Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Quentin would have been PISSED

With nothing compelling on TV and a movie pass burning in my wallet, I decided to attend a roadshow screening of The Hateful Eight.

I've sort of fallen out with Tarantino lately, what with his ardent passion for turning junk movies from the past into faux-junk cinema and utter devotion to pointless nihilistic gore and over-the-top vengeance stories. It's all part of his huge movie-geek thing-- but something of substance DID come out of it. The man cares about old-school widescreen cinema: so do I. That's where our Venn diagrams intersect.

He went through an extraordinary amount of trouble to create a roadshow release of The Hateful Eight. The last film I remember seeing in a proper roadshow release was Apocalyse Now, a credits-free 70mm screening with a program provided. The Hateful Eight goes a few steps better, with a musical overture, intermission and a three-hour program length.

At least, that's what I understand is supposed to happen.

The fun part: going out with a big ol' 65mm
camera and shooting cool lens flares.
December 28th's  last screening was supposed to start at eleven at the Daly City 20. I got there early, paid the $3 up-charge and staked out a seat near the screen, pleased they had curtained it for crazy wide 2.76:1 Ultra Panavision. Two young women-- practically the only female-only party in a half-full show-- stopped on the way in and noted the smell. Sure enough-- this was the fourth screening of the day and Quentin's core audience demographic had filled the auditorium with a heavy, funky, manly fragrance.

11:00 became 11:10, then 11:20. No movie. The floor manager appeared, handed out rain checks and promised we'd be up and running in about ten minutes. At 11:40, he came back and cancelled the show. So, in the end I did NOT see The Hateful Eight-- but I got two movie passes and three roadshow programs out of the experience, so not a total loss.

The floor manager and I chatted just before he called the screening off. Apparently the theater got all the hardware for a 70mm screening just before it was supposed to start. The projector was refurbished, and at the end of the roadshow screening they will haul it away and 2K digital shows would take it's place. The problem was the projector was just plain broken: it simply would not pass the wide film, some sort of mechanical failure. This cancelled screening was not the first one they had to axe either. Roadshow screenings have gone dark all across the US and Canada in regular intervals.

Hey: Quentin Tarantino and The Weinstein Company are trying very hard to give the audience a taste of the widescreen glories of the past, and more power to them for it.  The thing is: they're giving audience a taste of not just that, but the entirety of photomechanical projection technology.

For each of The Hateful Eight roadshow venues they had to ship in a 70mm projector, set it up and align it, and station a projectionist exclusively to handle the thing. (I'm sure they had to bring in flatbed film platters in some places as well, but not Daly City: they still had one Christie system left). These projectors are likely vintage Century or Todd-AO machines they bought used and had mechanically refurbished. But without the infrastructure and expertise to maintain these machines, they break. They didn't break as much in the past because they were so common.

DP70 35/70mm projector.
Back in my movie theater management days a surprising number of theaters I managed had 70mm capability. In the 80s United Artists had the presence of mind to buy up and install a lot of DP-70 Todd-AO projectors made by Phillips/Norelco in the Netherlands in 1955 or so. The reasons for buying up these machines was twofold: they were very solidly made and reliable for regular 35mm screenings, and even the dopiest non-union assistant manager could switch them over to 70mm. Even with dopey non-union assistant managers running the shows, there were technicians available for overhaul and spare parts were in abundance in every projection booth (sometimes even spare projectors). This all made the average screening in the film era a reliable thing.

Nonetheless, there were a lot of moving parts and flying film and things went off the rails all the time. I am personally responsible for destroying a $3000 reel of 70mm: I started a screening of Bonfire of the Vanities in 70mm blow-up (why? WHY?) forgetting to engage the feed platter motor. Reel One wrapped around the hub and was torn to shreds. Fortunately we could switch to 35mm until a replacement reel arrived (and Larry Levin finished yelling at me).

Digital projection has as we all know, transformed the moviegoing experience. For the audience the changes have been subtle: the picture is more steady, screenings more reliable, and unfortunately trailers nearly endless. the films still "break," though, but they do it digitally: It was reported that an opening night screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens glitched a few minutes in and skipped to the very end of the film. Digital Cinema's most profound change happened in the booth: no moving parts. Films are loaded via hard drive. The roar of the average film projector (which was terrifyingly loud when running 70mm) has been replaced by the hum of cooling fans.

Like I said, big praise for Tarantino for bringing back Ultra Panavision, but it's a kind of stunt, like wiring theater seats to shock people. My cancelled show was part of this whole retro-technical stunt rather than the continuum of modern Digital Cinema technology, and as such none of the backups were available. There was no 35mm print backup or a spare digital projector. He's giving people a taste of the old film days, but it's so late after the passing of this technology it's definitely a double-edged sword. Part of this is sheer hubris: it's easy and cool on the front end to go out and shoot a film with 65mm Panavision cameras and hand-restored 1.25X anamorphic lenses. On the back end it's not so easy: conforming 100 theaters to a nearly dead film format is a tall order indeed, a stunt not as easily pulled off.

So I'm gonna try again soon to see another roadshow screening, but this time I'm going to a theater that isn't in the sticks (Daly City: I'll bet they installed the less reliable refurbished projectors in the outliers). Sheer law of averages means next time the projector will light up.

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