What one bad screening of ‘The Hateful Eight’ means for the future of film

12.03.15 2 years ago

There are few things I've been looking forward to more this year than the release of Quentin Tarantino's “The Hateful Eight.”

Since the live-reading he did of the script here in Los Angeles, I've been excited to see how he would hone the ending of the piece and how he and his longtime collaborator Robert Richardson would make the whole thing look. Tarantino's films are events for me, and I think a big part of that is because there is so much of my DNA as a film fan that was formed the same way as it was for him.

Starting with the Comic-Con presentation for the film, though, something else has become important thanks to the emphasis that Tarantino has placed on the 70MM presentation of the movie. After all, he went out of his way to work with Panavision to shoot in a real Ultra Panavision format, and it is so important to the way Tarantino wants the movie seen that he designed an entire special roadshow experience for the 70MM prints of the film.

Just check out the featurette that the Weinstein Company sent out that we've embedded at the top of this story. They have been hyping this as a major part of the experience for months, and based on Tarantino's history, it's clear that he considers film enormously important. One of the reasons he continues to fund the New Beverly Theater in Los Angeles is so there is a revival house that screens actual 35MM prints. Admirable, to say the least.

Tonight was the second major press screening of “The Hateful Eight” in Los Angeles. On Tuesday night, they screened the film at the Linwood Dunn, which is a screening room at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences building on Vine. Great room, and I've seen many films there in the last few years. Wednesday, it screened at both the Linwood Dunn and the Crest in Westwood, which is where I chose to see it. It's been a while since I've seen a film at the Crest, but it was chosen because it was one of very few venues in Los Angeles currently equipped to screen a real 70MM print of something.

We are at a very precarious moment for film, and one of the things that guys like Tarantino and PT Anderson and Christopher Nolan and JJ Abrams hope when they shoot film is that they're helping to keep this particular process alive. When Steven Spielberg shoots “Bridge of Spies on film, he makes a strong case for why film is still the best way to shoot. “Bridge Of Spies” is gorgeous period work. You notice, though, that he never seems to make a big deal out of it. He shoots on film because he's Steven Spielberg, and that's the way he wants it.

Meanwhile, if the studios had their way, they would simply switch over to a universal digital standard and never look back. When Nolan insists on 70MM prints of “Interstellar,” that is not an easy or a cheap thing, and Warner Bros and Paramount did what he asked because of the relationship they have with him. It's important to him, so it becomes important to them. The same thing is true here. Harvey Weinstein doesn't give a shit if 70MM is possible or in use; Quentin Tarantino does.

And if Quentin Tarantino had been at the Crest on Wednesday night, he would have burned the place to the goddamn ground.

Part of loving film prints is accepting that they are imperfect things. When a film print is perfectly projected, it is magic in a way nothing else can be. It's a chemical thing. Light hits celluloid and something happens. One of the best experiences I've ever had in a theater happened at the old Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, the original downtown location. Tarantino brought his own 35MM IB Tech print of “Suspiria,” and Tim League pushed the sound system to its breaking point. The colors that night were so rich it felt like you could step into the screen, and more than it ever has before, it felt like a real nightmare. I have spent my life either worshipping in the house of cinema, looking up at those images thrown up on that screen, and as soon as I was able, I got a job that put me in a theater. I started as an usher, but I quickly worked my way into the projection booth, and I went out of my way to learn everything I could about the process. Building a print, tearing one down, repairing film breaks… all of it was a pleasure for me because it was such a key part of the process. As the projectionist, my job was to make sure that people had the best possible presentation of the film, and I loved that. Even after I stopped working as a projectionist, I've always been fascinated by the various ways people have pushed the boundaries of film projection. When “How The West Was Won” played the Cinerama Dome in full Cinerama, I managed to set up a tour of the booth and a demonstration of the process close-up. It was amazing, and a reminder of just how versatile and amazing film is.

Watching digital projection develop has been interesting. I remember going to every theater in LA that had a DLP system installed for “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” to compare the picture, and walking away convinced we were years away from seeing digital projection that posed any serious threat to film. The 70MM presentation of “The Hateful Eight” tonight was meant to send a clear signal to the film press that was assembled: film is still the very best way to see a movie like this. I know that every single time I see “Lawrence Of Arabia” presented in 70MM, it knocks me flat. And certainly, some of those presentations have been less than perfect. As a print collector, I'm sure Tarantino has seen plenty of prints that are ragged, distressed by time and countless runs through a projector, and that's just part of things. Prints carry history with them; every single break, every build-up or break-down, every imperfection… they are all battle scars, proof of the life of these prints.

