By Stephanie Merry
Quentin Tarantino wants you to know that the only way to fully appreciate his new movie is to see it under a combination of conditions that hasn't been used in nearly 50 years. Anything less and you are not truly a connoisseur of film.
He asserts that you must watch the Western The Hateful Eight at a 70mm "roadshow" screening. Is this a marketing stunt? Or just the whimsical demands of a self-indulgent auteur? After all, very few theaters are capable of projecting 70mm film anymore, having made the switch to digital. More importantly, if you ask a typical person what 70mm means, they'll most likely shrug and get back to whatever television show they're watching.
But Tarantino sticks to his guns, and on Christmas Day, 96 theaters in the U.S. and four in Canada will be outfitted to screen all three hours and two minutes of Tarantino's latest the way it was meant to be seen (according to the director, anyway). The cost to make this happen? No one is divulging exact figures, but a feature in the New York Times threw out some guesses: possibly in the range of $60,000 to $80,000 per screen. And that doesn't include fees to hire and train projectionists - a nearly extinct breed.
So do we roll our eyes at Tarantino's willingness to inconvenience exhibitors? Deride his obsession with passe technology for the sake of nostalgia?
Not after watching the movie's first featurette. Tarantino has worthy aspirations. He's trying to save the film industry.
The seven-minute movie about the movie is one part history lesson, one part film procedural and 100 percent persuasive marketing. Wisely, Samuel L. Jackson does most of the talking. The actor has always been the epitome of cool, so when he says that seeing the movie in 70mm "will make your enhanced viewing even doper," we want to toggle over to Fandango, credit card in hand.
So what is a roadshow? It's a throwback to a time when people got excited about going to movies. In the 1950s and '60s, certain films played in a limited number of theaters before getting wide releases. Those advanced screenings were classy events. "People even got dressed up," Jackson marvels in the featurette. An overture preceded the feature, and an intermission gave people a chance to stretch their legs; programs were handed out. These screenings also had extended cuts of the movie, treating early viewers to additional footage.
The roadshow release of The Hateful Eight has all that and begins on Dec. 25 with a one-week run, after which theaters that aren't outfitted for 70mm will show the movie on 35mm and digital.
Tarantino, along with Christopher Nolan, is among the biggest defenders of celluloid, so of course the featurette breaks down the wonders of 70mm film. More than just a delightfully analog approach, shooting on 65mm film (which is then printed on 70mm) offers directors more space within each shot. It's twice the width of the standard 35mm, so there's more room for visual elements within every frame and, when projecting the image on a big screen, little loss of picture quality.
It's especially nice for vast landscape shots and gives movies an epic feel. Think: Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music.
The Hateful Eight is a Western shot in Telluride, Colo., so it's ideal for the wide-format treatment. The movie takes place shortly after the Civil War and focuses on eight people, including a bounty hunter and his prisoner, who are holed up together in a haberdashery during a blizzard. Jackson stars alongside Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Dern, among others.
According to the director of photography, Robert Richardson, "when you see the grain of 70, you see the color of 70 - like the wide shot inside the barn and the close-ups of the faces - it's beautiful."
But Tarantino took it a step further by shooting in Ultra Panavision, which, as Jackson explains, is "the widest format there is." The Hateful Eight is only the 11th film ever shot this way. Others include Ben-Hur and Mutiny on the Bounty, and prior to Hateful, the most recent movie was Khartoum, in 1966. To make this happen, the crew had to refurbish decades-old lenses and retrofit cameras.
Even the movie's editor wasn't entirely prepared for the virtuosic scale of images with an aspect ratio (the ratio of width to height) of 2.76:1. During an interview with CineMontage magazine, Fred Raskin said, "I'm a little ashamed to admit that, aside from my general excitement at seeing the 2.76:1 compositions, I don't think I was aware there would be any difference creatively. But once the footage started coming in, the combination of the beauty of the 70mm and that super-wide aspect ratio led us to hold on to wide shots substantially longer than we would have otherwise. When you are seeing these beautiful compositions - and the clarity of the image is such that you can see the depth of the performances in the actors' eyes - why would you cut away?"
Basically this is a lot of effort to remind people that there's a difference between film and television - and that's a lesson the movie industry desperately needs to be spreading right now.
Tarantino hasn't always explained things in the most tactful way. At the Cannes Film Festival, he offended people with his elitism when he declared, "digital projections, that's just television in public. And apparently the whole world is OK with television in public, but what I knew as cinema is dead."
That's a little melodramatic, and less established directors will explain that digital filmmaking has it's place; it's much cheaper, which has democratized the art form. Just look at the magnificent low-budget Tangerine, which was shot on an iPhone, and probably wouldn't exist otherwise.
And yet, Tarantino has a point. Making television and making movies has never been more alike.
Just talk to someone who has done both. Director John Wells, a producer and director who worked on E.R., The West Wing and Shameless, plus the film adaptation of August: Osage County, has seen the vast differences between the mediums disappear.
"We have more resources on (recent) shows than on any of the films I produced 10 years ago," he said recently while promoting his film Burnt with Bradley Cooper. "The technology has changed in the sense that there's no difference in the physical product between doing (the upcoming series) 'Animal Kingdom' and doing Burnt. We're using the same tools and shooting them the same way with all the same personnel."
Throw in the fact that television tends to take more risks with fresher stories and diverse casts - not to mention the sheer volume of options - and the result is that fewer people go to movies. The talk around the water cooler is rarely about what came out at the multiplex last weekend. Everyone's too busy rehashing what premiered on HBO last night.
Say what you will about his opinions and methods, but Tarantino is fighting a worthy battle by trying to re-assert the divide between the two art forms. You won't get dressed, much less dressed up, to watch television, he's reminding us. You can't enjoy the breathtaking immersion of Ultra Panavision in your living room.
The payoff will likely be good for Tarantino. Police officers notwithstanding, the director knows how to get people excited about the power of movies. After all, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds scored big at the box office without the novelty of a roadshow. But he's not going to be able to do it alone. In order to save movies, the whole industry is going to have to rethink the existing paradigm. Studios and filmmakers need to understand that A-list stars and familiar characters aren't guaranteed to tear people away from their flat screens.
But a new story delivered in a way few have ever seen? Maybe Jackson says it best: "It's pretty cool, huh?"
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