Regal lets you play hall monitor at the movies

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One of the main reasons problems in movie theaters don’t get fixed is that audience members are reluctant to leave the auditorium to report them. The picture goes out of focus, and everyone notices it, but you figure it will get fixed the second you leave, and then you’ll have missed some of the movie for nothing. And so it stays out of focus for much longer than it should, because no one wants to go tell someone. Sound familiar?

Now Regal Entertainment, the largest movie-theater chain in America, is launching a way to alleviate this problem. Starting last week, certain audience members in 114 theaters (up from 13 in the test run last year) are being given a little device that looks like a walkie-talkie with four buttons on it: “Picture,” “Sound,” “Piracy,” and “Other Disturbance.” If there’s a problem in the theater, you push the corresponding button and it alerts the manager, who then probably ignores it. But hey, at least you told someone, and you didn’t have to miss any of the film to do it.

It’s not clear how they choose who gets to be in charge of the device at each screening. I guess you have to hope it’s someone responsible and conscientious. Will it turn into “Lord of the Flies” in there, with chaos and alliances and people being crushed under rocks? We can only hope.

The whole thing is a great idea, at least in theory, and I hope it does some good. But there are a few elements that will need to be addressed.

1. The “Piracy” button will never, ever be pressed, at least not in seriousness. (New York Magazine suggested that while watching “Pirates of the Caribbean,” you could push it over and over again. “Look! More piracy!”) A 2003 study by AT&T Laboratories and the University of Pennsylvania confirmed what common sense already suggested: that the vast majority of pirated movies come not from people holding camcorders in the theater (that’s so 1990s), but from employees filming the movies from up in the projection booth, or from studio employees who have access to digital copies. So it’s actually pretty hilarious that Regal has “Piracy” as one of only FOUR buttons on the audience devices. They might just as well have one that says “Fire” or “Hostage Crisis” for as often as it will need to be used.

It’s also worth noting that most audience members, even if they saw someone pirating the movie, wouldn’t care.

2. Regal will need to teach its employees how to actually deal with sound and picture problems.

The most common problem is the way the movie is framed on the screen. Roger Ebert offers the most succinct explanation of why you sometimes see boom mics over the actors’ heads:

When you repeatedly see a boom mike in a movie, 99.9 percent of the time it is NOT the fault of the film’s director, but of the projectionist in your theater, who has framed the film incorrectly. Many films contain additional real estate above and below the frame, to allow the picture to bleed off the edge of the screen. A complaint to the theater manager may do the trick.

Roger is right that talking to the theater manager might do the trick, because most managers are probably familiar enough with the mechanics of movie projection to understand what you’re talking about. But if you just go out and tell the first employee you see that the movie’s not framed properly, and that the characters’ chins are being cut off, and that you can see the microphones dangling above their heads, chances are good that the teenager you’re speaking to will have no idea what you’re talking about — or, worse, will dismiss your complaint as non-actionable because if you can see microphones, well, that must just be the way the director filmed it.

When I saw “Saw III” at a Regal theater last October (one that is now using these audience devices), the film went out of frame at the next-to-last reel change. At first it was the more common, obvious type of out-of-frameness, where the bottom of the picture appears at the top of the screen, then there’s black line, and then there’s the top of the picture underneath it. The projectionist fixed it fairly quickly. Except after he “fixed” it, the movie was out of frame in the other way, with the visible boom mics and characters’ faces being cut off during close-ups. I thought for sure he would notice this, but I guess once the first problem was fixed, he left the booth.

So I went out and told an employee that the movie was out of frame, and she said, “Oh, again?” I said, “Well, it’s a different sort of problem this time, but yeah.” She said she’d tell the manager, and I have no doubt that she did. But the problem was never repaired, and the rest of the film unspooled that way. Which means whichever manager was on duty, if he did go up to the booth and look at the picture, he failed to see anything wrong. Which means Regal needs to educate its employees better on the finer points of film exhibiting. (Actually, that’s not really even a “finer” point. It’s a pretty basic point.)

3. Let’s say you push button #4, “Other Disturbance,” because there’s a gaggle of teenage girls in front of you, chattering and text-messaging and displaying the same level of etiquette one would expect from a duffel bag full of monkeys. Does Regal expect us to believe that a manager is actually going to come in and do something about it? Please.

First of all, “Other Disturbance” is fairly vague, and the manager might enter the theater, look around, and not immediately see what the disturbance is. Often, people are only disruptive to the people sitting near them, not to the whole theater.

But even if he identifies the problem — even if the girls happen to be misbehaving during the 30 seconds he’s in there scanning the crowd — is he really going to tell them to be quiet and stop using their glow-in-the-dark cell phones? I highly doubt it. Most employees in the public sector are nonconfrontational. You’d have to be outrageously disruptive to elicit any kind of official reprimand from a movie theater’s manager. Everyday, run-of-the-mill bad behavior like talking or texting will probably be ignored.

Still, as I said, it’s a good idea. I hope Regal can do what it takes to make moviegoing an enjoyable experience for everyone. And they should definitely put me in charge of the buttons, because I will not stand for any shenanigans.