back of the auditorium where the projector sits) – What is the position relative to the screen? If you drew a line, would the line be level, projecting downward or projecting upward? Optimally, the projector will be positioned so it projects directly at the center of the screen. If the projector is positioned above or below the screen projecting at an angle you’ll see “keystoning” or image distortion that makes the image look like a trapezoid (i.e. the image will not evenly fill the projection screen).
4. Wall and ceiling color – What color are the walls and ceiling of the auditorium? Ideally they will be dark because white walls and ceilings can reflect light and distract you from the screen.
5. Auditorium shape – How wide and long is the auditorium relative to the screen size? Ideally, the screen will be almost as wide as the auditorium and the auditorium will be at least twice as long as the width of the screen. Long auditoriums are better; short projection can cause distortion, especially in 3D.
When the lights go down…
1. Look at the MPAA notice – The MPAA notice is the green notice for previews and ratings. The great thing about this image is the even color so you can tell if the brightness varies across the screen. You can also look at the edges and corners of the screen to see if the image is keystoning (wider at the top or bottom).
2. Focus – Look at all four corners of the screen. The images in all four corners should be in-focus.
3. Masking – Masking is the black velvet draping around the border of the screen. There shouldn’t be any exposed screen surface once the movie is playing, and there also shouldn’t be a lot of the image over-projecting onto the masking. Any exposed screen (or too much over-projection) means either the projector isn’t properly aligned with the screen or the screen masking isn’t right.
4. Artifacts from the port glass or screen damage – The port glass is the window between the projector and auditorium that the light shines through. Hopefully the theater keeps the port glass clean so you don’t end up with dirt or dust skewing the image.
5. Brightness – the brightness of the image in a theater is measured in footlamberts. 14 footlamberts is the standard for 2D images in auditoriums and 4.5 footlamberts is the standard for 3D images. This is a really big difference. It’s hard to measure a footlambert without a light meter, but an easy way to estimate footlamberts is looking at the MPAA notice: the green should be really bright. If it looks dim, the projector bulb may be decaying or the projector may be set at a lower brightness. If you’re watching a 2D movie, look back at the projection booth. If the 3D filter is in front of the projector it will also reduce the brightness of the
Here are two acronyms you can use to help remember:
Lights up: WAPSS (wall/ceiling color, auditorium shape, projection booth, screen, seats)
Lights down: BAMMF (brightness, artifacts, masking, MPAA color, focus)
I’ve screened movies at almost all the major studios in Hollywood (and most of the smaller ones) as well as post production and visual effects facilities. It takes practice to become a movie guru, but once you do you’ll have a lot more fun at movie theaters and be able to know a good theater within a few minutes of walking in, just save yourself some embarrassment and don’t be late.