On Jan. 10, I received an email that has a 100 per cent success rate for putting a smile on a student’s face — it read, “Class is canceled tomorrow.” My immediate instinct was to book a ticket to watch Avatar: The Way of Water — a much-anticipated film for casual viewers and thirteen-years coming for its fans. The first film was hailed by both critics and the general audience for its jaw-dropping visuals and the immersive cinematic experience created by director James Cameron’s use of cutting-edge technology. Hence, I wanted to have the intended immersive cinematic experience, and the best Waterloo has to offer (keeping up with industry tech standards) is at Cineplex. But my experience of the movie on the ‘best screen of the theatre,’ supposedly equipped with the latest technology, was underwhelming and disappointing.
Cineplex’s website lists a bunch of cinephile buzzwords like UltraAVX, 3D, HFR, and ATMOS®. But what do these buzzwords really mean and how much do they truly impact the audience’s experience?
According to Cineplex, UltraAVX (Ultra Audio-Visual Experience) is the combination of “superior picture quality,” “comfortable seating,” and Dolby Digital surround sound. Cinephiles or film directors generally agree that UltraAVX is the ideal setting for film viewing. 3D is a well-known term in cinema and a technology popularized by the first Avatar movie, even though James Cameron has been shooting films in 3D since 1996, and released his first IMAX 3D film in 2003. According to Distractify, HFR stands for high-frame rate, which means the movie runs at more than 24 frames per second, and the underwater scenes in Avatar: The Way of Water were shot using HFR for the 3D version of the film. Lastly, ATMOS® is a surround sound technology that uses the spatial position of the speakers and Dolby audio to provide an immersive cinematic experience. All these technologies complement the movie and are offered by Cineplex; therefore, Cineplex Waterloo was the best choice to watch Avatar: The Way of Water.
I was happy that class was cancelled and ecstatic to watch Avatar the next day. I took a seat in the middle of an almost-empty high-tech Cineplex theatre to indulge in the buzzword experiences in all its glory. The first thing I noticed was that the chairs were uncomfortable and squeaked like Victorian-Era industrial machines; they must not have seen a smudge of grease or a drop of oil in ages. But that was just the prequel to a major letdown. I was eager to be hit with that crisp Dolby testing sound and subsequently be teleported to the fictional Avatar universe of Pandora. I wanted to swim with the whales, fly with the banshees, and sing with the Na’vi, but tragedy struck as the audio in the theatre was a major let down.
The promise of the highly-coveted Dolby ATMOS® experience was disappointing and underwhelming. Audio plays a crucial part in the film-viewing experience. Various bodies of research within film and media studies have emphasized its importance, and illustrate how sound design evokes emotions in the viewer, and how when combined with visuals, can completely enthrall them. But I was far from enthralled; I could see the explosives going off, people swimming with whales, waterfalls, and melodies on the screen, but the audio did not surround me, nor did it teleport me to Pandora. This was not my experience watching Dolby Atmos enabled films at other theatres. Hence, Cineplex Waterloo is providing a substandard experience for virtually the same price as that offered by other theatres in the region.
However, it was not all doom and gloom when watching the film. HFR did enhance the viewing experience and put the “visual” in UltraAVX. The underwater scenes in the movie were smooth, visually pleasing, magical, and overall had the “made by James Cameron” imprint. The theatre did also deliver when it came to the 3D experience — the images on the screen seemed like they were jumping out and bleeding into reality.
Even though there were some positives to the experience, at the end of the day, this underwhelming three-hour and 12 minute experience cost $20. Was it worth it? Absolutely not. According to Statista, this experience is coming from a corporation that raked in $1.67 billion in 2019, shortly before suffering an almost 75 per cent decrease in revenue in 2020 following the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, revenue increased by 57 per cent, promising a return to peak revenue levels. The film industry as a whole also suffered a blow to its revenue in 2020 but is starting to recover. On Feb. 7, Cineplex released its revenue for Q3 of 2022, and it has raked in $918 million in 2022 so far. On this accord, Cineplex is definitely returning to pre-COVID revenue levels and can definitely do better by investing in better seating and better audio equipment for the Waterloo location.
For now, Cineplex Waterloo is charging top dollar for a mediocre cinematic experience, with uncomfortable seating and bad audio in their ‘best screen of the theatre.’ Is it worth the $20 to watch a movie on the big screen, backed up by empty promises of comfort and immersiveness? Or, are there better entertainment outlets or experiences that our $20 could go toward?