Instead of the triumphant demonstration they were hoping for, the presentation of the Crest was a serious disaster. I'm not sure why anyone would stage a screening as significant at this one and not do a tech run-through first, but it happened. There's no way any competent projectionist would have seen what we saw tonight and gone ahead with the screening. There are many reasons tonight could have gone wrong, not least of which is because the projectionist's union that was at full-strength when I moved to LA is no longer in charge of things. One thing that happens when you have dedicated, well-paid, well-trained projectionists in every single booth is that you can expect things to be handled properly, and if there's a problem, you can expect that problem to get fixed. Fast.

From the moment the film began with the OVERTURE card depicting a horse-drawn carriage riding through snow in front of a stylized mountain range, Ennio Morricone's big lush score creeping in, there was a problem. The carriage was in the center of the screen, towards the lower third of the image, and right there, almost framing the carriage, was a soft-focus spot that kept dilating in and out of focus.

The film played for two hours, until the intermission, and nothing changed. For the entire thing, that maddening focus issue continued. When the lights came up, I heard several people talking about it, puzzled why no one seemed to be doing anything about it. Eventually, someone announced that they would be showing the second half of the film via digital projection because the 70MM was no longer working.

How embarrassing is that?

You have this movie that is being sold in large part on the visual experience that only Ultra Panavision 70 can deliver. And on the night you're showing it to press that is going to be responsible for spreading the word about what an indispensable part of the experience the special 70MM projection is… it fails. And whether it's the fault of the theater or the projectionist, the studio is still responsible for making sure that the film they're screening is given the best possible chance to impress.

Here's the really awful part, the thing that I feel bad writing: once they switched over to the digital projection, it looked better. And not just in that one out-of-focus spot, either. Robert Richardson has done some of the best work of his career while working with Tarantino, and looking at the film's second half, we were given a reference-copy look at Richardson's work. Because the 70MM lens was simply not working right, that overall softness could not communicate the rich burnished-leather look of the film. In the fuzzy first half, many of the details of Minnie's Haberdashery, the isolated mountain roadhouse where most of the film takes place, were lost in that vaguely focused background. In the second half, it felt like you could explore every corner of that amazing set, and it also brought all of those great faces into sharp focus. It really was night and day in all the most important ways.

To be fair, I talked with three people who attended the Linwood Dunn screenings on both nights, and they said the 70MM presentation there was terrific. But saying that only underlines just how off the Crest's presentation was. Digital has plenty of its own potential pitfalls. I remember sitting through a press screening of Steven Soderbergh's “Che,” and at one point, we reached a scene where there was an American speaking English who visits Che, and there were no subtitles. Since the first half of the film had been subtitled, I thought it was a stylistic choice. “Oh, I see. We're supposed to feel like the American who is visiting them, since he probably doesn't speak Spanish.” Nope. Somehow, the digital projector just stopped reading the subtitles, and after they tried to fix it for a full half-hour, they cancelled the screening.

But that screening wasn't set up to dazzle us with the virtues of digital projection. Tonight's screening was designed to make all of us walk out and proclaim, “Drive as far as you have to, but make sure you see 'The Hateful Eight' in a theater that's playing the 70MM roadshow version. And unfortunately, because most theaters and theater projectionists working right now have no practical experience with 70MM, I suspect ours will not be the only ruined screening, nor will it be the only one where they switch over to the digital back-up instead of screening the film print.

Obviously, one press screening of one movie is not enough to cause the entire industry to suddenly make a unilateral decision that shooting and releasing on film is impossible, but I guarantee that other studios are paying attention to see what kind of headache they can expect if they also tried to shoot and release a film in Ultra Panavision. And each one of these moments pushes the entire industry a little bit closer to film being nothing more than a fetish. In the most recent season of “Project Greenlight,” one of the main ongoing battles for filmmaker Jason Mann was that he really, really, really wanted to shoot on film. And in the end, after much arguing with Effie Brown, the film's producer, he got his wish. And in the end, it made no difference.

It is going to be more and more difficult to get a studio to agree to this kind of thing, and if they don't have to do it, they aren't going to do it. They are not going to give in to requests to shoot on film unless it can be demonstrated that film is reliable and cost-efficient. They're going to take the path of least resistance, and even if they do allow a filmmaker to shoot on film, they're really going to have a problem finding screens that are dedicated to film where there are projectionists who are trained to deal with it.

I wish Tarantino all the best with the film, and I'll have my review of it for you on December 21st. But what happened tonight felt like a pivot point for a larger conversation, and it seems doubly ironic that a filmmaker so devoted to actual film would end up inadvertently giving ammunition to those in the industry who are ready to completely abandon the format.

One screening of “The Hateful Eight” may not determine the entire eventual fate of film, but it certainly sent a message.

And besides… it's already happened at least one other time…


“The Hateful Eight,” the eighth movie from Quentin Tarantino, will be in select theaters on Christmas Day.

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