Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Off to See the Wizard... Or Not: An Editorial

Several weeks ago, at the recommendation of an old friend, I purchased tickets for my wife and I to see the special theatrical "Wizard of Oz 70th Anniversary Hi-Def Event." The applicable theatre nearest our home was the Regal Fairfax. The one-time showing was this evening at 7:00 pm. I left work a little early, took my wife to an inexpensive Chinese restaurant situated directly under the theatre, and went "off to see the Wizard."

The theatre (okay, the auditorium known as "Theatre 9") was just about full. At about 6:58 pm, the lights dimmed slightly and the "Hi-Def Event" began with a special introduction by TCM's Robert Osborne.

Only Mr. Osborne didn't look particularly "Hi-Def." In fact, Mr. Osborne came on rather slowly, moving and speaking in fits and starts. Some of the attendees laughed, but most were booing. Eventually, Osborne's voice became clear, even though his body was stiff and his lips weren't moving... but then, his physical presence made a mad rush to catch up to his vocalizing. The crowd settled back.

But things still weren't right. Mr. Osborne's movements were rather jerky and most un-Hi-Def like. As a regular viewer of NCIS, I began to wonder if this "event" was being transmitted via remote from a Marine unit in Iraq. After about two minutes, Mr. Osborne yielded to a mini-documentary about Oz hosted by Angela Lansbury, and she too moved and spoke in the same halting manner. It all looked like a Netflix DVD that had gone through the mail a few too many times.

About ten minutes into this travesty, I (and several others) went to the box office to inform a manager. (My contribution was to advise him to brace for a clamor of unhappy, refund-seeking Oz-ites should the actual film be as poor as the mini-doc.) When I returned to Theatre #9, several people were exiting, and the screen was almost blank... almost, except for a little digital clock and taskbar at bottom that probably looks a lot like the one at the bottom of your screen right now. My wife told me that they stopped the show shortly after I'd left, and that the next thing that popped up was a "Windows (Vista, XP, whatever)" logo, at which people laughed and snapped pictures with their cellphones. That image vanished, then everyone saw an "HP" logo. Presumably the special "Hi-Def Event" equipment was being rebooted.

After about a ten-minute wait, the program started over. And nothing had changed. Mr. Osborne made his slow-motion entrance, followed by words leaving his immobile face until his body rushed to catch up, followed by his herky-jerky movements preceding those of Ms. Lansbury. Whatever the problem was, it hadn't been corrected. This time, they turned it off about five minutes in.

After another five minutes of waiting, a manager came in with a roll of free admission passes (not good for IMAX or "Special Events" like this one), and told us "they" were still trying to correct the problem and would "skip ahead" to the movie once it was fixed. While he was still passing out passes, the film began. Leo the M.G.M. lion began a roar that stopped and started and stopped and started... basically the poor beast moved in one-quarter time. My wife turned to me and said, "I can't sit through this anymore." Reasonably satisfied with the passes ("At least we can see Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs later this week"), we left at about 7:40 pm. As for the many who'd dropped 20-ish bucks on popcorn, drinks and candy, I doubt they were as pleased.

My friends, I have seen the future of theatrical screenings... and right now it sucks.

Obviously, I can't speak for everyone who turned out in theatres nationwide to view this thing. Perhaps the Regal Fairfax finally got it going just as my wife and I hit the stairway to the parking lot, and everyone who remained had a wonderful Wizard of Oz time. But I'm more than a little annoyed that nobody seemed to have tested anything beforehand to see if it worked. Was the HP equipment with "Windows whatever" capable of rendering a flawless Hi-Def show in a theatre, or was it better suited for PowerPoint presentations at my day job? To be honest, what little I saw of the opening titles (which, granted, are in sepia) looked no better or worse than the standard commercial DVD that I own... except that my DVD actually plays.

Everyone has had a bad experience in a movie theatre. The picture goes out of focus, the framing goes askew, or the film jumps and suddenly the soundtrack is the sprocket holes. One time, at a showing of Toy Story at the local second-run house, the picture turned upside-down for the length of about a reel. (My daughter, suitably traumatized, refuses to patronize that theatre anymore.) But these problems are rare and usually fleeting; in any case, there are employees that know how to fix them. Tonight, the manager freely admitted that others were in charge of this "Hi-Def Event" - and whoever these specialists were, they hadn't been able to correct the problems after some forty minutes.

So, if you attended a screening of this event anywhere, please post a comment and tell me your experience. Did the film run without incident? Did everyone have a good time? Was it worth the ten bucks? And, if you were at the Regal Fairfax, at what time (if any) did the show finally get rolling?

As for me, I have a message for the folks at Warner Bros. and Turner Entertainment: the next time you want to present The Wizard of Oz "exactly as it was seen in movie theatres seventy years ago," as Mr. Osborne laboriously told us (twice), a genuine IB Tech print will do just fine.