New big event cinema: 70mm revival

I really think Tarantino is trying to reintroduce big event cinema, so this could be the start of something…

The release of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful 8 in Ultra Panavision 70mm has opened the way for a special cinematic experience at a few select theatres in Australia.

One of these cinemas happens to be my local cinema in Yarraville, the Sun Theatre. With the transition to digital projection well underway in Australia, it was only those cinema owners with connections who could source and install the old 70mm projection equipment in order to offer the “new-old” experience.

Luckily for those in Melbourne’s west, Sun Theatre owner Michael Smith knew to ask retired projectionist Brian Davis. Davis started his career as a projectionist in the 1950s. And he just happened to have not one, but two working 70mm projectors in his garage. 1

Then began a journey to install the 50 year old Italian made projector, complete with its own water-cooling system, into the Sun Theatre for its premiere screening in January 2016. The projector’s 4000 watt light can be dangerous and unlike digital projection, if the film catches or jams, the result can be literally seen burning in front of an audience’s eyes. Having been a 35mm projectionist myself for the Australian National University Film Group many years ago, I can unfortunately attest as to how dramatic this looks on screen.

The Sun Theatre’s effort certainly paid off with no less than director, Quentin Tarantino, and actors, Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell surprising audiences in Yarraville at a late Monday night screening.

Why did Quentin Tarantino and the Weinstein Company go to all the effort of releasing both digital and 70mm prints? The 70mm prints offer an ultra-wide screen ratio of 2.76:1 (nearly 3 times as big as 35mm film). According to Bob Richardson, Director of Photography, when he saw the size and width of the frame, the grain, colour and the detail of image, he knew he wanted to tackle shooting in a format that had not been used since 1966.2

There is another reason for the decision to release in 70mm to select cinemas. Tarantino has a deep dislike of digital projection which he has described as ‘television in public’. 3 Cinemas have had no choice but to convert to digital as eventually 35mm prints will cease to exist. By the end of 2011 in Australia, 704 of  1991 cinemas had already converted to digital. 4

Tarantino’s great desire is to protect film projection, and to reinvent big event cinema  – a reason to leave home and join an audience in a special night out. Tarantino is wanting to revive a time during the 1950s and 60s when there were ‘roadshow releases’ of films in 70mm such as Ben Hur and Lawrence of Arabia. These roadshows were typically limited theatrical releases with extra footage, a musical overture, intermission and a special programme.

Film studios at the time were faced with the impact of television on cinema-going audiences. The introduction of large curved screen formats like Cinemascope, and new film gauges such as 70mm, were all an attempt to lure audiences back to the cinema by creating an experience television could not achieve at the time.

Today, it is interesting to reflect on the potential drawcard of big event cinema in the context of Sony’s recent release of a portable projector. The tiny projector can turn any surface into a viewing platform for movies or TV. The marketing campaign of “Meet Your Own World” conjures up the complete opposite to big event cinema – a very private individual viewing experience within your own comfortable space. Sony has also developed the same ‘short throw’ technology in a high quality 4K projector with 5000 lumens laser light source – billed as the world’s most advanced home cinema projector.

So what is it these days may draw people to big event cinema? My personal experience was that the wide screen format of 70mm was spectacular, and used to great effect in service of the Western genre. Ennio Morricone’s special overture opening the film set off my imagination and created palpable anticipation in the packed audience. The intermission and programme encouraged a sharing of the story with others, rather than just with your own companions. There was a definite air of an ‘event’ which all enriched the storytelling experience.

Is it the start of something…? I fear not. The overwhelming transformation to digital tells us otherwise. It is however a great homage to the cinematic experience, and a boost to some of Australia’s independent theatres. Hopefully, it has reminded some audiences of the value and quality of Ultra Panavision and of enjoying that special night out. Finally, thanks to Quentin Tarantino, that 70mm projector in the garage had its day in the Sun.

Main image: Judson McCranie, Wikimedia Commons

Show 4 footnotes

  1. Craig Mathieson, Return of 70mm film sends cinema bosses scrambling for old projectors, 9 Jan 2016, accessed 26 Jan 2016
  2. Max Evry, Hateful 8 Featurette: Tarantino explains the glories of 70mm, 25 Nov 2015 accessed 26 Jan 2016
  3. Brad Brevet, Quentin Tarantino Makes a Lot of Sense Discussing His Dislike for Digital Cinema, 26 May 2014 accessed 26 Jan 2016
  4. Sandy George, Australian cinema operators score digital deduction, 24 Jan 2012 accessed 26 Jan 2016

About Sara Cousins

I am a Melbourne-based creative producer and writer interested in storytelling across all media. I have worked in digital education for many years. I am particularly interested in helping people to create and share their own stories.