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‘Dunkirk’ and the 70mm Experience: Why The Unlikely Comeback of the Big-Screen Format Has Hollywood’s Attention

How Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is building upon what Tarantino started with the "Hateful Eight" and why it's important.

Fionn Whitehead in “Dunkirk”

Much has been made about the way “Dunkirk” has been engineered for the 70mm experience. Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic is being marketed as an immersive big-screen experience, one that the director prefers audience to see in his preferred format. But he never would have been able to convince a studio to invest in this undertaking if it weren’t for a few key developments from the past few years.

While shooting on film has made an unexpected comeback in Hollywood, watching a film projected on celluloid has remained a novelty reserved for cinephiles lucky enough to live near a museum or repertory theater still committed to showing film prints. After 35mm projectors were removed from theaters across the country, they never came back; Hollywood loved the ease of digital cinema projection (DCP), which shaves off the costs of the significant labor, time and expense of making and shipping thousands of film prints.

That’s why Quentin Tarantino’s 100-theater 2015 “Hateful Eight” 70mm roadshow in 2015 was so extraordinary. 70mm projection was never anywhere near as prevalent as 35mm and had been abandoned well before the switch to DCP, with Ron Howard’s “Far and Away” in 1992 being the last major 70mm release.

To take on this Sisyphean task of equipping road show theaters, the Weinstein Company hired Boston Light & Sound, who scoured the world for abandoned and destroyed 70mm projection equipment. BL&S then rehabilitated them by manufacturing 125 different parts, installed them in 100 locations across the country, and found a team of projectionists they trained to handle these Frankenstein’d together machines for 16 to 20 hour shifts, every day for two weeks over the winter holidays.

Read More: Meet the Brave Projectionists Behind ‘The Hateful Eight’ 70mm Roadshow

Tarantino on set of "The Hateful Eight"

Tarantino on set of “The Hateful Eight”

Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein/REX/Shutterstoc

BL&S’s co-founder Chapin Cutler told IndieWire that without the resources and energy put into the “Hateful 8” roadshow it’s almost certain 70mm projection equipment would have continued it’s rapid path to extinction. But like other film lovers, Cutler thinks the effort was well worth it.

“The fact of the matter is that if properly set up and properly aligned, the quality of the image from a 70mm film print exceeds what you can get out of current digital projection technology by at least a factor of two,” said Cutler, whose company is a leader in building and installing digital projection systems. “You can’t get a true black from most digital cinema projectors, whereas with a film print you can get a true black and you get a higher contrast as a result.”

The experience of being able to see the speciality screenings meant greater visibility for “The Hateful Eight” and increased revenue. While the film didn’t get the reviews and domestic box office ($54 million) of Tarantino’s previous two films – “Django Unchained” ($162 million) and “Inglourious Basterds” ($120 million) – the 70mm engagements were record breakers for the road show theaters, which grossed $11.2 million in the first 12 days for an astounding $112,000 per theater average.

“’70mm is the new vinyl,” said Greg Sherman, the head projectionist for the Film Society of Lincoln Center as he watched yesterday’s sold out crowd file out of a sneak peak 70mm screening of “Dunkirk.” Before the show there was a enormous standby line of people hoping to get in. “It’s noon on a Wednesday, in the middle of the summer and the place was packed.”

Film Society of Lincoln Center Projectionist Greg Sherman preps for 70mm screening of "Dunkirk"

Film Society of Lincoln Center Projectionist Greg Sherman preps for 70mm screening of “Dunkirk”

Chris O'Falt

Five years ago, Lincoln Center was one of only a handful of non-profit organizations that still had a 70mm projector. In storage, they maintained a back–up projector under the reasonable assumption they’d never be able to replace their current setup if it broke. Sherman remembers when former critic and now Amazon exec Scott Foundas was at the Film Society and programmed a 20 film 70mm series.

Read More: Christopher Nolan: I Won’t Work With Netflix Because Their Film Strategy is ‘Pointless’

“It cost something like $20,000 just to have the prints shipped back and forth,” said Sherman, holding up one of the five enormous 70mm reels of “Dunkirk.” “The idea that they are now doing this in a regular AMC in Florida blows my mind.”

