"You know, the director will be in town on Friday. Would you like to interview him?"
That's how I was welcomed today by an eager young publicist to SIFF's 10 a.m. screening for press and passholders of Hong-jin Na's The Yellow Sea. "Let me check out the movie first," I replied. But that was not to be, thanks to yet another technical screwup on the part of our hometown festival.
When The Yellow Sea hit the screen, a prologue in English explained the very particular players and setting of this "great and gory" South Korean film (as described by The New York Times' Manohla Dargis, at the Cannes Film Festival). Then the main action began, there was dialogue—in Korean—and the audience sat tight, in dead silence, as the film continued ... sans subtitles. Finally, someone—all right, it was me—shouted, "Stop the movie!" Nothing happened. The Yellow Sea rolled on.
Surely this can't be happening again, I thought. Once might be excusable, but twice, on consecutive days, is just plain incompetence. You see, exactly 24 hours earlier, in the same venue (Pacific Place Cinemas), the 10 a.m. audience for the much-anticipated Norwegian Wood by Tranh Anh Hung watched bewildered as the Japanese-language film unreeled, for several minutes, sans subtitles. Eventually someone from SIFF was heard to mumble from the sidelines that "the projectionist isn't going to start the film over again." Mass exodus ensued.
What, exactly, had happened? Pressed to say something, one SIFF staffer speculated whether an unsubtitled version had been mistakenly sent from Japan. Even he didn't seem to believe that was likely (we're talking about a U.S. Premiere engagement). And what, exactly, did that curious phrase mean—"the projectionist isn't going to start the film over again"? The projectionist refuses to? Won't be asked to? If the projectionist had tried again, might he have hit the right button and activated subtitles that were there after all? If so, why not give it a shot? Or were we past a point of no return, and it wasn't feasible to set the day's screening schedule back, jeopardizing regular theater showings?
Were we talking technical error, or incompetence coupled with indifference? Who knows? SIFF never explains. Doesn't have to.
And no apologies either—for inconvenience, for loss of time (one press member had made a 45-minute drive), for wasted money (parking at Pacific Place is steep), or for lack of professionalism or skill on the part of the SIFF projectionist. Can it be that SIFF has grown so huge that no one checks prints or digital versions before they're screened? That's elementary at any professional, responsible film festival. Or does SIFF know it can coast with audiences so forgiving that technical foul-ups are accepted as just part of the festival experience? As one smiling festivalgoer opined, "You take your chances."
Cinephiles, distributors, publicists, visiting directors and actors, working press with deadlines—consider how many folks are affected by shoddy presentations like the one I sat through at the Neptune a couple weeks ago (before SIFF reportedly spruced up the joint, in response to a flood of complaints). That was my only opportunity to see Beginners, which I was reviewing for MSN/movies.com. No exaggeration: It was the worst screening I've ever attended. Sound so muddy you could not make out the dialogue, a dim screen, folding chairs on a concrete floor lacking any rake (slope) at all. Didn't anyone from SIFF check out this untenable venue before the festival started?
Seattle theater audiences are notorious for giving standing ovations across the board. So, too, many fellow festivalgoers are such fervid SIFF supporters, they just smile through egregious technical screwups and way too much mediocrity on the screen. What hope do we have of encouraging this important festival to do better, if most folks either don't notice or don't care that the biggest, with increasing frequency, falls short of being the best? Falls short, indeed, of being adequate.
On Thursday evening we and others in the local media were e-mailed "A Note Regarding Recent Issues at SIFF Press Screenings" from the publicity department of SIFF Cinema. We appreciate the message and think it's appropriate to append it to Kathleen Murphy's account of the abortive press screenings. —RTJ
June 9, 2011
Dear SIFF Members of the Press,
This past week we had two unfortunate issues with our press screenings, NORWEGIAN WOOD and YELLOW SEA, and wish to apologize to those of you attending for the inconvenience. We value your time and efforts to press screen and review films for the Festival and sincerely strive for the highest viewing experience possible.
In the past showing a 35mm film required a projector with the proper lens, lighting and maintenance no matter what location. Today's new technology of showing films in new digital formats continues to be a difficult and imperfect transition.
This past week we had two films come to us in the new DCP format. Even though we had previously tested and checked these films without issue at our main cinema, the digital files were not compatible with the current software version of the projectors used at AMC Pacific Place. It was a learning curve, as both SIFF and the projectionist at the AMC Theater were unaware of the difficulty of presenting these films on two different projector systems and the ultimate inability to project subtitles at the press screening showings.
The Seattle International Film Festival is not alone in facing these technical issues. Larger festivals including the Cannes Film Festival also faced these same difficulties and problems with numerous cancellations and presentation issues this year.
We are employing all necessary resources to make sure these problems do not occur at future screenings. Please be reassured that we strive for the highest presentation standards possible and will not accept anything less than perfection in our pursuit of the celebration of cinema.
Please know that YELLOW SEA has been rescheduled as a "press only" screening for Friday, June 10, 10AM at SIFF Cinema, where we have tested and projection and are assured excellent results.
SIFF Publicity Department