You Pay Thirteen Bucks, And What Do You Get?
Well, it sure is classier than the Scotiabank. For one thing, the AMC Yonge & Dundas 24, opening today, isn’t called the “Scotiabank.” And its interior design scheme (seen above) is premised on the role that movies play in the popular imagination, rather than the role that you play in Taco Bell’s quarterly profits. And the music selections playing in the lobby (Soundgarden, Nirvana, and The Who during Tuesday’s press preview) don’t seem to be the product of deals with record labels. AMC goes out of its way to make known its interest in movies. Too bad it couldn’t give a crap about film.
When we say “film,” we’re not talking in the elitist sense, such as in saying “Hollywood makes movies, Iran makes films” but rather in the practical, literal sense: the new AMC theatre is “all-digital,” meaning it has not a single film projector and relies instead on video technology. No reels of film have to be shipped in and out, and no one has to thread the film through 35mm projectors. This results in massive savings to the distributors and lets AMC operate at about a third of the cost of a traditional film-based multiplex. But of course this doesn’t result in any savings for the customer: tickets are $13 each, $11 for students, all day, every day, with the exception of $6 movies before noon on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, for those of you who want to recreate the sleep-deprived experience of TIFF year round. The thing that had us most excited about AMC coming downtown—it already operates theatres in Scarborough, Woodbridge, and Missisauga—was the opportunity for it to provide competition to the Cineplex monopoly on first-run theatres in the core. We really hoped it would take advantage of its outsider status to lure away the Scotiabank’s customers by undercutting their prices. But instead they’ve set them at the same level. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: the free market doesn’t work.
Torontoist asked Andy DiOrio, AMC’s Corporate Communications Manager who’s flown up from Kansas City for the opening, how the ticket prices at the new theatre compare to AMC theatres in the States, particularly the all-digital theatres that AMC recently opened in Indianapolis and Dallas. He was understandably unenthusiastic about giving numbers (which a quick search of their website reveals are $7.50-9.50 and $7.00-$9.00, respectively) but observed that the cost is determined by the “market”; a big-box development in a suburban plaza would be cheaper to run than a theatre renting space in an urban setting, for example. Fair enough. But, presuming that the American and Canadian dollars are virtually at par, AMC’s Times Square location has cheaper adult ticket prices than any of their GTA theatres, of which Yonge & Dundas is the most expensive.
So how does AMC justify the exorbitant prices? Well, it’s all digital, which means it’s better, right? No, it just means it’s cheaper to operate. Films are sent to theatres in lunchbox-sized containers, which house cartridges that are then plugged into a mainframe. Instead of projectionists, there are one or two non-union workers overseeing all 24 screens from a single console; their duties are essentially limited to pressing a “play” button and being aware of any error messages that might pop up. (To be fair, the Scotiabank also doesn’t employ unionized projectionists but rather has “cast members”—i.e. regular front-line staffers and managers—running all the equipment.)
As reported by SneakPeek.ca, AMC claims that its “SXRD 4K digital projectors from Sony will provide images that are four times the resolution of HDTV.” The key word in that sentence is “will.” The fact is that although the projectors have that capability, few, if any, movies are yet rendered or distributed in 4k format. The current standard for digital theatrical presentation is 2k, meaning a resolution of 2048 pixels by 1080 pixels. For comparison, a Blu-Ray DVD shown on a good high-definition television is 1920 x 1080; the iMac on which this article is being typed is running at 1680 x 1050. This works great for a twenty-inch monitor, but the screens in the two largest auditoriums at the new AMC are three storeys tall and about twice as wide. 35mm film, on the other hand, works out to the equivalent of 4850 x 4850, still better than 4k’s 4096 x 2160. Film also has superior colour range and contrast ratio.
DiOrio tells us: “Almost all features today are shot and released in native 2K (with an upres to 4K in the Sony projectors). There are several features currently being filmed with 4K Dalsa cameras (although I don’t have the titles) and more on the production slate for 2010 and beyond.” (Regarding the “upres to 4k,” The BigScreen Cinema Guide notes that “there probably would be little to no benefit to viewing a 2K movie on a 4K system over a 2K system.”)
Complicating this, however, is that special effects are rendered at 2k, anyway, and any film that includes them in abundance (such as most Hollywood films) has probably had its negatives scanned in at that resolution in order for the effects to be added, before being output back to film. Any movie in which the post-production involves digital colour grading also utilizes a digital intermediate. So the majority of films being shown at AMC have probably been digitized at a 2k resolution sometime between being shot on 35mm and being shown in a theatre, regardless of the projection system. AMC does, however, have a programme they call “AMC Select,” the intention of which is to devote one, possibly two, screens to independent-ish films; Run, Fat Boy, Run is showing this weekend.
So how does it actually look? Torontoist briefly popped into a demonstration screening of Alvin and the Chipmunks and walked right up to the screen to find the image unsurprisingly muddy. But for all we know, Alvin might look cruddy under the best of circumstances, so we accepted the offer of a demo of I Am Legend, a film which we’d seen in 35. After watching ten minutes of it on the largest screen, we have to admit that it does look appropriately crisp and bright, but there was, however, slight motion blur whenever an object or person onscreen is moving quickly; most audiences are unlikely to notice this, but it will be frustrating for anyone who appreciates film.
People who prefer digital tend to fault the medium of film for things that are really problems with indifferent theatrical presentation: old or poor-quality prints, old or poor-quality projection equipment, and young or poor-quality projectionists. If a print is good, if a projector is good, and if the projectionist is at least decent, film is superior for showing movies originally shot on film. (If a movie is shot digitally or is computer-animated, however, there is a strong case that it will indeed look better when shown digitally.) None of these things have ever been issues at any of the movies we’ve seen at the Paramount/Scotiabank, or indeed at most first-run theatres we’ve been to in our lifetime. Everyone has had a handful of bad experiences, sure, but the biggest problem at first-run theatres tends to be forgetting to turn the lights on after the credits finish rolling. Digital is a solution to a problem that only marginally exists and can easily be corrected in ways that preserve the advantages of film.
So why would someone choose to go to AMC Yonge & Dundas instead of the Paramount? we asked DiOrio. He rhymed off the digital projection, the six-dollar morning movies, and the cheaper concessions. This last point is true. It is possible to purchase, in small quantities, popcorn, drinks, and candies for $3 each, or three for $7.50. It’s not a lot of food at all, but for people for whom popcorn is part of the ritual, rather than simply an oily substitute for a real meal, it might be a dealbreaker.
Other than the above, there’s nothing significant to recommend the AMC over the Scotiabank or anywhere else. (DiOrio also spoke of an AMC loyalty program, but the details were unremarkable.) We say you should give the bulk of your business to local second-run theatres (the Royal, Revue, Fox, Bloor, etc.). If you don’t mind waiting until two or three months after a movie’s been released, you can see it—properly projected on film—for more-or-less half the price of a first-run ticket.
And, perhaps best of all, you won’t have to spend any time at Yonge and Dundas.
Photos by Jonathan Goldsbie.