George Lucas who created the ‘Star Wars’ films, introduced THX in 1983. THX represents a classification of minimum standards for seating, air-conditioning, vision and sound etc as an attempt to get cinemas to exhibit films as the film maker intended. The THX acronym is ‘Tom Holman’s Crossover. Loud-speaker cross-over is abbreviated as X-over, or eXperiment, or eXcitement.
THX is based on a business model for standards compliance described as ‘benchmarking’. The principles behind benchmarking were first introduced for purchasing military hardware and is essential for that purpose. But benchmarking eventually found its way into the fad driven business world, where it did not belong. The unfortunate outcome of institutionalised conformity in the private business world is crippling bureaucracy, escalating costs, stifling innovation, decreased competition, with the end game resulting in monopolistic practices.
To understand THX bench-marking for cinemas we must look at the social background of the 80s. This is best portrayed in the 1987 Oliver Stone movie ‘Wall Street’ represented by the character of Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas, who said the famous line “Greed is good”. Home-video had arrived and audience at cinemas was decreasing rapidly. Shopping centres expanded and many included multiplexes in the belief this would attract customers. Economic rationalism resulted in the McDonaldizing of multiplexes which cut costs, reduced staff and wages and attempted to automate projector rooms.
Many film makers believed there needed to be minimum standards for cinema exhibition, to address the cost cutting regimes cinema chain accountants were willing to implement on behalf of shareholders. The primary conflict of interest is that cinema chains and film distributors regard a films success (in the first 2 weeks) as only related to marketing of celebrity stars and superficial biased reviews, and not to exhibition quality or film production excellence.
As stated by a senior director of a cinema chain “The majority of non-discerning public cannot appreciate the difference between narrow or wide screen format - or notice whether surround sound is turned on - sound is something that goes in one ear and out the other - sound is less than 10% of the cinema experience”.
Hardware purchasing decisions for cinemas that had previously been based on comparing technical performance or competitive pricing, now shifted to brand image identification. New cinemas particularly multiplexes became built by purchasing and plugging in a series of marketed brand names. Profit driven compliance organisations market themselves as an overseer of a club of brand names. The primary purpose is to re-enforce brand image by adding its own brand image to the product or cinema, for which it charges a fee. Its altruistic purpose is to insure elementary standards are incorporated within the approved brands and completed cinemas.
Due to the high cost of obtaining THX approval, some cinema chains see this as yet another un-necessary expense and easily circumvent the THX spirit by attaining accreditation for only a few of their cinemas and apply the THX logo to all their other cinemas, regardless of whether they were of the standard required. It evolved into a stand-off between who was the dog and who was the tail. Also the intention of the THX standards was not understood by the majority of the non-discerning public, who experienced the loud introductory THX trailer ’The Audience is Listening’ as annoying, similar to the air conditioning noise.
Technical and creative skills
Traditionally, people on the visual side of film making are more technically skilled in their craft than the audio people are in theirs, and sound people are often poorly paid by comparison; but there are exceptions. The division of quality in the professional skills of film making has resulted in limited communication and added conflicts within the film making process. Sound recording people (sometimes described as ‘Sound engineers’) rarely have electronic or electro-acoustic knowledge.
The major problem is an appalling lack of quality education. There is a high proportion of questionable audio recording schools. Most schools focus on trends and audio jargon, rather than teaching the basics of the technology. Time is often wasted on the superficial use of computer packages and twiddling knobs on mixing consoles. ‘The good sound knob’ is described as the largest one on a dynamic compressor-limiter.
At the 1999 four-day international conference on ‘Film Scores and Sound Design’ in Melbourne, including later conferences, there was no mention of electro-acoustic technology or technical management of surround sound formats, nor the results of audience experience in excessive reverberant cinemas. Many conferences and sound workshops are promoted by companies marketing their products.
Our general interest is in the improvement of cinema sound. The past problems of cross contamination of the A and B chains, including misunderstandings of auditorium acoustics, and failure to universally adopt a single full fidelity loss-less digital audio format had unfortunately been influenced from an industry that had difficulty in accepting sound fidelity as important as the picture.
The word ‘cinema’ is now synonymous with the word ‘home’ and has become trivialised as ‘home-cinema’. The traditional commercial cinema exhibition industry of multiplexes are unlikely to survive and may eventually be closed.
However from the ashes of the past we hopefully have a new opportunity with a younger breed of entrepreneurial management that will grasp the initiative, and invest sufficient capital to create large scale cinematic entertainment centres, where sound and vision will finally be brought into an equal partnership.
The dream George Lucas initially stated over 30 years ago of the importance of sound will eventually evolve with the future of digital technology, enabling the young in all of us, regardless of age “to be beamed up and blown away”.