And you thought you were getting gouged on the price of a jumbo popcorn and 3D glasses.

The ongoing conversion of movie theaters from celluloid to digital projection and from 2D to 3D was supposed to give you bigger bang for your ticket-buying buck. Instead, in many theaters, it's actually giving you less.

As an article in The Boston Globe this week notes, some new 3D projectors may darken the picture by anywhere from 55 to 85 percent when screening 2D movies. So you may be seeing as little as 15 percent of the movie you paid for.

Of course, this is just one way that the supposed upgrade of theaters has actually led to a downgrade in the quality of the movie-going experience.
3D Lenses Left On for 2D Movies
According to the Globe, the lighting problem centers on Sony's new 4K projectors, which are designed to show both 3D and 2D films. For 3D films, a special attachment is used that contains two polarized lenses that rapidly alternate the image in order to create the 3D effect. The problem occurs when the dual lenses are left in place for the screening of 2D films, losing at least half the light to polarization.

Unfortunately, say the Boston-area projectionists quoted in the article, switching the lenses is time-consuming and technically difficult. It also requires the use of a security password. (The projectors are built with digital downloads in mind, enabling studios and theaters to save money on the cost of prints and shipping, but also risking piracy.) If the login procedure isn't followed to the letter, the machines shut down. Often, the only person who can change the lens is a regional technician servicing a number of an exhibition chain's multiplexes. In many cases, theater managers and minimally-trained employees would rather not deal with those issues, so they leave the 3D assembly in place all the time.

The price of digital conversion can be expensive for a theater. There are many digital and 3D projectors on the market, including some where the 3D polarization is accomplished by a filter that is easily lifted. But the Sony 4K machines had one advantage for many theater owners: Sony provided them free, in return for the airing of ads for Sony products before the movie starts.

3D Bulbs Diminish Picture Quality
There are other expense issues at work as well. Projector bulbs are expensive and have short life spans. Since the polarizing effect of 3D already dims the picture somewhat, projectionists are supposed to compensate by increasing the power supplied to the bulb, but they often don't; in fact, they often lower the power in order to extend the bulb life so that they don't have to replace them as often. Even so, as Roger Ebert notes, dimming the bulb barely adds any life to it; it succeeds only in diminishing the picture quality.

Two Projectionists Screen 10–20 Movies at Once
Then again, one big expense that theaters tend to avoid is trained projectionists. Twenty years ago, projectionists were often unionized and well-trained in the operation of their machines. These days, however, with digital projectors that are largely push-button operated and which don't require the splicing and threading of film, theaters have largely laid off skilled projectionists. Often at the multiplex, there will be only one or two projectionists on staff who are responsible for screening 10 or 20 movies at once. (Which is why, if you try to complain about the picture quality to someone in the booth, there's no one there.)

Sometimes IMAX Isn't Worth It
Theater chains boast of all the improvements they've made in recent years - stadium seats, online ticketing, a more diverse array of food options - but those changes are largely cosmetic. Go to the multiplex, and you'll often find dim pictures, erratic sound (too shrill, too muddy, too much bleeding from the auditorium next door), white screens instead of new silver screens (which are much better for 3D viewing) and screening rooms that have been carved from larger screening rooms, resulting in seating rows raked at odd slopes and screens angled so that the projector beam doesn't hit them straight on. An increasing number of mall theaters boast IMAX screens, but the screens may be no larger than regular 35mm-projector screens, which means they're about a fourth the size of (and a different aspect ratio from) the seven-stories-tall true IMAX screens found at museums and some older theaters. Yet you're still paying an IMAX surcharge for what may be the same size picture you'd see in the next house over at the standard ticket price.

The typical response from theater chains, as demonstrated in the Globe article, is that patrons aren't complaining about picture and sound quality, so there's no incentive to make improvements. But viewers may be showing their displeasure by voting with their feet and their dollars.

Johnny Depp

Just this past weekend, for instance, 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' debuted on more than 4,000 screens, with two-thirds of them 3D or IMAX 3D, but only 40 percent of the tickets sold came from those venues. Most fans (three out of five) chose the 2D version, even though there were more screenings of the 3D version. One explanation for this is that audiences are tired of paying the surcharges without getting a noticeable increase in picture quality.

More People Opt for Less-Expensive 2D Over 3D
There are a couple of ironies at work here, both stemming from the notion that 3D and IMAX were supposed to be the big draw that saved the theater industry, the gimmicks that would motivate you to get off the couch and go to the theater for an experience you couldn't get at home. Yet over-reliance on 3D may be killing the golden goose if ticket-buyers think it's too expensive or not worth the price. Also, it turns out that the new projection technology (or at least, the theaters' unwillingness to expend the time, effort and money to use it properly) isn't giving you better picture and sound than you could get at home, even on 2D movies, so why go at all.

The Globe article suggests that moviegoers don't complain because they are either too complacent with what they're being offered or too poorly educated about how they're being deprived. (It could be that the people who do care and do know the difference aren't complaining because they're simply staying home and watching movies on state-of-the-art home theater systems.) But it's also true that it's hard to know what you're buying when you pay for your ticket. You don't necessarily know which house at the multiplex is screening your movie, what kind of projector it uses, or whether the movie is being projected from film or a digital file.

How to Tell If You're Getting Movie Bang for Your Buck
There are some ways to find out. One, obviously, is to call the theater in advance and ask. Another is to look in the movie listings for a "D" near the title that indicates a digital screening. And if you're already in the screening room, look to the projection booth. If you're in a 2D movie but you see two beams of light, you're watching it on a Sony 4K projector with the 3D lens attachment in place. Finally, if you want to know if your theater is true or faux IMAX, check out this Google map (h/t Engadget).

Unless moviegoers complain and complain often, theater chains will not lift a finger or spend an extra penny to give customers the picture and sound quality that they're paying for. In which case, the theaters may be penny-pinching themselves right out of business.

Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
PG-13 2011
Based on 39 critics

Capt. Jack Sparrow encounters a woman from his past and sets sail to find the Fountain of Youth. Read More

categories Features, Hot Topic