Cutler, who has built a successful business supplying companies with audio and visual systems for their particular venue, says the cost is actually reasonable.

“The ability to put a 70mm projector into existing theaters is cheaper in comparison to finding another format that can advertise being ‘special,'” said Cutler. “The title of the movie was not ‘The Hateful Eight,’ it was ‘The Hateful Eight in 70mm.'”


Cutler’s certainly not alone in this assessment. For years, Christopher Nolan has been the most prominent advocate for shooting on film, in particular larger formats like 70mm. Nolan has pointed out for years that Hollywood didn’t abandon film because of technological improvements in quality, but rather because DCP saved the studios money.

In January, Cutler and his team started prepping for “Dunkirk” by traveling around the country to visit 70 theaters used for the “Hateful Eight.” Only five had removed their 70mm projectors. They quickly got to work rehabilitating and improving the projectors, building from their lessons from “Hateful Eight,” which received some overblown press coverage of a handful of projection snafuws.

“There were some things we learned with ‘The Hateful Eight,’ some of them we learned the hard way, mostly having to do with the size of the print,” said Cutter.

Read More: What It’s Like to Be a ‘Hateful Eight’ 70mm Projectionist (With Quentin Tarantino Watching)

The Tarantino movie was 189 minutes. The longer running time means more film, which means more weight, and with 70mm that means much more weight.  The retro fitted platter system BL&S created for the road show struggled to maintain the proper tension and speed, which fluctuates as the platters spin and fed the three hour plus film to the projector. Cutlers’ team has figured out how to improve the platter system, which will be nowhere near as taxed with the 105 minute “Dunkirk.”

"Hateful Eight" Projectionist Jason Garnett

“Hateful Eight” Projectionist Jason Garnett

Jason Garnett

Thanks to “Hateful Eight,” 70mm projection system are now a stable fixture at various locations. Cutler is already hearing chatter of studios looking to test 70mm screenings themselves off the excitement “Dunkirk” has generated.

Nolan and Warner Brothers are also adding another layer to their specialty screenings. Thirty-one IMAX locations will show the film on 70mm IMAX film, rather than the digital IMAX which has become standard. In some locations, the company actually reinstalled their 1570 film projector systems specifically for “Dunkirk.”

Read More: ‘Dunkirk’: Here’s Every Movie Theater Showing Christopher Nolan’s New Movie on 70mm Film

“IMAX film is the highest resolution film that’s ever been used, but it had never been used in Hollywood films until ‘Dark Knight,'” said Nolan during the post screening Q&A at Lincoln Center. “I’d seen IMAX films in museums and was fascinated about it as a kid and used the fact that I was doing a [Batman] sequel to negotiate with studio about using it as a camera.”

Christopher Nolan shooting "The Dark Knight Rises"

Christopher Nolan shooting “The Dark Knight Rises” in IMAX


The IMAX film negative is three times the size of 65mm film that was used to shoot films like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Hateful Eight.” In fact, the cameras are so enormous and noisy Nolan reverted back to the standard Panavision 65mm cameras for dialogue scenes, and although there is no one-to-one comparison, Nolan estimated that the resolution is the equivalent of an astounding 18K in the digital world, while maintaining what he calls the purity and beauty of analog color.

The advance press and industry screenings projected in 70mm IMAX are generating tremendous buzz about seeing “Dunkirk” in one of speciality locations that comes with a significantly higher ticket price. Shows at the AMC Lincoln Square IMAX screen are already sold out.

And this is what has Hollywood excited. Warner Brothers has flipped the bill, sparing little expense, for audiences to be able to see “Dunkirk” the way their prized director prefers it. That investment will likely come back to the studio in the form of a bump in revenue from the higher ticket prices, but their efforts also have resulted in creating an allure around Nolan’s vision – a key component of the film’s publicity campaign – which helps the movie stand out in a crowded summer movie season and what will likely be a crowded Oscar field.

“If 70mm gets overused, like 3D, it will lose its charm,” said Cutler. “But if it’s used to showcase great works like ‘The Hateful Eight’ and now ‘Dunkirk,’ Hollywood has an important new distribution tool.”

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