Substandard soundtracks

posted by LorenzoRodriguez on August 14, 2007 at 7:55 am

There is a growing body of evidence that distributors are aware of the bad soundtracks on many major releases. The problem stems from preferential treatment of digital soundtracks versus the analog variety used by nondigital venues.

I’ve been told by reliable sources, installation and repair gurus, they keep coming across sound problems in analog cinemas where it turns out the print is the culprit. I cannot help but wonder if this a subtle way of encouraging exhibitors to make the big switch to digital.

The circuits have rattled their swords about studios paying for the transition. I disagree. The U.S.A. is an essentially capitalist nation. The exhibitors should pay for the transition to digital projection from their own pockets. After all, it’s the circuits who will save millions on payroll. Switching to digital is a capital improvement the individual exhibitor requires to remain competitive. Just as importantly, the studios and distributors must continue to provide the analog cinemas with strong and clear soundtracks. The movie going public is jaded enough. Every movie theater in the world must put on a good show.

Comments (24)

vic1964 on August 14, 2007 at 8:20 am

Well except for the exhibitors have been saving millions for years already because of automation systems,teaching the kids to run things at minimum wage.It is the studios who will be saving big time because they will not have the expense of making prints.I think the small theatre chains may have a big problem paying for this transition.Digital systems are obsolete very quickly compared to 35mm.Theatres may end up spending more on tech service than they ever imagined with digital cinema!It will be interesting.

KenLayton on August 14, 2007 at 8:31 am

What makes you think analog soundtracks have problems? I have seen digital soundtrack problems where one or two reels of a print have a bad digital audio track or a bad DTS disk. Lately to me it seems the digital audio tracks have been having the problems alot more than analog. Of course there are theaters who play digital audio mostly and neglect maintenance on the analog backup. So when the digital audio drops out to analog, suddenly it sounds bad. Mostly from lack of adjustment of buzz track and Dolby tone.

And what makes you think that video projection will save money? Exhibitors will be locked into expensive service contracts on those big tv projectors. These machines require larger, more powerful xenon lamps just to match brightness levels with film projectors. Larger lamps mean more expensive to purchase lamps, lamps that only last half as long, lamps that require more electricity to operate, lamps that require much greater cooling. These things also require much cleaner electric power than a film projector. Exhibitors will have to throw away those expensive video ‘projectors’ every couple of years due to obsolescence or changes of formats/standards.

Every movie theater in the world must put on a good show or the customers would disappear. Video projection is not going to guarantee putting on a good show. Only a skilled projectionist with properly maintained projectors will guarantee a good show.

William on August 14, 2007 at 8:53 am

I find no problems with the current analog tracks the studios / labs are putting out. I do print checks on many studio releases (picture & sound). We check digital and analog sound tracks from labs around the world here in NYC. I find that exhibitors cutback on maintaining their theatres more as the problem. You may have talked to a few people and got info that is not that true. Soundtracks have come a long ways since your days at the Blecker Street Cinema, Angelika Film Center.

KramSacul on August 14, 2007 at 9:06 am

What’s the percentage of theaters that don’t have DD, SDDS, or DTS now?

I wouldn’t doubt that analog tracks are being made more sloppy nowadays as most of the prints that are churned out are garbage, IMO.

William on August 14, 2007 at 9:31 am

Different theatres get different grades of prints. This has been the case in the major markets.

KramSacul on August 14, 2007 at 9:43 am

I know places like Grauman’s, El Capitan, Village, etc used to get the very best show/EK/etc prints but with all or most of those theaters using DLP where are these prints ending up?

William on August 14, 2007 at 9:54 am

After the prints are used the studio recycles them. And only stores a said amount for later use, the rest get trashed. (recycled for other uses)

KramSacul on August 14, 2007 at 10:20 am

I meant do they still make special prints even though the top venus aren’t showing film anymore?

vic1964 on August 14, 2007 at 10:20 am

Here in Ontario Canada the prints go to the dump except for said amount for later use.At the 12 plex i worked at for 5 years we used to get some show prints now and then.For example ATTACK OF THE CLONES we got 2 show prints and 2 regular prints and the difference was big.REVENGE OF THE SITH was all regular prints and the quality seemed good,better than normal.I have noticed on big print runs [summer movies]more digital drop outs,and of course analog a chain maintenance is lax so the sound may be less than amazing.

William on August 14, 2007 at 12:23 pm

Kram Sacul, Yes they still make those special prints.

