Watching Casablanca, Digitally Projected, at a Big Multiplex

Last night, Turner Classic Movies and Fathom–a company that distributes high-definition operas and stage plays to movie theaters–presented Casablanca in 485 theaters–mostly or entirely big multiplexes–across the USA. Needless to say, the movie was digitally projected. The event was tied to Casablanca’s 70th anniversary.

In fact, the show was officially titled Turner Classic Movies Presents Casablanca 70th Anniversary Event.

I attended the event at the AMC Bay Street 16 in Emeryville–a giant multiplex devoted almost exclusively to big Hollywood fare. I’ve seen many excellent presentations there, and just as many shoddy ones–both film- and digitally-based. I suspect that AMC has invested in the best equipment, but not in staff that knows how and cares about presenting the best show.

Last night, the presentation problems started immediately.

My wife and I arrived about half an hour before show time. The light level in the auditorium was appropriate for a screening, but way too dark for comfortably walking in a finding a seat. We had to use our phones as flashlights.

I returned to the lobby, found an employee, and complained. He promised to fix the situation and talked to someone via a walkie talkie. He did as promised; when I got back to the auditorium, the lights were appropriately set.

But when the show started (on time), the lights remained up. So once again I had to go to the lobby and register another complaint. This time I was treated with sarcasm and derision (“First you want the lights up, then you want them down!”), leaving me to wonder if the employees had been taught anything about the movie-going experience, or about working in a service industry. But they did, in fact, respond to my demand; by the time I got back to the auditorium, the lights were down.

The show began with a 15-minute documentary about Casablanca, hosted by TCM’s Robert Osborne. It was interesting, although there was little in it I didn’t know.

I’m a fan of digital projection, and think it’s just fine for classic films. But presentations like this could change my mind. Much of it looked great, but a lot of scenes looked washed-out and contrasty. Very white objects, like dinner jackets and Ingrid Bergman’s complexion, had a distracting shimmer to them, with tiny white spots swimming about at random. I suspect that this was film grain from the original source, somehow intensified by something in the digital stream.

I also have no idea who to blame. Were these problems the fault of Fathom, AMC, or a combination of both? This was my first hi-def Casablanca experience, but judging from Blu-ray reviews, I don’t think we can blame Warner Brothers’ transfer. I have no idea in what digital format this movie arrived–DCP, Blu-ray, via satellite, or something I’ve never heard of.

The movie sounded fine, except that the mono soundtrack seemed biased towards the right side of the screen. I would guess that it was coming through the center and right speakers. They should have either shut off the right speaker or turned on the left.

The movie itself, of course, was great. But you know that. I’ll discuss it in more detail in a future post.

Also great: the audience. People laughed in the right places, reacted with enthusiasm, and applauded at the ending. It had been maybe 20 years since I’d last seen Casablanca theatrically, and I’d forgotten just what a wonderful experience that is. It’s narrow-screen, mono, and black-and-white, and shot on cheap sets, but Casablanca deserves to be seen on a giant screen with an enthusiastic audience.

Despite the technical problems, it was overall a wonderful experience. It was, after all, Casablanca.

I wasn’t the only one who felt so. At the end of the movie, the audience applauded. Then we had to get up in the dark and find our ways to the exit. No one on staff, of course, thought to bring the lights up again.

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6 Responses

  1. How big was the crowd?

    • Not bad. I’d guess that the theater was about half full, which would mean 100-150.

  2. We saw it at the LA Live AMC. The lights operated normally, fortunately.

    Sound was fine, balance was good. The only thing that bothered me was that there were very faint washes of teal and purple on the screen, perhaps a side effect of the streaming/projecting process. It was very slightly distracting at some points, but never offensively so.

    Our auditorium had a good crowd, the upper level was about 3/4 full, with a smattering of people in the lower non-stadium seating.

    This was my first time viewing Casablanca in its entirety. I had seem clips and vaguely knew the plot, so this was a lovely chance to see the whole thing in a theatre setting. I did enjoy the introduction with Robert Osborne. Overall a great experience, minus paying $15 for parking, as we indulged in pre-movie dinner and post-movie drinks.

  3. [...] A Report From Emeryville On A Bollixed Digital Projection Of Casablanca [...]

    • I believe it was not a digital performance at all it was delivered via satellite just like the Met a high def (not all that high). It was not on a DCI hard drive. So you were watching basically a television broadcast of the Movie which is not a movie all all. So until you have seen a old movie on a digital Compliant hard drive don’t making a judgement on Digital Cinema. So what did you really expect from a 16 plex anyway.

      • If it was delivered by satellite, it’s still digital. Dish Network is delivered by satellite and everything on it is digital. But that doesn’t mean it’s as good as DCP, the standard for digital projection in commercial movie theaters. And neither was this.

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