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No sooner was the ink dry on my piece welcoming Danny Baldwin to the San Diego Film Critics Society, than the following impassioned plea appeared in my mailbox.

Danny Baldwin was a former AMC projectionist and the current author of the blog Bucket Reviews. This guy has both a passion and eye for perfection that made me sit up and take notice. Danny and I have very little use for a theatre-chain that cares more about sprucing up a lobby than they do how the films appear on-screen.

Hopefully, someone will forward this piece to the powers-that-be at Cinépolis in order to help clean up their act. Until Danny gives me the green-light, I'll remain a stranger.

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When you walk into the new Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas in Del Mar, you are greeted by an inviting, upscale bar and lounge area that looks refreshingly unlike the sterile lobby of a chain megaplex. After purchasing a ticket at the “concierge desk,” you make your way to a reserved seat -- an over-sized, comfortably appointed leather recliner. Unfortunately, while Cinépolis may spare you the backache of your usual trip to the movies, it will give you a much larger headache in its place.

There was reason to have hope for this addition to San Diego’s cinema-going landscape. For one, there was no place to go but up from the UltraStar Del Mar Highlands multiplex that once stood in its place -- with fixed aspect-ratio screens that cropped the images and hoards of teenyboppers talking and texting through weekend shows, it was one of the worst places to see a movie in the county. Cinépolis promised all new facilities and an expert team to back them up. Matthew Lickona detailed all the shiny new features the theater had to offer after attending a press preview event, and things sounded great.

After three weeks of Cinépolis being open, those aforementioned hopes have been effectively dashed. While the theater admittedly boasts superior auditorium design--the screens now have movable masking to show 100% of the picture and the new sound systems are robust--it is, like most every other multiplex in town, run without any regard for the patrons who come to watch movies or the filmmakers who provided them.

At $15.50-$19.50 a ticket (more for 3-D), it’s barely hyperbolic to call their poor service “robbery.”

The first couple times I attended the theater, I chalked various operational kinks up to the fact that this is Cinépolis’ first theater in the United States (they are already the biggest exhibitor in Latin America, hence the Spanish name) and they were still finding their footing. Seeing Captain America opening week, I experienced the complete failure of one of the company’s signature offerings -- in-seat food service.

After placing my order during the trailers, the grub never came. Following the show, I informed the General Manager and, after a ridiculous half-hour wait, he finally refunded everything. I even wrestled two re-admission vouchers out of him because he couldn’t refund my tip (why, I never figured out).

My laundry-list of complaints against Cinépolis mounted -- they never answered their phone when I called for information, the seat-reservation portion of their online ticketing rarely worked and, when it did, the chart was backwards, giving patrons the front-row when they wanted the back-row. I started to suspect this would not become my go-to movie-house anytime soon. But, truly wanting a quality place to see a movie in North County, I thought I would keep trying.

Today, after an atrocious experience, I decided that I wouldn’t be back anytime soon. Figuring that I would need a comfortable chair to endure The Help’s 140-minute running time, I decided that Cinépolis would be the perfect venue.

The movie started in the wrong aspect-ratio (2.35:1 instead of 1.85:1), meaning that roughly 22% of cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt’s canvas was invisible to the audience. For those unfamiliar with how digital projection works, when a movie is set to play in the wrong format, the projector simply ‘zooms in’ on the image, cropping it, so general audiences often won’t immediately notice something is wrong (as they would with film, which looks hideously out-of-proportion when the wrong lens is used).

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The two servers working the show would have noticed this problem had they been properly trained, but I didn’t mind notifying one of them that it existed. He tried to fix it himself, walking behind the screen to what I assume was a control panel (there are no projection booths for most auditoriums). The only result: the sound went out for several minutes.

After the poor, under-trained guy emerged from the curtains, he made eye-contact with me, only to then disappear completely. I begrudgingly went out to notify the projectionist on duty. Hours after the incident, I’m still unclear if the place has a projectionist. I first spoke with the ticket-taker, who had no idea what an aspect-ratio is. She directed me to the manager. This is where my cinephile blood really began to boil. I asked him if he knew about the format issue and he responded: “Yeah, but I didn’t want to change that during the [show].”

You know there is a glaring presentation error and you aren’t going to fix it!? (Furthermore, he clearly had no intention of forking over refunds to all patrons.) He said that he would correct the problem, but who knows if he did because, with the movie already 25 minutes in, I decided to see it at another time.

I told him I wanted a replacement for the re-admission pass I ‘paid’ with, as was only fair. “OK,” he said, directing me back to the concierge desk where I was informed that they can’t issue a re-admission voucher that’s good for any show. They needed me to specify an exact date and showtime. I once again asked to speak with the manager.

