Greta GarboThere is something fitting about the way the glamour and magic of Hollywood is being disturbed by some dark goings-on in commercial cinema.

Like parallel storylines in a well-crafted movie, these contrasting themes are perfectly poised to converge and collide – with surprising results. I won't give the end away, but I can take you through the cast and their causes. I promise you won't be disappointed...

If told by Hollywood itself, the opening scene would be a dazzling foray into Hollywood’s highlife before cutting away to the other side of the plot. Here we would meet the down-and-dirty world that threatens to undermine – and possibly topple – Hollywood as we know it. The characters would be believable and their world more familiar than that of Hollywood’s elite. We would side with them.

From its cliffhanger encounter with home video in the late 1970s, Hollywood has recovered both its exclusive place in show biz and its role as technical pioneer. It is as glamorous and affluent as ever. Only the escape from cinema’s deterministic format offered by console games could cost Hollywood’s big boys sleep – that and the fact that 2011 global box-office takings came in at US$31.8bn and are fading, while the takings from games sales are presently twice as strong as those of the movie industry. Looked at another way, Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham City game sold 4.6m copies in its first week of release earlier this year, following the trail of 2009’s BAFTA-winning Batman: Arkham Asylum.

But, unsullied by the Pop Idol or X Factor style devaluation of a career in music, screen acting retains its artistic – and hedonistic – integrity. Aspiring to an acting career is still enticing and dangerous. And Hollywood’s thirst for technological advance still commands some of the sharpest and most resourceful talent available.

The delivery of its product, however, provides the first dirty scene in the story. Like the extortion racket or financial importunities that enable the elite lifestyle of the suave screen villain, the day-to-day operation of commercial cinemas can be ugly. And there’s a new mob in town, shaping up to change the territory.

Meet the cast

So what makes commercial cinema so special?

Videodrome‘Watching the latest films at the cinema has always been a unique experience,’ said Mark de Quervain, Sales & Marketing Director at Vue Entertainment, in a recent post on ‘People enjoy the combination of being the first to see the latest movie on the big screen and having the surround sound effect. Although there has been a rise in the ease of internet-delivered movies, the quality of these movies will never equal that of the cinema experience and, for serious moviegoers, will not replace the cinema as the ultimate entertainment vehicle.’

Not if you canvass the experiences of a few knowledgeable and reliable audio folk. Added to Fast-and-Wide’s recent conversation with the team at London’s Hackenbacker Post, Out Post Sound’s Rob Speight drew my attention to some of his recent cinema-going experiences. And then there is Philip Newell’s challenge to the thinking behind cinema acoustics. None of it makes pretty reading, nor lends any credibility to Mark de Quervain’s argument.

The Hackenbacker experience covered missing and mismatched channel levels, while Rob’s encounters include having a film screened with only the centre channel working – and turned up to compensate for the missing channels. Philip, meanwhile, passionately regards cinema acoustics to be locked into 1970s acoustic theory that has since been abandoned by every other area of pro audio. Even the hi-fi world has moved on.

Personally, the irony of a Dolby promotional trailer being run through a system that has been reduced to a single channel is just too painful a reflection of ‘pro’ audio to contemplate.

VuduWhile the rental libraries and ‘home taping’ challenge made to cinemas in the 1970s is now the stuff of movie trivia quizzes, alternative delivery channels continue to threaten the commercial cinema. High street DVD and Blu-ray rentals, cable TV movie channels, home cinema technology and the expanding functionality of the games console as an entertainment terminal are conspiring against the cinema chains.

And, as the post points out, the most expensive part of the existing film distribution process is commercial cinema… Studios probably wouldn’t be too upset by the loss of the cinema, it claims. Most films barely break even at the box office, and studios often see the theatre release of films as a loss leader. The studios recoup their investment with DVD sales and, to a lesser extent, on-demand rentals.

Lending not inconsiderable weight to cinema’s nervousness over alternative distribution is an Open Letter (in full here) issued by the filmmaking community in April 2011. Co-signed by the likes of Peter Jackson, James Cameron and Guillermo del Toro, this came in response to an agreement struck by Warner Bros, Sony, Fox and Universal to work with US satellite company DirecTV on a delivery service that would close the gap between theatre and online release of a movie to eight weeks. The cinema chains have powerful friends as well as foes.


‘Technology never stands still and as such we continue to develop with it,’ Mark de Quervain conceded to Well he would say that, wouldn’t he? ‘There is no doubt that cinema as it was even five years ago is a different and better experience today, with new products, services and experiences being offered.’

Sadly not for everyone. And the smart initiatives – such as screening live sport and music events, and gaming sessions – are as dependent on cinema acoustics and technical maintenance as traditional movie screenings.

If Philip Newell is correct in his assessment of cinema’s acoustic shortcomings and mismanagement of cinema sound and projection systems is rife, on-line distribution to home cinemas represents the biggest challenge commercial cinemas have ever faced. Whether they are ready to recognise it seems to be a very different matter.

The plot of our movie seems reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which also tells a story through multiple perspectives. But you can’t make this up...

See also:
Talking Talkies: Is Cinema Losing the Plot?
Bad Sound and Short Sight
Interview: Nigel Heath

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