The Avengers Was Deleted Before a Press Screening. How Did That Happen?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
April 26 2012 5:07 PM

How The Avengers Got “Deleted”

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A still from The Avengers.

Wednesday morning, Indiewire film critic Eric Kohn set off a flurry of retweeting and favoriting on Twitter when he reported an accident at a movie screening:

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

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Three hours later, Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwartzbaum corroborated Kohn’s report, joking:

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How easy is it for a digital projectionist to delete an entire film? Slate asked Steve Kraus, whom Roger Ebert has called one of “the best projectionists in the nation.” Kraus told us that it’s as easy as deleting any important file from your computer. “It’s click to delete from the server and an ‘Are you sure?’ confirmation,” he explained over email. “Of course, as with most computers it's not really gone … but probably only a real computer geek could get into the system to ‘undelete.’”

The lack of real computer geeks—or serious techies of any kind—behind digital projectors was one of Ebert’s plaints when he wrote about the visual pitfalls of digital projection last year. His main concern: Many people employed as digital projectionists lack the skill and training to switch out 3D lenses when projecting 2D films, an oversight that results in dim projections. Whereas film projectionists are skilled workers—and used to be compensated accordingly—digital projection requires the bare minimum of menial tasks, and movie theaters may be tempted to hire (and pay) their new projectionists with that in mind.

According to a fascinating story about the death of 35mm film published in L.A. Weekly earlier this month, “Playing a movie on a DCP [Digital Cinema Package] projector involves plugging the hard drive into the projector, creating a playlist, as you would on an iPod, and pressing a button to play.” Though digital projection equipment is costly—up to $150,000 per screen—theaters are increasingly happy to shell out the upfront cost in the hopes of long-term savings (which may include not employing projectionists at all). Studios, meanwhile, save money on printing and shipping when they use DCPs instead of 35mm film. It’s win-win for everyone—except the projectionists who have lost their jobs and the audiences who occasionally endure mishaps like dark screens and deleted movies.

And deleting digital movie files is not solely the province of unskilled projectionists—as the makers of Toy Story 2 discovered during production. As the rather delightful video below explains, someone accidentally hit the delete command on the Linux machines used to store the movie files. (“Have you ever accidentally dropped something out of your pocket while the toilet was flushing?” asks Galyn Susman, the supervising technical director of the film, by way of explaining how this blunder felt.)

Luckily, this story—like that of the Avengers screening—had a happy ending. In this case, Susman, who’d been working from home while taking care of her newborn, had backup files at home.