Installations: Meeting the Criterion

Except for the color bursting from the reception-area movie posters - The Double Life of Veronique, Black Orpheus, and the Beastie Boys Video Anthology among them - the Criterion Collection's new Park Avenue South headquarters in Manhattan are styled in the same palette as many of the films that the company painstakingly restores and releases on DVD: black and white, with profound gray areas all over.

This color scheme is especially apparent in the 22 x 18-foot, four-row, 24-seat screening room, where the black-accented charcoal-hued seats are parked on a pewter-colored carpet - all of which is encased by your basic white walls. Even the piece of gear under the plastic tarp up front blends in perfectly: a several-generations-past Sony Wega 60-inch LCD rear-projection TV. (You know the one: a dull, plastic silver cabinet, with a black border framing the screen.)

Only thing is, this aging HDTV will be seeing a limited tour of duty, because Criterion has decided to upgrade. The company had installed a smaller screening room in its old headquarters on Manhattan's East Side, but that was just a place for checking out finished product. The idea now is to have something much bigger and more versatile - thanks to some input from your friends at Sound & Vision. (Read on.)

"This is going to be a room that all the producers developing content for DVDs can use," says Criterion technical director Lee Kline. "It's very important for us as a company to see our own movies this way. It doesn't make sense to have only the two people who work on a title see it. We all have to be on the same page - whether you're answering phones or whatever. It's part of our philosophy."

More important, the new screening room will be used to quality-test the company's work. But instead of reproducing a movie theater, the goal is to mimic the kind of environment where most of Criterion's customers watch its releases - that is, a high-end home theater.

So why is that old, tarp-covered Wega the only piece of A/V gear holding court in the room? Because before embarking on a mega A/V-hardware shopping spree, Lee had an idea - a diabolcally super-ingenious idea.

"We actually came up with a wish list of equipment we wanted," Lee recalls, gazing out upon his unfinished screening room. "And we did that by looking through Sound & Vision every month and saying, 'Oh, this thing's coming out,' or, 'That one looks good.' So we thought, well, why don't we just call Sound & Vision and have them help us with it? Sure, we could have done it all on our own, but we're not good at setting up consumer environments. We don't have that knowledge, because we don't test all that equipment to use as a consumer would. That's why we needed someone who does."

Okay, Lee, you can stop with the buttering-up. You had us at "Why don't we just call Sound & Vision?"

Good idea. We'll hook you up.

Past Perfect To better understand why Criterion wanted the kind of screening room it did, it's important to know something about what the company is. Yes, it's known for reissuing titles like Days of Heaven, The Lady Vanishes, 8½, Rashômon, The Silence of the Lambs, and Traffic, and it's been critically heralded for the benchmark quality of its DVDs' picture and sound. But just what the hell does Criterion do, exactly?