By now you’ve likely already heard about the debacle surrounding a Frozen screening at a multiplex in Pinellas Park, Florida in which a house full of parents and children were subjected to “sexually explicit content.” After some family-friendly trailers followed by Get a Horse (Disney’s short attached to Frozen), some sensitive material reportedly graced the screen for two awkward minutes. One patron recalls shielding her son’s eyes but preventing him from being able to “get the sound down real good.” Patrons were given free tickets and an official apology by the Park Place Stadium 16.
Sites across the web covering the incident seem to have all agreed that the sounds in question were from the NSFW trailer for Lars von Trier’s customarily controversial and much-covered new film Nymphomaniac, a rumor that apparently originated from a comment on MoshNews‘s coverage. But is it actually plausible that a multiplex owned by Regal Cinemas would “accidentally” show a shocking trailer for a limited release film that doesn’t even have a US opening date?
While misplaced trailers, out-of-order reels, and showing a film on the wrong screen was commonplace in the stone age of projecting films on film, in the era of digital projection such a thing is pretty much impossible.
There are a few factors in the Nymphomaniac part of this story that should have drawn some suspicion. Sure, Regal Cinemas doesn’t currently have an official policy against showing NC-17 movies, and they also permit the exhibition of redband trailers in front of R-rated films. But the Nymphomaniac trailer isn’t even redband, as it “wasn’t sanctioned by the MPAA” according to Matt Cowal, SVP of marketing and publicity for Magnolia Pictures.
It’s unlikely that Regal (which rarely showcases limited release films outside of highly populated markets like New York City) would have an unorthodox trailer available to play before any of its screenings for a film that is currently without an MPAA rating and a US release date. And this ready availability is the major determining factor in whether or not showing the Nymphomaniac trailer in a contemporary multiplex would be at all possible.
But couldn’t a disgruntled projectionist have deliberately intended to show the Nymphomaniac trailer before a children’s film on his or her own accord? Unlikely, says John Gholson, Austin-based writer for Movies.com and a veteran of multiplex management who witnessed firsthand his theater’s transition from film to digital. Says Gholson, “Digital film programming is played from a playlist that’s typically built the day before opening, once all of the hard drives and keys have arrived/been ingested.” In other words, well before you grab your seat at a multiplex in 2013, just about everything – from ads to shorts to trailers to the feature – have been locked and ready to go.
The era of digital exhibition is one largely without unthinking errors in content. Sure, hard drives have crashed, DCPs have failed to download on time, and even the occasional movie has (ahem) frozen stuck like a scratched DVD. But the days in which material played on the wrong screen are long behind us with the standardization of exhibition practices that reduce the job of the projectionist to somebody who presses a button. To show the wrong materials would most likely require deliberate action in the form of unlocking the playlist, thus reducing the possibility that whatever was shown was an accident.
So how, exactly, could something like what was reported occur in the projection booth? Gholson states, “Someone could stop the program and choose something else to play in that auditorium from the ‘hub’ hard drive where all the files are managed. So, I could stop Frozen’s program after the short, and then choose something else and hit play.”
Andy Uhrich of Chicago’s Gene Siskel Center conjectures the possibility of a mishap a little differently: “Many trailers are not locked as are films. Plus they come in big batches all at once regardless of whether the theater is going to show the trailer or the film. So someone could have easily incorrectly clicked and dragged the files onto the server.” These slightly divergent takes on the possibility of such an error perhaps explain some key differences in uses of DCPs by multiplex chains and independent theaters.
But such explanations about the inner workings of digital projection booths only applies if Nymphomaniac was on the theater’s hub in the first place. As Cowal told The Wrap, “I would say that whatever those kids in Florida saw, it’s extremely unlikely it was anything from Nymphomaniac.” The trailer, according to Cowal, was intended exclusively for the Internet, similarly to many other recent explicit trailers produced by studios and smaller distributors alike. So is there no possibility that Nymphomaniac trailer was shown? “If the Gawker Frozen story is true, it would’ve had to been uploaded from the internet and repurposed by a particularly twisted projectionist,” says Cowal.
But Gholson isn’t convinced this is likely, urging that the only conceivable possibilities lie within the theater’s current programming (i.e., the other films and trailers existing on the hub), as the relationship between multiplex projectionists and distributor content is typically one of comprehensive lock and key. Both Gholson and The Wrap speculate that the two minutes in question may have been a sex scene from Dallas Buyers Club (currently playing at the theater) which, again, is a scenario whose pragmatics are difficult to imagine as a result of simple human error.
Either way, two possibilities are likely: 1) this was a deliberate move on the part of the projectionist, and 2) it was not the Nymphomaniac trailer.
But the most interesting thing about this story isn’t the superficial mystery surrounding what was shown, or even the inadvertent publicity for Lars von Trier’s new film. What’s revealing about this incident is what it says about public moviegoing in the era of digital projection, where the person in the booth is not a commander of a multitude of reels but a human conduit for delivering pre-planned digital content. Gawker framed the story as a Tyler Durden moment. But besides the apparent intentionality on the part of the projectionist, this is anything but.
Long gone is the fantasy of subtle splicing, or common screw-ups like disordered reels and incorrect film-to-screen match-ups. Digital moviegoing means that certain possibilities for error, or even the rare prank from the celluloid era, are simply no longer conceivable. Such an exceedingly rare incident says a lot about how mysterious the digital projection booth is to both regular audiences and to those of us who write about movies. So next time you’re at a theater and something doesn’t seem right about the content onscreen, you should be most concerned about how you’re going to find a time machine back to 2013.
UPDATE: Below is Regal’s official statement on the matter:
“In an isolated incident, an erroneously programmed ‘R-rated’ feature did start Friday evening in one auditorium at Park Place. Less than two minutes of this incorrect movie was shown before it was stopped. After the correct movie was shown, our manager gathered the audience to apologize and address the patrons concerns. Rest assured that all equipment and operational protocols are being evaluated to ensure, to the fullest extent possible, that such an incident does not re-occur in the future.”