Why last night's Music Box screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey was canceled, and why tonight's is back on
Last night, Music Box general manager Dave Jennings delivered awful news to a nearly sold-out crowd. Due to cracks in the audio discs that had arrived with the evening's 70mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the showing would have to be canceled.
This wasn't the fault of celluloid, Jennings emphasized, but a technology invented in the early '90s. As compensation, the theater—handling the situation extremely well—ran a free digital screening of Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise. But one scotched showtime wasn't the end of the bad news. Jennings said unless the Music Box could track down functioning audio for 2001 in the next 24 hours (which seemed unlikely, given that it might have to be shipped), the Saturday screening would have to be canceled as well.
And then, at 5:30pm today, the Music Box tweeted that it was "very, very very pleased" to announce tonight's 9pm screening would proceed as scheduled. Exchanging my ticket about an hour ago, I bumped into head projectionist Doug McLaren (who'd run down for a quick coffee during the screening of Lord Jim) and projection specialist Justin Dennis, who had recalibrated the Music Box's equipment specifically for the 70mm festival. I proceeded to grill them on how they pulled it off.
Here, as succinctly as possible, is why last night's screening was canceled—and why, assuming everything goes to plan, you should give anyone who works at the Music Box a very firm handshake tonight.
1) This print of 2001: A Space Odyssey is brand-new—until now, it's only screened twice. And, as has been standard for 70mm prints manufactured since the early '90s, it has DTS sound. This means that instead of a magnetic soundtrack that runs alongside the image, it has a data strip that's read by an optical scanner and synched with CDs that arrive with the film.
2) Movies are sent with multiple sets of CDs, and each venue chooses the set most optimal to its particular sound configuration. But in the case of 2001, two of the six discs accompanying the film arrived shattered—crushed in transit with the heavy reels. The distributor had sent three separate two-disc sets. One of those sets was incompatible with the Music Box's equipment; the other two were fine. You need a Disc A and a Disc B to play 2001. Fortunately, between the two compatible sets, the theater had one functional copy each of Disc A and Disc B.
3) A power outage in the neighborhood that also delayed showtimes for the evening prevented the theater from testing the discs until the 6:30pm screening of Vertigo had started. And in an unwelcome surprise, it turned out that encryption wouldn't allow the theater's audio player to run a Disc A and a Disc B from separate sets. This is why, as Jennings had announced, this was an issue related to digital technology and not celluloid.
4) Today, in what sounds like a heroic effort, the theater tracked down a new audio player compatible with the third set of discs—the only set that had an A and a B intact. Installing the new player required rewiring the theater's sound system. Dennis says it's not yet clear as to whether they'll have to rewire between showings of 2001 or whether they can just leave the new setup in place. As of 6:30pm, McLaren told me they were in the final stages of testing and that tonight's screening looked like a go.
If it isn't, we'll have only HAL 9000 to blame.
Update, 2:19am: The film played as scheduled.