And analog sound may vary alittle with High Magenta and Cyan print soundtracks.

exit on August 14, 2007 at 12:54 pm

Let’s keep in mind that the studio takes 90 percent of every ticket dollar for most of a picture’s run, unless it runs a long time. The studios stand to save billions a year by not making and distributing prints. The quailty vs film is not proven since good prints properly shown are a distant memory. Digital projection can only exceed the quality of a badly mass produced print run on platters, and only in a small to medium sized venue. Digital sound is a separate argument from digital picture. I’ve always been quite baffled over the industry’s falling all over themselves about sound for the past 25 years, while quietly letting picture quailty go to hell.

Back in the limited run roadshow days the prints were struck directly from the original camera negative for the intital engagements in big cities. You’re talking maybe 50 prints made up under intent supervision over a reasonable back then vs 4500 prints that are quickly mass produced now.

JodarMovieFan on August 14, 2007 at 1:11 pm

Baltimore’s Senator had the privilege of getting special EK prints for the Fantastic Four sequel and Die Hard sequel. They also had the select vision prints for the last two Star Wars prequels, too.
I remember this because the owner went out of his way to tout the fact during those films introductions…“we would like to thank our friends, at 20th Century Fox for providing us with these exclusive select vision EK prints of…”

To be perfectly honest though, I thought the Die Hard sequel was noticably ‘darker’ at the Senator than at the Consolidated Theater multiplex at the newly opened Hyattsville MD location, which I’m reasonbly sure ran it on platter.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on August 14, 2007 at 5:50 pm

Distributors save millions by not shipping prints around the world. Digital systems do not run themselves. You still need a trained technicians.

The problem with bad sound is the result of cheap film stock purchsed by distributors cutting corners.

Exhibitors would be dumb to pay for digital when the public cannot tell the difference if the print is good.

LorenzoRodriguez on August 14, 2007 at 10:40 pm

First of all, thanks to everyone for your interest in the subject. Please allow me to make a few heartfelt points in general, but to no one in particular. My only goal is to be a part of the motion picture exhibition subculture so many of us love.
A) I continue to be involved in the business.
B) There are problems with prints directly from the lab and every circuit has anecdotes to confirm this point.
C) Studios/Distribs do not get 90% of the gross. Generally speaking, they get 90% over the house nut. Example: Your house nut is 10k/week and the film grosses 30k. That week the studio/distrib complex receives 18k and the exhibitor keeps 12k plus concession. Alot of theaters operate on a second run or move-over schedule in which case the venue keeps 65% of the gross for starters. The biggest economic problem for theater circuits is greed and mismanagement. In a short span, coverage in the USA jumped from 20,000 to 38,000 screens, if I remember correctly. We went from good coverage to overscreened in less than ten years. This is like the restaurant situation in Manhattan. There are too many restaurants in Manhattan so many of them shut down. The same thing happened in film exhibition. Theater circuits have cried poverty for decades but they are their own worse enemies.
C) Movie theaters will save money on digital projection because they will be synchronized with the unavoidable status quo. Yes, a digital booth is currently about 3 to 4 times more expensive to install than a platter booth. Yes, the current life expectancy for a digital booth is about 10 years compared to 30 years on the platter booth. I would love for us to stick with traditional 35mm projection, but it cannot be sustained no matter how romantic and beloved. Numbers and estimates lie. Measuring the life expectancy of a cinema’s projection booth is bad math. Technology does not care about your feelings. The public’s manipulated perspective supercedes the reality of our informed clarity. The film booth will soon go the way of the video cassette. VHS is a zombie. DVD killed VHS. Digital cinema will kill film. Indeed, the word “filmmaker” is already an anachronism.

KramSacul on August 14, 2007 at 11:06 pm

Digital cinema will kill film projection but image aquisition will still be largely film for some time.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on August 15, 2007 at 6:17 am

You could turn that distib/exhib profit model upside down if you wish. Since distributors get paid over 50% of the total gross, their margin is always higher. Both sides have expenses and both are owned by investors who are greedy for profit.

Distributors buy cheap film stock because the product often lasts two weeks only on screen anyway. As for the notion of digital enhancing long run print wear, what long run?

When exhibitors overbuild, as in the case of the late nineties, the distributors take the opportunity to increase terms on the now competitive market and get higher percentages, making matters worse for their alleged partners. When distributors over-produce crap films, exhibitors find a way to get the films out there and make them work even when better films are available. (see BRATZ right now)

Digital is simply a distributor cost saving that does not benefit the exhibitor or the movie-goer in any way.

