by Jim Pyke

By now regular readers know how much I love the kinds of movies that you can't usually see in the local first-run movie houses. I enjoy going to see the latest Hollywood fare too, but I'd usually rather not have to pay for it. Over the past few years I have refined various techniques--some much less risky than others--of getting to see the hits for free (or at least for much less than full price). Some of these methods require at least one companion, but in many cases you can go it alone. We'll cover things in order from the lowest risk (getting your money back) to the highest (walking right past the ticket-takers).

Once upon a time, all movie theaters were staffed by well-paid, highly trained, union projectionists (members of IATSE, whose logo appears in the end titles of most U.S. productions). With the ever-increasing desire of multinational entertainment corporations to lower their overhead and increase their profits, most theaters have gradually opted out of union staffers in favor of nonunion people who are overworked and underpaid. Sometimes there may be only one projectionist running an entire multiplex, so one can hardly blame them for letting something go wrong once in a while. Indeed, to the untrained eye, few things ever really do go wrong. If you know what to look for, however, there are a few presentation problems that occur with staggering regularity. Any conscientious theater manager will refund your money (or, more likely, give you a free pass) if you just take a moment at the end of the film to point out the problem.

The most obvious of these is poor focus. During the opening titles of the film, be sure that all the printing has nice, sharp edges. In most cases, you can see the actual grain of the photo-emulsion coating on the film itself. If you can't, the film is probably out of focus (or your eyesight might need to be checked). In my experience, most people don't seem to care much about a film being a little out of focus. If it bothers you, just run out into the hall and tell an usher. Often this will solve the problem, but sometimes it doesn't, and then you're all set to get your refund--if you can tolerate watching the remainder of a film that's slightly out of focus. If you can't, by all means walk out immediately and get your money back. One of the best kept secrets of film exhibitors is a general policy that if you want to leave the theater for any reason at all (even if you simply dislike the movie), as long as you do so within the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the feature, you can get ` full refund.

If you stay until the end and even the end titles are out of focus, then make sure you talk to the manager on duty before you leave. Also make sure to tell her that you complained at the beginning of the film, and the problem didn't get fixed. At this point you are virtually assured a free pass good for your next visit.

The other major presentation problem is image framing. If tops of people's heads are cut off, then the film is improperly framed. If people's chins or the film's subtitles are cut off, then the film is improperly framed. During cinemascope films, bad framing can reveal jagged white lines (at the top or bottom of the image) that flash at edit points. Follow the same steps detailed above for focus problems ,and you are once again on your way to lowering your entertainment costs.

Still other presentation problems include a sound level that is either too high or too low; and strange, distracting noises (usually electrical hums or mechanical squeaks), which emerge from the many speakers in the room, or even from the projection booth itself. In my own experience, theater personnel are particularly insensitive to sound problems, so your best bet in these cases is to get your refund before fifteen minutes have passed. If the movie was crummy, then you can leave satisfied that you haven't wasted your money on it. But if you still want to see it, make sure you complain bitterly to a manager so that the situation will be rectified before you return. Often, another local theater will be showing the same film, so you can see it there instead, but make sure you inform a manager of your intention to do this before you leave, if only for your own peace of mind.

Of course, if you have really well-run theaters in your town, then you can't get away with this stuff. Maybe you don't mind paying full-price (or my personal favorite, matinee-price). If you are in the enviable position of having access to a quality venue but still don't want to pay so much, then read on.