Everything Old Is New Again: Theatres go back to 70mm with ‘Hateful Eight’ roadshow

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It’s been several weeks since Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight hit theatres; the reviews have been shared, the interviews published, the friendly (or not so friendly) discussions brought to their conclusion. But there’s one subject we at FJI believe still merits some ink: The Hateful Eight’s two-week roadshow, which on Christmas Day made Tarantino’s latest the first film in nearly 50 years to be released in the Ultra Panavision 70 format.

Other films in recent years have gotten special 70mm screenings, specifically Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Inherent Vice and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. But with The Hateful Eight, the goal was much more ambitious. Whereas those earlier screenings took place in the small number of theatres that still had 70mm projectors, this time around The Weinstein Company hired Boston Light & Sound to find and restore enough equipment for a 100-theatre, nationwide rollout. With the roadshow nearly at an end as of press time, we thought it would be useful to take a look back at how 70mm’s great comeback actually panned out.

Boston Light & Sound dug up and got into fighting shape 120 70mm projectors, what principal and co-founder Chapin Cutler admits is the “bear’s portion” of them left in the country. That’s enough for 89 theatres—the remaining 11 were already equipped for 70mm—plus spare equipment to “scatter around the country in case of an immediate failure or immediate need.”

Another challenge was finding and training projectionists; Cutler describes the 70 that Boston hunted down as a mix of “old-timers who had been in business for some time and younger people, some of whom had run 70mm at archives and schools and other institutions.” Others, Cutler explains, knew film but not 70mm: “They required some familiarization, which our technical staff, who did the installations, provided.”

Falling into the “old-timer” category is John Sittig, who was ArcLight Cinemas’ projection maestro for 15 years before retiring and coming back into the biz as Reading/City Cinemas’ director of projection and sound. He admits that finding qualified projectionists was “the biggest challenge” of the process—but the ability to work with 70mm again made the process more than worth it. “I can tell you from personally running [The Hateful Eight] for a number of shifts at our Grossmont theatre [in La Mesa, California], the audience was very much in tune with the fact that they were watching 70mm. The overture would start and people would turn around and they’d give me a thumbs-up in the projection booth,” he recalls.

Unfortunately, The Hateful Eight’s roadshow hit a speed bump before the film even officially opened. Projection problems at a Los Angeles press screening necessitated the switch from film to digital during the intermission, leading to a slate of articles questioning whether a successful revival of 70mm, even on a small scale, was possible with so few experienced projectionists currently in the industry’s ranks.

Cutler calls the issue, which resulted from a parts misalignment that didn’t rear its head during the testing process, “an isolated occurrence. [The screening] was not a failure, because they completed the show. No one left without seeing the entire movie… That’s why we have projectionists and technicians. Because, just like your car, [a projector] will break down.”

Ultimately, Chapin argues, “the number of shows that were deficient is far less than one percent. I think that’s a pretty good track record.” On Reading/City Cinemas’ part, Sittig says there were “no real problems” in any of their theatres, just a few minor technical issues involving calibrating the speed of the platters.

Another location that’s had no problems with their screenings, which number four a day, is Wehrenberg TheatresRonnies 20 Cine, located in the St. Louis metro area. Like several of the Reading/City Cinemas theatres, the Ronnies 20 is planning to continue 70mm screenings of The Hateful Eight past the original two-week roadshow window set by The Weinstein Company. The reason for that, explains Wehrenberg president Bill Menke, is simple: The film’s 70mm screenings have been raking it in. “I would say virtually every showing from Christmas Day on through the New Year’s holiday was sold out in the 70mm house,” he says, with several screenings selling out online before the film opened. Even once the Ronnies also opened the non-roadshow version of The Hateful Eight—projected digitally, and minus the intermission and several minutes of footage—70mm was still far and away the preferred option among patrons. “[The digital version] caught the overflow of people who could not see it in the 70mm format,” says Menke. “In the second week of the run, the 70mm house was still producing three times the gross that the digital format was… Right now, for us to end it would be not prudent for us as good businessmen and theatre operators, with the gross that the 70mm screen is producing. It’s still outperforming other shows that have opened in subsequent weeks.”

Both Menke and Sittig cite Tarantino and The Weinstein Company’s success at making The Hateful Eight’s roadshow rollout into a capital-E Event, of the sort that were seen in the ’50s and ’60s with films like Ben-Hur and The Sound of Music. There are even The Hateful Eight programs that were given out at screenings.

But, behind the curtain, a lot of work was put into checking and double-checking equipment so things would run smoothly. “We went over our equipment not only with Chapin’s installers, but with our technical crews as well, and the expert [Boston Light & Sound] sent out did an outstanding job training our personnel,” Menke explains. “We take a lot of pride in projection excellence, and, knock on wood, we’ve been running without interruption. We have some very happy customers.”

On Boston Light & Sound’s part, Cutler admits that, next time around, he’d like to be able to institute even more double-checks—though, he argues, they simply were not able to do much more given the limited amount of time they had. (The company spent the last two months of 2014 planning and “started in earnest looking for equipment” in January of the following year.)

“By and large, we have had some operational issues, primarily with platters,” Cutler continues. “But, having been through that, we now know what to do in order to have resolved that. There are things that we could have done and should have done that we didn’t even know we had to do.”

But the question remains: Will there be a next time? Cutler demurs, noting that it’s up to individual exhibitors and The Weinstein Company to determine whether Tarantino’s grand 70mm experiment was a success. It’s also The Weinstein Company’s call as to what happens to the equipment, which they own; they could conceivably use it themselves and/or work out a deal with other studios, who might be more willing to try something with 70mm now that they wouldn’t have to pay to restore the projectors themselves. (Cutler declined to mention how much the endeavor cost.)

With projectors restored and projectionists trained, Sittig argues, “there’s a bit of an infrastructure that there wasn’t there before.” Though film’s never going to push digital off its throne, he argues that in the future we could be looking at “one or two” similar film rollouts a year, especially if film-loving directors like Christopher Nolan take this opportunity to throw their weight around.

For his part, Menke is “very pleased with the result that we’ve had on this picture, and I think that Weinstein, if they had the kind of success that we’ve had here in St. Louis, ought to be very pleased with the effort that they’ve put toward presenting 70mm… I think there are an awful lot of people out there who, first of all, saw 70mm for the first time, secondly saw film for the first time, and third saw Ultra Panavision 70 for the first time, that were blown away by it. So I think, by almost any metric, that makes it a success among the patrons of the theatres that played it.”