Ron Carlson
Ron Carlson on August 16, 2007 at 5:33 pm

Agreed, although I have had problems with the digital tracks. My equipment plays both and the system will always select the digital track if there is one. In many casses when a digital track is present the sound processor will only play analog, upon having the equipment tested it has been determined that the print is at fault with flaws in the digital track.

LorenzoRodriguez on August 16, 2007 at 9:55 pm

The transition to digital cinema projection will likely be along the same lines as audio cassettes to CD’s and VHS to DVD. There is a financial abuse of the consumer to one degree or another, however, fighting the inevitable big switch is not a cost effective posture. I think, as I said before, exhibitors should take responsibility for there own futures. (Recently, almost every movie theater in Ireland switched to digital projection.)

Claiming that digital only benefits distributors is irresponsible rhetoric. Digital cinema mostly benefits all the directors, writers, producers, and actors, etc., who previously would have never come close to making a motion picture resulting in a wide release. As Francis Coppola said at the Academy Awards several years ago, I am paraphrasing, “In the future the great American movie will be made some fat girl working in her back yard”, or something to that effect.

Courtesy of digital projection, exhibitors now have the opportunity to increase revenue by live broadcasts of the opera and baseball games. This can only subsidize the cost of exhibiting home grown independent cinema as well as creating cross-pollinating excitement at a theater near you.

I first worked as an usher at the Hialeah Cinema in South Florida circa 1978. I made $3.15 an hour. I remember the GM loudly complaining about how the new born VCR would kill film exhibition. I remember telling him having a kitchen in your house does not stop you from going out to a restaurant.

I think the movie business is in pretty good shape all things considered. I think we are too hard on ourselves regarding quality and technology. Sure you could lament a cheesy film at the multiplex, but a sector of the movie business has always solicited the lowest common denominator. Furthermore, it should be noted, I am sick and tired of pseudointellectuals taking cheap shots at Hollywood. Like it or not, the vast majority of cinematic masterpieces are the product of Hollywood’s above average production values. The movie business is always looking for the next great thing and easily bored with yesterday’s news. The aforementioned substandard soundtracks are a symptom reflecting a sea change.

I urge anyone who is genuinely interested in the future of the exhibition business to check out this great Cinema Treasure’s website section titled Theater News: Digital Cinema. The writing is on the wall.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on August 19, 2007 at 6:49 am

Lorenzo, you are not doing your homework.

The Ireland digital initiative is to be funded by the government arts council and has yet to happen. NO exhibitor in Ireland is paying. About 80% of the UK digital systems are also government funded. Do you think American tax payers will be happy to pay for digital theatres?

If you worked in South Florida in the late seventies then you would know that the major chains, ABC Florida State (Plitt) and Wometco were in serious financial trouble and for sale. Neither made it through the eighties. A combination of blind bidding, advance guarantees, bad films and dwindling audiences caused partially by VHS, made them unprofitable businesses. Only exhibitors with deep pocket survived the early VHS dip and it was the multiplex that saved the day.

There is nothing in the digital plan that benefits exhibitors and the “fat girls” movies are on youtube for free, where they belong.

vic1964 on August 19, 2007 at 6:41 pm

If the exhibitors were going to save money implementing digital projection,they would have all done it already!It is a big expense which must be paid by those pushing for it.The studios will have to help or should help.Some theatres can afford it and are but film prints will have to co exist to supply the theatres which can not.The filmmakers already benefit like Coppolas fat girl on the production end with their videos transferred to film.I love Hollywood but the next great thing takes a back seat to making money more than it used to.

LorenzoRodriguez on August 19, 2007 at 9:58 pm

The transition to digital projection in Ireland has been well under way for two years. There are several articles attesting to the facts in BBC News, The Hollywood Reporter, and for example, this from PC World…

“Avica and its subsidiary Digital Cinema (Ireland)…began installing the first 25 projection booths on March 1 (2005)”

Same article:

“The 53 million price tag…was raised through venture capital investors.”

The plan, already underway, is to digitize 500+ screens at over 100 venues. You can see for yourself one company’s progress by checking out

Flash forward to more recent news, June 25, 2007.
Arts Alliance Media, the UK based largest digital provider in Europe announces it has teamed up with Universal Pictures and Twentieth
Century Fox to digitize projection in nearly 7000 movie theaters in several major countries including Espana and France. Check out the Arts Alliance website for a dose of reality.

