Time to be Great Again: Presenting Somerville Theatre’s Inaugural 70mm & Widescreen Festival

Fall in love all over again with your favorite movies, presented in the most magnificent of formats, this fall at Somerville Theatre.

“There’s a big difference between watching Sherif Ali come out of the desert in Lawrence of Arabia, looking at a stray pixel perhaps, and seeing it on the screen the way it’s supposed to be seen,” snarls David Kornfeld, head projectionist at the Somerville Theatre. He’s got me up in the booth and is taking me to school regarding the theater's 70mm & Widescreen Festival, a years-in-the-planning dream project for both Kornfeld and the Somerville Theatre’s Director of Operations, Ian M. Judge.

Kicking off this Friday night with the aforementioned Lawrence, the festival offers ten days of Hollywood epics projected via good old-fashioned celluloid onto the historic theater's thirty-foot screen. They’ve booked 70mm prints of 2001 A Space Odyssey, West Side Story, The Wild Bunch, Spartacus, Interstellar, Tron and the rarely shown Sleeping Beauty, direct from the Disney vault. The series also showcases a Technirama presentation of The Vikings, and closes out with IB Technicolor 35mm prints of The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. You might think you’ve seen some of these movies before, but you’ve never seen them like this.

With more and more moviegoing these days a matter of being queued into shoeboxes for shoddy digital presentations boasting less resolution than a top-of-the-line television set, seeing a film in the Somerville’s lovingly refurbished 1914 auditorium feels like travelling back in time to an era when showmanship and presentation mattered, right down to the gorgeous curtains dramatically unfurling to accentuate the experience. “It’s funny you mention the curtains,” laughs Judge. “It’s such a simple thing and more theaters could absolutely do that. They’re not that expensive, they keep your screen clean, and they look great.”

Last summer saw the completion of an eight-year process retrofitting the Somerville’s projection booth to be compatible with 70mm film, considered something of a dead format in the industry before Quentin Tarantino brought it back into the spotlight this past Christmas with The Hateful Eight. Most theaters were stuck scrambling to install the ancient equipment required to show Tarantino’s ultraviolent opus, but the Somerville was ready and waiting, having already run hugely successful 70mm engagements of The Wild Bunch and 2001 earlier in the year.

The Hateful Eight, regardless of what you feel about the movie, it definitely reminded people of why the format is renowned,” Judge explains. “It put 70mm back in the public’s mind in a way just doing a festival couldn’t. We had the #1 gross in New England on that movie. You gotta thank the 70mm for that.”

So what’s the big deal? Kornfeld elaborates: “For one thing, 70mm has three to six times the picture area of a 35mm frame, so you’re getting more information. The magnification is less, so the image appears sharper and clearer. It has hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of times more picture information than your DVD or Blu-Ray or your [groans] streaming.”

The standard digital cinema projection offers a horizontal resolution of approximately 2,000 pixels. “Your 2K image I think is 1/52 of a 70mm frame,” Kornfeld smiles. “So there you go.”

Somerville Theatre’s marquee.

In my experience, seeing a film you love in 70mm is akin to discovering it anew. Movies like Lawrence and The Wild Bunch, that I thought I knew backwards and forwards, reveal new details and depths. So crisp and beautiful was the image in The Hateful Eight that I found it difficult to sit through other current movies with their sludgy digital distortions for weeks afterwards. It was like listening to a compressed MP3 on earbuds after attending a symphony orchestra.

Arriving on anywhere upwards of a dozen super-sized reels, 70mm prints can be prohibitively expensive just to ship, let alone maintain. Judge worries that they’re becoming an endangered species. “The studios have pretty much abandoned film, but most of the bigger ones at least have a classics department. It’s how theaters like the Brattle and the Coolidge and us do stuff year round. It’s just a matter of do they have a good print? Do they even have a print?” A lot of times the films are secured through private collectors. “But you still have to license it through the studio, so in the end that costs you double,” he grimaces. “You’re paying twice, but it’s worth it.”

There can be a lot of detective work involved just in locating the prints, and the stories don’t always have happy endings. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan was originally booked for the festival, and then cancelled. “Paramount had it listed as available in 70mm and we confirmed it. Then about three weeks later they came back and said somebody chewed that up and it’s not runnable anymore. So I said okay, I’ll do the whale one.” (The Voyage Home is screening in its place.) The very real worry here is that once these prints are gone, they’re gone for good.

Ben-Hur is a perfect example,” Judge continues. “There are no 70mm prints in this country that we could find. The studio doesn’t have one, collectors don’t have them, the private market doesn’t have them. The last one we could track down played fifteen years ago in Australia, but that’s where the trail stopped. We ended up getting the IB Technicolor print of Ben-Hur, which looks fabulous, but...”

“I wish people like Tarantino and Scorsese, who have money and love film, would put their money where their mouth is and say, you know what, let’s get fifty-thousand dollars together — which is chump-change for both of them — and commission a new 70mm print of Ben-Hur or Wrath of Khan, or whatever. Because the studio’s not gonna do it. They’re gonna see a return on that investment, but these fat-walleted Hollywood types could do that like you and I might go out to dinner.”

This festival is by no means an inexpensive undertaking, but the Somerville is charging only $15 for General Admission tickets (there are also discounted senior/child rates and full festival passes available) which astonishingly enough is a couple bucks less than you’d be paying for the 2K digital IMAX at AMC Boston Common.

The 70mm & Widescreen Festival is your chance to see these films the way they were meant to be seen, probably for your first time, and hopefully not the last.

Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square
Fri 9.16 thru Sun 9.25
Full Festival Pass: $200 adult, $175 Seniors 62 + and Children 12 & under Per Feature Admission: $15.00 adult. $12 Seniors, $10 Children 12 & under
For full listings, click here