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Now’s the time for theaters to recommit to the glory of 70mm

As the official teaser for Quentin Tarantino’s newest film The Hateful Eight concludes, Samuel L. Jackson uncorks one of his beautiful throaty laughs, an ornately mustachioed Kurt Russell cocks his old-timey shotgun, and amid a flurry of snow, the title splashes onto the screen. But for a small, select faction of those who had eagerly clicked onto the teaser, the words that flashed next were the most exciting aspect: “SEE IT IN GLORIOUS 70MM {ULTRA PANAVISION 70}.”

Those four little characters—7-0-m-m—have long been a dogwhistle pricking up the ears of film geeks who read them, instantly notifying them that regardless of how the film advertised turns out, watching it will be a distinct treat. Cinephiles migrate in droves for 70mm screenings like pilgrims to the Kaaba, and usually describe the experience using similar diction. Settling in for a 70mm showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Lawrence Of Arabia can be a transformative, life-affirming event; splitting into a shit-eating grin at the opening fanfare of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or getting lost in the endless expanse of shifting sand dunes reminds audiences of why they fell in love with moving pictures in the first place. Seeing a film on 70mm makes you want to go home and set your laptop on fire and throw your 16-inch television out the window.


Yet for all the rapture the format may inspire in cinephile circles, actual screenings remain an extreme rarity. A tiny percentage of the general filmgoing populace knows what 70mm means, and even fewer give a damn, and so theaters have continued to treat this mode of exhibition as an extreme novelty. But the tides are shifting, and counterintuitive as it can seem in the moment, the bigger picture (a much, much bigger picture) suggests that there’s no better time for theaters to recommit to 70mm exhibition than right now.

It’s simple dollar and cents that keeps 70mm inaccessible to huge swaths of American moviegoers—at least those unwilling to make multi-hour road trips. As readers learned in a recent New York Times piece from A.V. Club contributor Ben Kenigsberg, making the jump to 70mm can present a crushing financial blow to ill-equipped theaters. A record-breaking 96 movie houses will screen The Hateful Eight in all 70 glorious millimeters, a massive jump up from Interstellar’s 11 and The Master’s 16. But for cineplexes that didn’t already have the proper projector in-house, the upgrade could set exhibitors back anywhere between $60,000 to $80,000, a considerable sum even for an industry that wasn’t already facing looming threats from online streaming and home-video releasing. It’d hardly seem worth it to put a theater’s finances in jeopardy just to cater to the esoteric whims of diehard cinephiles.

While the fiscal dimension presents a sizable stumbling block for theaters looking to get in the game, it’s hardly the only obstacle. Travis Bird, a projectionist affiliated with Chicago’s Full Aperture Systems, explains: “The equipment to show 70mm is indeed rare, hard to find, and requires specialized skills to install, calibrate, and operate. So once you actually find the gear—at this stage already a challenge—you have to get it to work, which may or may not involve finding rare parts (which are coveted by many others who already have 70mm setups), test films and calibration materials, lenses, and many auxiliary items. You have to find two of everything in order to run changeover, so that archives will be willing to lend you a print.”

Even then, that leaves the question of who will be able to coordinate all of this sophisticated equipment. Bird continues: “You also have to find someone who can actually do all the installation work at a price that works for you, which is very challenging because few such people know how to do this work, and they’re usually in high demand, very busy, and geographically concentrated in a handful of areas. And their work needs to be somewhat ongoing, because service is necessary, parts occasionally need to be replaced, spares need to be obtained, or else you’re dead in the water.”


Undertaking 70mm conversion demands a huge level of commitment in money and resources from a theater, but Bird also suggests that it’d be worth it. “Once all that is in place, then it’s a matter of getting people into seats. I’d venture to say that is the easy part.”

Reframing the public perception of what 70mm is and what it means from casual moviegoers could be the key to keeping it alive. The term 70 millimeters refers to the width of the filmstrip run through the projector, which is twice as wide as the usual 35mm stock used for standard theatrical releases. (Prior to the advent of digital videotape, student films and home movies were shot on 16mm or 8mm film.) This translates to a much sharper, richly defined image and crisper, booming sound. To the layman, technical specifics such as these are of little interest—it’s hard to imagine Mom and Dad chatting about film gauges or six-track sound on their way to the theater—leaving 70mm film as the province of the cinephile. When the vast majority of people hear someone speaking about the importance of seeing movies “on film,” it sounds like an audio snob championing the virtues of vinyl over MP3files. “It just feels better” has become the common refrain, and while that is certainly true, 70mm is far from a fetishized obsolescence. It’s a hyper-leap forward in every component of the sensory experience.


It shouldn’t be difficult to sell the general public on the simpler notion of brilliant colors, stunning image, and lush sound. Consumers have never put a higher premium on overall technical quality than at the present; customers are willing to drop $200 on a pair of luxury headphones for a more immersive soundscape or shell out dizzying sums for increasingly higher-definition TVs, and the megapixel brinksmanship amped up with every new smartphone release practically resembles an arms race. When you’re sitting in front of General Patton making his flag-backed address, or being overtaken by Leonard Bernstein’s roaring West Side Story score, you don’t have to be a diehard film lover to recognize the difference. It’s not coincidental that whoever stitched together the Hateful Eight trailer superimposed the 70mm announcement over a sweeping vista of stark trees, frost-capped mountains, and pristine snowfall. It’s intended as a tantalizing taste of what the unparalleled image quality will do to the natural panoramas of Tarantino’s vision.

With the public adequately primed, theaters have never had a better chance of making a push for a 70mm revival than at this juncture in film technology’s progression. The Hateful Eight represents the most visible use of the 70mm technology in recent memory, but Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan, both vocal champions of film preservation, brought considerable fanbases to the table as well with The Master and Interstellar, respectively. Aside from currently active big-name auteurs, recent blockbusters such as Gravity, The Dark Knight Rises, and Jurassic World have employed 70mm photography for some segments of the finished product to dazzling effect. As America’s neighborhood cineplexes rapidly approach a big-budget saturation point, the scramble to stand out as bigger, better, and more absorptive experience has gotten more urgent. This closely relates to the genesis of 70mm, too; the films originally released when the format came into popular use in the ’50s and ’60s are united only by technical means, and yet they share a number of consistent elements. The likes of The Agony And The Ecstasy, Ben-Hur, and Mutiny On The Bounty all evince an epic sweep in their large-scale ambitions and grandeur. The form followed function, resulting in some of the most breathtaking cinematic spectacles of all time.


Cinema is worth fighting for, and cinema in its most unadulterated, pure form exponentially moreso. For an enterprising theater, carrying the torch for 70mm might not be easy, but the good news is that the public will be all too willing to meet them halfway. If the fates be kind, the beginning of a sea change will be a miracle for this Christmas, when audiences of hardcore purists and casual enjoyers alike learn that “SEE IT IN GLORIOUS 70MM” is a redundant phrase.

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