Yesterday afternoon a reportedly dark and murky-looking presentation of David Fincher‘s The Social Network was shown to Boston-area critics at the AMC Boston Commons plex. The reason for the far-from-optimum screening, to go by information provided by two top-level projection consultants, is that the film, beautifully shot by Jeff Cronenweth, was (a) diminished by being projected through a Sony SRX-R220 or SRX-R320 4K digital projector, and (b) more specifically by a decision by AMC execs not to swap out 3D lenses when showing 2D movies, which produces a much darker image.

Sony’s SRX-R220 (or SRX-R320) 4K digital projector

The bottom line is that a major award-quality film that’s been beautifully lighted and captured with a digital RED camera by a world-class cinematographer (I’ve seen The Social Network projected correctly at Sony’s Manhattan screening room) was presented as a dark and diminished thing — nothing close to what is makers would prefer — because of decisions by AMC executives to (a) use Sony’s digital 3D projectors, which are not favored by high-end projection consultants, and (b) save money by not paying for a special field technician to switch out their 3D lenses for 2D ones.

2:55 pm update: A Sony rep is saying that “it was a projectionist error and we are setting a new screening as soon as possible for those who attended.”

This episode fortifies AMC’s reputation as an exhibitor chain renowned for substandard projection, a company “that has been dumbing down their projection booths since the word ‘go'” (as one consultant puts it). It also explains why one consultant refers to the AMC acronym as standing for “Amateur Movie Company” or — this is my favorite — “All Movies Compromised.”

What should distributors do to bypass the problem? A Boston-area professional I spoke to a little while ago says one solution is to insist that all critics screenings show 35mm prints instead of digital. That way (a) the whole 3D lens switchout problem wouldn’t be a factor. and (b) you wouldn’t be showing 35mm prints on 3D-friendly silver screens, which diminish light levels by their own design when 2D films are shown.

Two projection consultants asked to be anonymous. A third, Chapin Cutler of Boston Light and Sound, concurred with the views of the first two and provided a brief on-the-record quote. Here’s how they all explained it:

Projection Consultant #1: “What we’re dealing with is a very tragic consequence that stems from the use of Sony SRX-R220 or SRX-R320 4K projectors. Showing 2D films through a 3D lens results in a projected image that I would have to call wretched…very poor resolution and contrast. The reason the lenses haven’t been swapped out is that you have to hire a field technician to come in and swap them out. It’s a highly involved process that takes about an hour, and it’s not cheap.

“The culprit is the Sony 4K projector, which in my opinion shows 4K in name only. It’s my understanding that producers were very upset to learn that both AMC and Regal have signed on with Sony’s projection system, which uses what is known as a liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS) imaging process. The problem is that it doesn’t produce sufficient color uniformity, limited screen illumination and poor contrast.”

Projection Consultant #2: “You never want to project a film on a silver screen unless you have to [i.e., for 3D purposes]. I’m sure that AMC executives made the decision not to swap out the 3D lens because it’s big and heavy and expensive to switch. Our clients are told to go with Barco, Christie DLP or NEC digital 3D projection systems, which don’t require swap-outs at all. Sony’s LCoS — liquid crystal on silicon — is an alternate system to DLP digital projection. I hope things get better, but with AMC involved I’m not holding my breath.”

Chapin Cutler, Boston Light and Sound: “It’s not unusual for theatre owners not to change out the lenses for special screenings of non-3D films for a single press screening….the way this is handled is that distributors will usually cover the cost of paying for the [lens] switch-out…it’s a little little unusual than Sony didn’t do this.” Cutler agrees that showing films to critics in 35mm would of course bypass the issues described in this article, but he added two points: (a) “35mm projection has been getting pretty grim [in commercial theatres] lately because they’re saying, well, why invest and keep them up if we’re going to dump film in two or three years?” and (b) “Sometmes distributors won’t go to the expense of making a 35mm print if they think the film is not complete, so if Mr. Fincher was still tweeking [The Social Network] they would have waited on that.”