Gomez, for his part, told me during our tour that he feels like he's already made a big difference in presentation quality. Aside from what I saw during the tour, my own subjective experience goes along with this. In late March, I watched 10 movies at the Boston Common and thought three of them looked too dim. AMC was vague about when exactly Gomez started his new role, just describing it as "a few months ago" — which would be April or May. In late May and early June, I saw another dozen or so movies at the Boston Common and thought they were all sufficiently bright.
Around the corner on Washington Street, ArtsEmerson's Bright screening room has been showing good movies, well projected, on most school-year weekends for the last two years. But they recently announced the termination of their film programmer, Rebecca Meyers, citing budget pressures. Meyers had been a champion of 35mm, bringing rare and archival prints and putting them in the hands of respected veteran projectionists like Herb Nipson and Adrianne Jorge. Meyers says two-thirds of what they showed was on 35mm, the rest on high-quality digital formats like Digibeta. That looks likely to be dialed back next year. Rob Orchard, executive director of ArtsEmerson, citing "efficiencies," told me they'll be showing fewer 35mm prints and plan to introduce DVDs as a presentation format in the screening room.
Chapin Cutler, co-founder of the national projection services powerhouse Boston Light & Sound, told me that because of widespread projection problems, he doesn't go to movies in town any more. The last time he went, he took his son to see True Grit. The picture was wildly out of focus, and hot-spotted in the middle. He talked to the manager about the problems, but they didn't get fixed and he felt blown off.
Cutler told me "in terms of presentation quality, dimness is the big issue." Dimness can be caused by several factors, he said: bulbs pushed past their rated lifetime, bulbs that are underpowered for their room, bulb focus, dirty port glass, dirty lenses, dirty screens, damaged reflectors — all factors that apply to both film and digital projectors. The message I heard over and over again in speaking to projectionists and theater managers was simple to understand: to avoid a steady degradation in quality, you have to invest in a program of monitoring and maintenance.
To battle dimness, Kornfeld does all that at the Somerville, and takes it further, having long run his film projectors at up to 30 foot-lamberts, or roughly twice the standard level of brightness. He's well known for this practice, and several projectionists I spoke to took issue with it. "He's running it wrong," Cutler told me. "Every film that's running through his projector was timed to run at 15 foot-lamberts. You lose contrast, the highlights tend to become overbright."
Kornfeld's response? "Well, it's true, it's not to standard. I don't care. I think it looks better. I know it looks better. If the print is correct, the brighter light brings it all out."
"I suggest you stick around after the movie."