Whatever happened to THX?

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THX was sparked by George Lucas’ frustration with the presentation of his Star Wars films – but it’s been some time since the famous THX trailers have played before new film releases.

For some time, a visit to my local multiplex – certainly in the 90s and early 2000s – was generally preceded by a little trailer alerting me to the sound system and standards that the screen had installed. This may have involved a helicopter flying around to notify me of the Dolby Digital system, or that animation where a disc shattered announcing the presence of DTS.

But then there were the THX promos. You may be familiar with them: basically, short pieces such as this, all turned up to a volume that’d made Christopher Nolan look on with envy…

(Free bit of trivia for you here too: the character in that clip was created by Pixar).

THX sparked a huge step forward for cinema presentation, too. How it all came to be is pretty well known. THX was George Lucas’ response to what he felt was the poor standard of cinema audio systems, and the invariable quality you’d get from watching a film in different auditoria. It’s little secret that he and his team designed intricate audio tracks for the Star Wars movies, yet the details were sometimes getting lost as cinemas took variable care over the presentation of his movies. Basically, you could go into one cinema and get a very different presentation of exactly the same film from the same print as you could in another.

THX was thus developed and debuted for the release of the third Star Wars movie, 1983’s Return Of The Jedi, and the credit for it also goes to Tomlinson Holman. Holman worked at Lucasfilm at the time, where he was tasked at the start of the 1980s by Lucas with basically auditing the presentation of a movie. He discovered that many cinemas had inadequate surround sound systems, and also had theatre layouts where you’d struggle to see the screen well from certain seats.

The task was then to persuade cinemas to match the standards that Lucas and his team wanted and were setting. And that’s where THX came in.

The idea was that THX wouldn’t supply the speaker systems or audio technology, as Dolby does, but that it’d ensure a minimum standard for a screen to get THX certification. THX wasn’t going to make anything physical itself, but instead ratify that a cinema’s presentation was of a high level. That no matter where you sat in a cinema, that if it had the THX badge of approval, you’d not be shortchanged when it came to the screening of a movie.

Backed by Lucas, this all soon caught on too, and in short time – not least because there was nothing else out there trying to do the same thing, and it had the power of Star Wars behind it too – THX became the standard to aim for. Backed by a promotional drive and the aforementioned THX clips, along with its Return Of The Jedi association, the cinema industry played ball.

More and more cinemas soon had the THX plaque on their wall, and in the 1990s, THX extended its work into home cinema and home entertainment products as well. It was becoming a mark of quality that companies were keen to aim for.

Crucially, THX was heavily pushed to cinema consumers as well. In particular, those short clips before a show started, that were running to the early 2000s. Here are just a few of the more famous ones, to take you down memory lane a little. The sound is a piece called Deep Note, incidentally, and you can read more about that here.

Yet it feels like it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a sting like one of those at the start of a UK cinema show.

But then things began to change though for THX in 2002. Having worked with the computer sound card specialists Creative Labs for many years beforehand, a controlling share in THX was sold by Lucas to Creative in 2002 for the sum of a reported $8m.

It was a surprisingly modest sum, but then the argument there is that THX had long completed what George Lucas and Tomlinson Holman had set out for it to do. The standard of cinema sound revolutionised over the 19 years Lucas controlled THX, and within years the idea that an auditorium would be equipped with basic mono sound was a non-starter. The likes of Dolby Digital and DTS had picked up the baton, and their technologies were evolving and improving the audio that went with a big screen outing.

In short, the circumstances that led George Lucas to bring about THX had gone, and if any one of us walking into a cinema now was greeted by sub-standard audio, then we’ll all tut and hope that someone else complains so we don’t have to get up. But we’ll know something’s not right, such is the modern level of justifiable expectation.

Granted, THX isn’t just about sound, but that’s where it’s made its key overt differences.

Today, whilst the company remains active in cinema ratification, it’s perhaps telling that the featured headlines on its website at the time of this article being written cover headphones and wireless surround sound for the home. But then in 2016, THX was sold again, with Creative passing on ownership of the company and name to another computer hardware company, Razer. Again, going back to that website, the sense if that the firm is making its living more from its badge and standards adorning products for the home.

THX is thus live and kicking, but it’s been out of George Lucas’ ownership for around two decades now, and in that time it’s also changed owners twice, and its focus has altered a little. Hence, the logo, the Deep Note audio and occasionally a man shaking a tin and making cows moo seem resigned to be a cinema treat from yesteryear…

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