35mm Isn’t Dead Yet…

Austin TX 35mm Projection Booth-2015

The last thing I expect to see in a movie theater nowadays is a movie  projected on film, but that’s what happened this weekend, quite by chance. I’m still catching up with pictures I missed during my illness and went to see  Jurassic World at a second-run theater in Sherman Oaks, California. Imagine my surprise when there were no trailers, just a beat-up Pacific Theaters logo announcing their Feature Presentation followed by the movie itself. I had to pinch myself: this couldn’t be a digital presentation—it had to be on film. And it was.

There was a little damage to the print, and the sound levels varied from reel to reel—with some surround channels coming and going—but nothing detracted from my enjoyment of the movie, which I found very entertaining. 

When it was over I found a staff member who confirmed that all five screens at the Pacific Sherman Oaks 5 use 35mm projectors and mostly “they run fine,” he said with a smile. 

And why shouldn’t they? No one ever complained about the quality of 35mm except when prints were damaged or the projection bulb grew dim. I remember seeing prints that looked battered after just a week of wear from those platter machines that took the place of old-fashioned dual-system projectors. 

Philippe Noiret-Salvatore Cascio-Cinema Paradiso

But I never dreamed that I’d feel a pang of nostalgia seeing lines and splices as I did on Sunday. As for the absence of trailers, it occurs to me that perhaps the studios are no longer circulating them in 35mm.
Mind you, I’ve got no quarrel with digital projection; it works fine with movies new and old. I just don’t understand why the movie industry had to make 35mm obsolete in order to adopt the new technology.

Yet there are still signs of life. Laemmle Theaters is taking over the long-deserted Fine Arts Theatre in Beverly Hills and is maintaining a 35mm machine there so it can screen vintage prints when the occasion arises.

And, of course, Quentin Tarantino has shot his eagerly-anticipated The Hateful Eight in Super Panavision, which has the folks at Boston Light & Sound scavenging parts to put as many 70mm projection systems together as possible for its premiere engagements. 

Meanwhile, I’m still screening short subjects from my 16mm collection at USC in my Thursday night class, where we show major new feature films, mostly in the digital format. It gives me pleasure and a sort of pride to keep the 16mm equipment humming, just for the heck of it. 

Yes, motion picture film is still alive; you just have to seek it out.

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June 2024