Another 10 minutes passed, and upon the manager’s return, I explained the problem. I was told to wait just a little bit longer before he once again disappearing. I never raised my voice or was a tough customer through this whole ordeal--I only sought a fair solution. The manager never came back. I left in anguish.

At the risk of this sounding like an angry Yelp review--and believe me, there are already plenty of those -- I want to bring the discussion back to how this relates to the exhibition climate as a whole. The problem is clear: whether it’s your community multiplex or a $19.50-per-ticket luxury cinema, proper presentation and customer service, once the cornerstones of the cinema-going experience, are near extinction. “Movies look better on my TV,” is a frequently expressed sentiment among today’s consumer -- a sign that something is very, very wrong with exhibition.

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While there was certainly poor presentation and customer service pre-multiplex era, it has only recently become an epidemic. While there isn’t any market-research to substantiate such a conclusion--exhibitors would rather take part in the downfall of movie-going as we know it than commission a survey that would likely confirm they are making mistakes--I believe the real collapse began in the late-1990s, when the modern megaplex boomed.

As scholar Charles R. Acland chronicles in his invaluable book Screen Traffic, the ‘90s were when exhibitors decided to move towards theater concepts in which the movie wasn’t necessarily the main course. While San Diego is decidedly lacking in theaters where you can go bowling or have dinner right next to Auditorium #5 (and thank God for that), the above thought -- that people don’t necessarily go to the movies to see a movie, they go for a “night out” -- has had consequences that have nonetheless ravaged the theaters of our sunny town.

Because exhibitors made few efforts to reach out to older, more sophisticated moviegoers, the sentiment became a self-fulfilling prophecy: the average moviegoer became the teenager who went to the movies every week not because of what was playing, but because it was a ritual thing to do. And, in turn, because this less-discerning viewer didn’t care about the movie itself, there was no reason to project it well or at least offer good, apologetic customer service in the event that something went awry.

San Diegans have theaters that show 2-D movies with 3-D lenses on, robbing them of up to 85% of the light they deserve (see Ty Burr’s Boston Globe piece on this phenomenon). We have theaters that run foreign films with the subtitles out of frame and, because use have digital projectors that can’t be re-calibrated on the fly, they expect viewers to imagine what characters are saying. And, more problematic than anything else, nearly all of our theaters have a small-but-destructive population of patrons who they never reprimand for texting and talking during shows because, in their minds, these jerks are the people who pay to attend every week, even if they don’t actually watch the movie.

It’s a sad climate for those of us who believe the big-screen is the only proper place to view a film. Now, in Cinépolis, we have a theater that will play the movie in the wrong format, only this time they will charge you double the price to put up with their mistake and hope you are too comfy in that leather recliner to get up to complain. While the manager did apologize to me today, he didn’t back the apology up with a resolution. It’s time to demand that our local theaters -- especially the new ones like Cinépolis, which is slated to expand to La Costa by year’s end -- come to respect their patrons and the films they show so that a vital American tradition does not fall by the wayside.

[Photos courtesy The Lickona Collection]

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Comments

markmendelsohn Aug. 13, 2011 @ 8:24 a.m.

Since I live practically across the street from this theater I have been twice. Once on opening weekend and once a few weeks ago. The first time we ordered a cheese cake and a chocolate cake from the seats. Both arrived in a reasonable amount of time. The second time we ordered some candy and cinnamon sugar popcorn. The candy arrived but the popcorn never did. After the show I went the to concession stand and got a refund for both.

I distinguish between the theater and its operation. The theater itself is spectacular. The operation, like the food service, is still chaotic. Not sure if any of the movies we saw were projected in the wrong format or not.

My hope is that all operations will improve over time.

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Danny Baldwin Aug. 13, 2011 @ 4:04 p.m.

I had the same hope, but I think it's going to take more than time to save this operation. Hopefully they're paying attention to this article.

The truth is, there are many beautifully built new theaters out there, but ultimately, the service and presentation are what matter. I would love to have enjoyed "The Help" from one of those comfy recliners, but I'd take the sparkling 35mm presentation I saw today in a rock-hard AMC La Jolla seat to only 78% of the picture in a LazyBoy-clone anytime.

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nitpicker Aug. 16, 2011 @ 10 p.m.

Good grief! "Clean up there act"? Doesn't The Reader have any copy editors!?!?

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blueprl Aug. 17, 2011 @ 1:47 a.m.

But think how much he got right... it was probably spell-check.

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