Also, Wometco Enterprises continued to operate cinemas in to the 21st Century. For example, they did not sell the Byron Carlyle on Miami Beach until 2001 or 2002.

Hialeah Cinema, circa 1979, was owned by General Cinema Corp., one of the most well managed circuits of the day. They were already bigger than Wometco in South Florida and overall lasted into the 21st Century as well.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on August 20, 2007 at 6:35 am

Although the Ireland plan has been in talks since 2004, contrary to all the press releases it has yet to happen. Also, it will be government funded. The installations so far are in government subsidized theatres only. I work for a company with Irish theatres and they are still talking.

The founder’s family sold Wometco Theatres to KKR in 1984 for peanuts. The company was a ghost of its past as the Florida leader. The Wometco logo disappeared from marquees soon after in spite of real estate holding company names.

The European Arts Alliance plan has yet to start and has distributors financing it through film rental, similar to the way Fox paid for Cinemascope conversions in the 50’s. This is the way it should be done in the U.S.


General Cinema entered the South Florida market by buying Loews theatres in the late seventies and doing overnight cheap twinnings. They did not even bother to re-align the seats. GCC, a company that stayed in business during this period thanks to Pepsi bottling profits had, without a doubt, some of the worse theatres in South Florida as a result. They built a few several United Artist clone shoebox multiplexes like Hialeah that lasted a decade before audiences discovered AMC.

Wometco and Loews were always the class acts in Florida. I know because I worked for ABC there.

LorenzoRodriguez on August 22, 2007 at 11:04 pm

Hialeah Cinema had three auditoriums each with over 400 seats. They eventually expanded and the venue was still in business the last time I visted Hialeah circa 2004. The transition from GCC to whomever was preordained precisely by GCC’s tendency to go for good value. For example, GCC started a real butter initiative at a time when most everyone else was gleefully jumping on the butter flavored chemical warfare stuff bandwagon.

AMC was notorious for shoebox cinemas. I was an employee at the AMC Oaks Six in Gainesville, Florida. (Go Gators! Three Major National Championships in one year!) During the time I worked for AMC, I was perpetually disenchanted by the lower quality auditoriums compared to the better designed and more spacious GCC Hialeah theaters.

I think it’s safe to say, all of us can think of both good and bad examples in every circuit. They still put aisles down the middle in lots of places. The great palaces of yesteryear may seem automatically better, but the Zeigfeld still does not have adequate bathrooms.

There are currently over 2000 digital projection screens in more than 30 countries. Here in the U.S., there are several examples, big and small, of exhibitors going for the Big D. Carmike Cinemas, the 4th largest U.S. exhib and only 5 years removed from bankruptcy, is already deep into a deal with Christie to digitize all its screens with Texas Instrument’s DLP. Carmike has a 35mm projection equipment “For Sale” posting on this website.

The Arts Alliance Media website has a counter keeping track of the digital screens already in operation in the UK. The current number is 239.

I do not like wasting time with persons unable to concede an obvious point.

Sooner than later, the motion picture exhibition business will completely “change-over” to digital projection. Problems with 35mm prints will increase because market forces determine how much attention is given to each medium. Constant technological improvements to digital delivery will make it far more cost effective than the outdated labor intensive 35mm systems. In the long run, exhibitors will greatly benefit from lower payroll and greater programming choices.

My memories of the independent art cinema with the flickering images and the sputtering sprockets will always remain a great source of pleasure. I wish everyone great satisfaction at any kind of cinema near you. Best, Lorenzo

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on August 23, 2007 at 6:31 am


AMC both started and ended the shoebox auditorium. I remember that Hialeah threeplex and it was outdated the day it opened. Although all chains have bad sites, GCC built bad sites. The GCC twin conversions were worse than others with no reseating and serious sound bleed. I stopped going to the Riviera and 170th Street for that reason alone. GCC and UA were still building shoebox auditoriums way after audiences were already rejecting them. Neither company survived the recent bankrupcies.

There is no doubt the Ziegfield has inadequate facilities for 1200 people to go to the restroom at once. Name a cinema (or theatres) in the world that does.

I have no doubt that Digital is the future for practical reasons. I do not believe it enhances the audience experience one bit and I believe those gain financially from it (distributors) should pay or at least finance conversions.

I personally applied (and received) 72 of those 239 (2K) Arts Alliance UK government funded digital projectors. The Arts Alliance expects them to be obsolete within five years. Imagine if we had BOUGHT them!

Cinema chains sell projectors because they are, unfortunately, closing sites. Not because they are converting to digital.

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