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Why The Beatles Matter to the Future of Repertory Film

Why The Beatles Matter to the Future of Repertory Film

It was 1964 and the world didn’t know what had hit it. The Beatles came exploding out of the screen in Richard Lester’s “A Hard Day’s Night,” the deliriously, thrillingly alive, black-and-white masterpiece from director Richard Lester that opened the cultural floodgates for the Fab Four, and for a new era of music-in-film hybrids.

Currently kicking around repertory theaters, reaching over 100 theaters in total, is a new 4K restoration of the film from The Criterion Collection and distributor Janus Films.

This is their first full-on 4K restoration, and that’s the closest we can get to the resolution of real, live, flesh-and-blood celluloid. The film, restored from the original negative rather than an intermediary generation, is also available via Criterion Blu-Ray. But what does it mean for the future of classic films on the big screen? (Check out Criterion’s summer screenings schedule of the film here.)

“We’ve always been dedicated to gathering films of all different kinds, and this is certainly one of the greatest films ever made,” said Peter Becker, President of Criterion Collection, who has held onto the rights for nearly a year, and wanted the release to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the film’s 1964 premiere at the London Palladium. 

Where does Becker see the film fitting in the overall Criterion canon, and what does it augur for the future of Janus re-releases and restorations? We spoke on the phone.

“[With] last year’s Janus story, ‘The Great Beauty,’ over the course of that release we found ourselves in many more theaters than usual,” Becker said. Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty,” 2014’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, ended up with nearly $3 million at the domestic box office — one of the highest foreign film grosses of the decade so far.

“The traditional form for repertory releasing is you make two prints or four prints and you play them out over the course of a few months and reach as many markets as you can,” Becker said. “That model has worked pretty well for a lot of things. In the case of ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ we had a different goal and it has opened up new possibilities for releasing strategy.” 

“The Beatles are an iconic and international brand name and the first proper rock band so we had an opportunity to mobilize attention on a national scale. We’re very excited about it. So far so good; the attention that the release has been given is any measure of how well it’s going to do for all of our exhibitors who had the courage to line up with us and show this film,” Becker added.

“People who were screaming about this film in the 1960s are now in their ’60s and ’70s and have grandchildren who also love and grew up on The Beatles. For us, this opened up the whole new possibility of being able to open a repertory picture on a broad scale and change the model of it.”

The changing repertory paradigm — meaning more quality classic films for a better, wider audience — has been aided by one technology in particular: the Digital Cinema Package (DCP), which is the digital form celluloid has taken in the 21st century.

“It has really changed the game in many ways because we could never have made 120 35mm prints.” It would have been an insane thing to do, as B&W prints are extremely costly, not to mention the exorbitant inventory of prints Janus would be sitting on.

Becker said that because Criterion’s restoration process, exacting and precise and methodical, far trumps any photochemical work, “The end result is generations closer to the original filmed image than a print could ever be. The only way you could have come closer would have been to make a film out of a negative from our restoration, and then take prints out of that negative.” However, “it’s not that we won’t still be doing a lot of releasing on the classic model of a few prints, [but DCP] opens up the possibility of going nationwide.”

Though the film’s first and last reels were missing, the rest of the original negative was “intact” and “in pretty good condition. A Restoration only looks as good as the materials underlying it,” Becker said. “We’ve left the film in better condition than we found it.”

“New technology is also enabling us to stand up for the masterpieces of the technology that came before,” Becker said, though there were some challenges. “This film has an enormous amount of motion. The camera’s moving, the frame is moving, and that is very challenging in digital restoration because it depends largely on being able to borrow relevant information from adjacent frames or from elsewhere in the same frame.”

But the Criterion gang uses very few automatic tools. “It’s a very handmade digital production, and it takes an artisanal kind of undertaking to do this work properly,” Becker told me. “The goal [of 4K] is not to make something look smooth and clean and dead and lifeless — you want to actually present the film as vividly as it was the day the first print was struck. In this case, the resolution is even greater than the first prints.”

So what’s the best way to see the film?

Criterion’s Technical Director of Restoration Lee Kline said, “There are movies best seen in the theater, and movies perfect for an airplane, or sitting in your living room, and now that we have so much great content on Blu-ray, [at home] you’re getting close to the theater — you just don’t have the audience.”

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