When the script for Quentin Tarantino’s new film The Hateful Eight leaked in early 2014, press outlets paid more attention to the way his screenplay described the look of the film than they did to the plot. His opening scene-setting text describes a shot “…in big super CINEMASCOPE 70MM filmed gloriousness.” The same words crop up over and over: “Snow banks go rolling by in GLORIOUS 70MM SUPERSCOPE.” “We see what Maj. Warren describes in BIG WIDE 70MM SUPER CINEMASCOPE.” “The sun’s out and it’s amazing looking in 70MM SUPERSCOPE.”
Clearly the format was an important part of Tarantino's vision. He's always been a cinema buff who strews his work with references to past films and tends to bring the entire history of film into any interview. Ultimately, he didn't shoot in Cinemascope, but only because he did something riskier and rarer: he revived Ultra Panavision, a format that's been used on less than a dozen films, and none since 1966's Khartoum. The process, which produces a 70mm image even more panoramic than Cinemascope, requires custom lenses to shoot and project. When he tours with the film in December, for a special event roadshow reportedly planned to hit about a hundred cities, the venues are going to have to play the film with newly acquired equipment, at a reported cost of up to $80,000 per theater, according to The New York Times. The plan is for the film to open on Christmas and run for two weeks only in the 70mm theaters, before it hits multiplexes in a conventional digital form.
Few film houses are equipped with the gear even for conventional 70mm
There's already been a minor resurgence in 70mm film screenings over the past few years, with Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master and Inherent Vice and Christopher Nolan's Interstellar all getting limited runs in the larger format. But the Hateful Eight 70mm roadshow is a project on a much vaster scale. Interstellar opened on only 11 screens in 70mm, and the theaters playing it could use conventional 70mm lenses. Few film houses are equipped with the gear even for conventional 70mm; that Times article claimed the The Weinstein Company effectively had to "corner the market" on existing 70mm projectors, buying out collectors and scavenging parts in order to temporarily equip the roadshow venues. "Configuring the lens took six months alone," Weinstein distribution chief Erik Lomis told Deadline's Anthony D'Alessandro in a recent interview. "The more projectors we got, the more parts we realized we were going to need."
But there are risks associated with working with nearly obsolete technology. Persistent focus issues at an early critics' screening at the Crest Westwood theater in Los Angeles led The Weinstein Company to stop the 70mm projector midway through the show and complete the screening with a digital copy of the film. Russ Fischer reported on the specific problems at The Playlist, in a piece that called the screening "very near disastrous," and suggested "the big comeback of 70mm may be over before it ever really starts." Hitfix critic Drew McWeeny is kinder in his concerned essay "What One Bad Screening Of The Hateful Eight Means For The Future Of Film," but while he acknowledges that film's imperfections as a medium are part of the appeal, he also calls the screening "a serious disaster." Sam Adams at CriticWire followed up with "Could The Hateful Eight Kill Film Instead of Saving It?"
That's a lot of broad concern over one screening and a single, clearly faulty projector — digital screenings have their fair share of isolated technical glitches as well, and any professional film critic has at least a couple of stories of digital screenings being restarted from the beginning. A later screening of the film at the Crest went more smoothly, according to The Verge's Bryan Bishop. (He did notice, however, that "the right third of the frame was definitely a touch soft," and the projection was a little dim.)
Still, an early critics' screening of a heavily anticipated film is a particularly unfortunate time to have tech issues: critics are a finicky, detail-oriented audience whose complaints can have an exceptional reach. And given the size of the investment the theaters and Weinstein are making for the special tour, a series of technical problems undermining the roadshow's reputation could be a financial disaster as well as a PR issue. There's a lot of pressure on both the studio and the theaters to make sure these screenings go smoothly.
Dana Morris, the general manager of the Crest Westwood, says the theater spent weeks preparing for its Hateful Eight screenings, bringing its old 70mm projector out of retirement. "It's been a lot of work," he told The Verge. "We brought in this expert who's been here two weeks every day, all day long, and he's coming back all day today to tweak [the projector] to get it ready for tomorrow, because we're showing it two more times." The initial attempt to get the Crest's existing 70mm projector out of storage and back up to speed involved "ordering parts from all over the country."
Even normal 70mm presents some significant extra problems, Morris says. The Hateful Eight print arrived preassembled. The film is more than three hours long, so the immense reel arrived in a custom case, and weighed around 350 pounds. The delivery man needed a forklift to get it onto the truck, and it took four people just to get it up to the projector booth.
