According to Music Box Theatre Technical Director Julian Antos, 70mm films historically had “a heightened sense of being ‘a big thing.’ They were probably movies that cost a bunch of money to make, had big casts and beautiful landscapes. All these pieces were making a more special, more theatrical experience than ‘non-prestige’ films.”
Music Box’s 70mm Film Festival kicks off the evening of March 5 and lasts through March 19, with features ranging from sci-fi classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Tron (1982) to musicals such as Hello, Dolly! (1969) and West Side Story (1961) and dramas, including Roma (2018) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood(2019).
The widescreen 70mm gauge was often utilized for “road show” film presentations throughout the 50s and 60s. Those movies would often include overtures and intermissions—and higher-priced tickets—so audiences would equate the film with a “legitimate” theater performance that could lure them away from their then-new televisions.
Though the road-show format died out, various 70mm showings continued through the 70s and 80s, usually reserved for high-end exhibitions of blockbusters such as Star Wars, Superman, and Alien, which were filmed in 35mm and blown up. As movie exhibition standards deteriorated over the decades, Antos says, “70mm was a way of assuring quality control, because it is more difficult to run, and more care has to be taken.”
The frequency of 70mm showings dissipated, and now—when even a 35mm exhibition is a novelty for cinema goers—they only happen when an influential director such as Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan uses their pull to film in the 70mm gauge or have their film blown up.
The Music Box festival began in 2012 and has had sporadic iterations since. “Because it’s a lot of work, it’s not annual,” Antos says. “It ends up being about every 18 months or so. We find a spot in the calendar where it makes sense—for example, if there is a new 70mm release coming up, we’ll try to tie it in with that.”
Planning a film festival is inherently difficult for any venue, Antos noted, because curators must plan, check for title availability, and coordinate print traffic. But working with 70mm titles is even more complicated.
“You’re dealing with a range of different prints,” he says. “There are some that are brand new, archival, and super nice, that you know will have no problems. There are others that you spend a day inspecting, getting ready to show. Everything comes in all at once, so you have this two-week period where the booth is flooded with dozens of cans.”
Curators only have 100 or so 70mm titles to choose from these days. As such, Music Box programs some regular titles, such as West Side Story and 2001—the theater owns its own print of the latter. Antos and his colleagues also try to include titles with which contemporary audiences might be less familiar; for 2020, they’ve included the 1966 historical drama Khartoum, and the 1930 early-widescreen western The Big Trail, which will be shown in a 35mm reduction because no 70mm prints of it still exist.
“A lot of these prints are really one of a kind,” said Antos. “In many cases, we’re running the only circulating print of something. I really like thinking about where the prints have been, and what venues they’ve screened at. I’m sure that print of West Side Story has screened all around the world. I think it’s about 15 years old, and still going strong, and still kicking ass.”
Antos emphasized that Music Box remains committed to programs utilizing all film-projection formats—from Super 8 all the way to digital-video—even as mainstream cinema exhibition has largely shifted to video projection. “The great thing about analog film is that it can, even in its smaller iterations, reproduce colors, and with much nicer contrast than any digital formats,” Antos says. “We are maintaining 70 years’ worth of technology.” v