Last year when I attended a Met HD Broadcast at the Regal Fenway Theaters, I was disappointed that the image was projected using the OSA (On Screen Advertisements) projector rather than the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative) projector. The result was a dim fuzzy image with blown highlights. That experience has prompted me to investigate alternative options for experiencing the MET in HD in the greater Boston area.
I learned that that Fenway may have made the decision to use a lesser projector because the DCI (“main act” digital cinema initiative projector) projectors are subsidized by the distributors and the studios and are sometimes restricted as to the content for which they can be used.
Since an average digital projector costs over $100,000 versus $20,000 for a 35-mm projector, the theaters, which are not paying for their prints, have no incentive to make the conversion without a subsidy. The distributors and studios, on the other hand, will save $2,500 per print, multiplied by the thousands of prints required by theaters every year because digital images are presented on inexpensive, reusable hard drives rather than on film. That gives distributors and studios a substantial incentive to encourage the equipping of theaters with digital projectors through cash subsidies. In some cases those relationships also have imposed certain restrictions on use of the DCI projectors.
Asked whether she could say what projectors Regal will be using for future Met HD broadcasts, the spokesman from its corporate office, Michelle Portillo, wrote, “Per our conversation this morning, I inquired about your projector questions and that information cannot be released.” Because of that non-disclosure policy patrons can have no way of knowing what to expect from the Regal chain.
By contrast, the Showcase Cinema Revere’s very responsive manager, explained that every one of their theaters is equipped with Sony SRX-R320 SXRDs. With 4096×2304 pixel count, these are capable of twice the resolution sent out by the Met via satellite (1900 x 1080). The contrast rating of the Sony projector is 2000:1. In the case of Revere, there is also no issue with 3D lenses being left on projectors at inappropriate times, a practice that can cut the brightness in half, as has been exposed by a recent Boston Globe article by Ty Burr. According to the manager, screens 5 and 10, where Met broadcasts take place, are never used for 3D, though the Revere Cinema chain claims never to leave the 3D lenses in place for 2D movies on their other screens. He went on to say:
At Revere three out of 20 screens can still handle 35 mm film, though there is no advantage to it. The images from the Sony 4K projectors are better in every way, and you don’t have the aggravation of seeing dirt and scratches. We don’t have that headache any more, thank goodness. The films are delivered to us on small hard drives, so that cost of freight is miniscule compared to film, and we don’t need to splice the reels onto large platters or employ an army of projectionists. We have only one now, for twenty screens. The Met Broadcasts come to us through satellite. Though those broadcasts are only 2K, I guarantee that we will always use our DCI projectors for them.
For creature comforts there are also soft drinks and box lunches served before the movie within the auditorium. There’s also a pleasant restaurant with a full liquor license which attracts some patrons who don’t even bother to stay for a movie. We’ll probably never offer reserved seats, since that would encourage people to arrive later and not buy food and drink. Also we have acres of free parking.
Another favorite Met HD site for BMInt readers is the Shalin Liu center in Rockport. As most of us know, this establishment is much more visually and acoustically sumptuous than a commercial cineplex. BMInt learned the following from executive director Tony Beadle.
Generally it’s safe to simply show up for one of our Met HD broadcasts, but like so much of classical music, attendance is driven by what’s on the program. In our experience, Italian opera sells very well, Wagner sells very well. For other operas we have to do a little extra work. Overall attendance has been very good and well beyond our expectations. We don’t sell every seat in the house since some of them, though excellent for a concert, have obstructed views of the screen. We sell about 280 seats out of 350.
We sell reserved seats at three different prices. This is one of our major differentiators from the presentations at conventional cinemas. We get a lot of people coming up from Boston who like to be assured that they have seats reserved for them. They don’t have to arrive two hours early and put their coats on chairs. But they can also come early and reserve a table for lunch on our third floor. We also offer pre-opera lectures. Parking is also free in Rockport after the third week in October. And yes, we do serve wine and beer on the third floor at lunch and we have great snacks at intermission.
We’re particularly proud of our image and sound quality. When we were designing Shalin Liu we knew we were going to be doing video presentations and we wanted the best. After you finish with me you ought to talk with David Shriver, our AV expert. And we also had a recent consultation from classical sound expert Steve Colby of Evening Audio Consultants to optimize our surround sound. The surround sound comes directly from the Met feed which arrives in 5.1. We’re not creating an artificial surround. It comes from microphones in the auditorium at the Met.
David Shriver, Rockport’s technical director told BMInt more technical details about their venue.
We have a German very high end sound installation from D & B Audio Technik. The three speaker systems above the screen were supplemented by four channels of D & B speakers on tripods in our first year. This was not entirely convincing, so we hired Steve Colby to come up with a permanent surround sound system that sounds good in virtually every seat. He encouraged us to stay with D & B for the surround, but was also sensitive to the need to install speakers that were aesthetically pleasing. We did not want to alter the look of the hall [in the manner that has just been done with speakers at Symphony Hall]. We bought 6 model E-8 speakers for orchestra left and right in the front and rear, and for the balcony left and right. We also were careful to adjust the delays digitally to make sure no one was hearing arriving sound from the surrounds before hearing the sound from the mains. Every speaker is driven by a D & B MB D-6 amp. Each amp is driven from our London Sound Web DSPs (digital sound processor) which are in turn fed from our Integra decoder.
In terms of speaker placement, because of the famous glass wall at the back of our stage, it’s not possible to install speakers directly behind the screen as is normally the case, but I believe the above-the-screen positioning of the main speakers is actually very advantageous for film. You definitely get the feeling that the dialog comes from the screen. We’ve done some clever things with the aiming and fill speakers to make sure that the sound field is consistent through the house.
Our projector is a Panasonic Pt D10000DW three-chip DLP which produces 10,000 lumens with a 5,000:1 contrast ratio. From the beginning, since we knew that video was going to be important, we didn’t blanch at spending $40,000 on a very good projector. It isn’t in a totally soundproof booth, but we are currently working on moving the fans out of the auditorium. At this point those seated in the back couple of rows can hear the projector in very quiet moments. This will be improved very soon.”
The picture at Shalin Liu is much brighter than those in cineplexes. I measured 4 stops more brightness from the screen shots I took. It’s true that the Sony 4ks in use at Fenway are 18,000 lumens compared to Rockport’s 10,000 lumens, but the screen at Revere is 4 times the size: (40 x 25 vs 20 x 12.) So the brightness advantage of Revere’s projector is dissipated over the much larger surface area of their screen. I would also observe qualitatively that Shalin Liu’s image quality benefits from the better contrast ratio of their projector. The black level also appears deeper than at Revere.
So what’s BMInt’s recommendation? In my opinion at the best theaters, such as Rockport, the image is as good as a BluRay of a well produced opera on a top home theater system. This is less true at the larger cinemas since the same amount of information used to create the picture on one’s 50 inch home display is spread over a 40 – 50 foot image at a large theater. So if one sits too close, the image does not appear sharp. And in favor of watching at home there is also the availability of many excellent discs. Opus Arte alone has 59 operas on BluRay. And there are also many opportunities for streaming opera. Yet most individuals do not have top home theater systems. Furthermore, watching a recorded performance at home, though certainly convenient, is not a substitute for a live broadcast in a well equipped theater full of pumped-up senior citizens. Our recommendation then, is to go to Rockport if the drive is not too onerous. Otherwise we suggest Showcase Revere as the next most satisfying venue.