Ultra Panavision's 2.76:1 aspect ratio is likely to be a special challenge even in locations where Weinstein provides the projector and the lens. The Ultra Panavision lenses will need to be adjusted onsite for the shorter booth-to-screen throw of modern theaters. And many houses won't have a screen that makes full use of the unusually wide format. Fischer's Playlist piece complained that the Crest "didn't properly place the matte curtains around the screen, so the top and bottom edges faded off into fuzziness rather than having the crisp delineation those mattes are meant to provide." But Morris says the Crest's adjustable curtains, known as the masking, simply don't have a setting for Ultra Panavision. "We just couldn't bring the masking up any higher. It was two feet narrower [vertically] than a normal movie." Some theaters will make special modifications for the roadshow — Chicago's Music Box Theatre is installing a new 40-foot screen for the event, as well as a new sound system — but that adds a further financial pressure for the screenings to come off flawlessly.
Union projectionist Diego Gorbea, one of the IATSE Local 33 members who's been hired to screen the film for the Director's Guild in LA, says Hateful Eight has been playing "all over town for the last couple of weeks," in a series of screenings for the DGA, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and selected members of the public, none of which have had any issues. Though he didn't work at the Crest screening, he says it suggests the kind of issues the roadshow may have in trying to train non-union, inexperienced staffers onsite on complex, unfamiliar equipment. The Times article quotes Boston Light & Sound co-founder Chapin Cutler as saying the company will be handling projection for the tour on a case-by-case basis: "One way or the other, we will fulfill this need ... It will be a combination of house staff that we can train, professional projectionists that we can bring in, projectionists that we can find locally, and potentially some technical staff that we'll bring in."
Gorbea is dubious about the idea of jumping site staff into a series of high-profile screenings if they don't already have significant 70mm experience. "In my experience, I would say that running 70 is a little more tricky. Usually you need to teach a baby to crawl before they can walk. Usually with projectionists, you teach them 35mm first, and then you move them to 70." And the added challenges of working with outside equipment becomes significant, especially for "platter" theaters, where the film comes prebuilt as that single 350-pound reel. "By no means can you take someone who is not trained and run a platter show," Gorbea said. "That's just not going to happen. You have to thread up that thing through the platter, then through the projector, then back to the platter ... The threading itself is more difficult."
On the other hand, projectionists working with single-reel projectors, and switching back and forth between them throughout the show, don't have it much easier. "With platters, you only have to thread it up once," Gorbea said. "With reel-to-reel — Hateful Eight is 11 reels long, so you have to thread it up 11 times, on two different projectors. There's more room for mistakes."
For Tarantino, though, there's more room for magic, as well. He still considers digital projection in theaters to be "HBO in public." He's holding onto history by holding onto 70mm and Ultra Panavision, but he means for the roadshow to echo history as well. The touring 70mm prints of Hateful Eight will include six minutes of extra footage, the kind of bonus used in traditional prestige tour shows to bring viewers to theaters for a special event. Tarantino and his cast explained more about his vision in an 8-minute featurette touting the excitement of the special event roadshow and the quality of the visual format. The word "glorious" comes up a lot. "Ultra Panavision!" Samuel L. Jackson enthuses. "When you absolutely, positively got to wow everyone in the room! Accept no substitutes!"
With this tour, Tarantino is still fighting for the future of cinema as a public, social experience, with every film as a super-sized epic, and every screening as a noteworthy special event rather than a vague part of a nightly Netflix blur. It's too soon to judge whether this tour will help his cause or hurt it. But even if the Crest Westwood issues are repeated elsewhere, touting isolated screening problems as "the death of film" is overstating the situation considerably. There's a difference between routine film screenings (on 35mm, or even special event 70mm screenings that don't use custom equipment to revive a defunct technology) and the exceptionally ambitious Hateful Eight touring program. If the roadshow encounters significant technical issues, it'll be an expensive embarrassment for The Weinstein Company and a disappointment for Tarantino, but it won't be a referendum on shooting on film, or projecting it in a prestige setting. If film dies, it'll have more to do with cost, convenience, and utility than with the question of how many Ultra Panavision lenses one company can Frankenstein together for a quixotic quest.
It might be expensive or embaRrassing, but it won't be a referendum on film
And if the roadshow succeeds, it'll be a positive model for special event cinema events, and for the directors still touting the technical qualities of 70mm film. Some early reports — sparked by an interview Tarantino gave at Comic-Con earlier in 2015 — claim Gareth Edwards' Star Wars: Rogue One, the first of the Star Wars Anthology films, is shooting in Ultra Panavision as well. If that's true, Edwards is one of the few who really needs to worry about whether Tarantino and the Weinsteins can pull it off. For the rest of us, all that matters is whether the special screenings amount to the premium experience they're meant to be.