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Kodak Takes on New Screen Role

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eastman Kodak technician Donald F. Lane peered into a projector at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, pointing out the bane of many Hollywood productions.

“Dirt is the enemy,” he said. Dirt in the projector, fingerprints on the portal glass in front of the projector, smudges on the reflector, soot on the lamp and--in about one auditorium in five--a murky coat of grime on the screen.

Kodak wants to clean up projectors--and also align reflectors and change worn-out bulbs--in about 30,000 cinema houses nationwide in ScreenCheck Experience, a program to beef up exhibitor standards. The effort has drawn attention from LucasFilm’s THX unit, which recently created a slogan showing consumers it cares about pictures, too--not just sound.

Kodak rolled out movie trailers earlier this year in General Cinema theaters showing jumpsuited workers scrambling over the screen as if they were cleaning a billboard.

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The problem, pointed out in surveys cited by Kodak executives, is that the average movie screen in the United States is a little more than half as bright as levels recommended by the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers.

Bad picture quality in theaters has long been a sore spot in Hollywood’s creative community, said Rob Hummel, executive vice president of digital technologies development at Technicolor. The problem has worsened as multiplexes have become increasingly automated.

“A lot of times--no joking--the guy who is making popcorn is the one who runs upstairs and threads the film through the gate,” Hummel said. “He didn’t clean the oil off his fingers as he threaded the film.”

Other frequent problems include using projector bulbs that aren’t bright enough. Cinema projector lamps grow dim over time rather than popping like household bulbs. Or the reflector can be jarred out of alignment, resulting in such problems as the often-seen “periscope effect"--the picture is bright and sharp in a circle in the middle, fading to darkness on the edges.

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All those problems are seen as hurting traditional film projection at a time when digital technology, which made its appearance on the market earlier this month, promises feature motion pictures without using a frame of 35mm film.

Current projection systems--based on century-old technology--require a lot of maintenance that isn’t being properly performed, Kodak says, and viewers often do not see what movie makers intended.

“You sit in the theater for 10 minutes and you get tired of watching the movie,” said Hungarian-born cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, whose work on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” won him an Oscar. “Your eyes are getting strained . . . and you’re bothered with it.”

Micheal McAlister, another Oscar winner (“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”), was responsible for the special effects in last year’s “The Truman Show.” He recalls being crestfallen when he watched it in a Hollywood movie house.

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“In the scene where [actors Noah Emmerich and Jim Carrey] were sitting on the end of the bridge, the big, wide master shots of the bridge were matte shots, and we went to the trouble to paint in subtle trees and dim details in the background to give it a sense of depth and scale in what was going on, and yet I couldn’t see any of that.”

McAlister, who is the senior supervisor at Cinesite Visual Effects, a Kodak-owned company, said that about a million hours of labor go into production of a feature film. “It hurts my feelings that those two hours [of projection] are not taken as seriously as those million hours that have gone before.”

Kodak’s arrangement with theaters is analogous to the kind of service contracts people have to keep their home appliances in top shape. Kodak will provide a free evaluation, with subsequent visits to maintain certification provided six times annually at a cost of $100 per screen, with discounts offered for multiple-screen cinemas.

Participating movie houses in Kodak’s program will be able to display a multicolored star logo on exterior signs. Executives are hoping that the name “ScreenCheck” becomes familiar to moviegoers in the same way that they see the THX sound-checking system developed by filmmaker George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound. That system, which also periodically looks at projection quality, is largely aimed at evaluating sound performance.

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“THX has gotten to be a competitive factor,” said Rich Boynton, Western regional vice president of film for General Cinemas. “We have some screens in Austin, Texas, and almost every screen in town is a THX because the customers go looking for them.”

Robert Mayson, general manager of Kodak cinema operations division worldwide, said Kodak is applying its program to 68 General Cinema screens in Southern California. Kodak is negotiating with other exhibitors and plans to have 1,000 screens certified nationwide by year-end.


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