70mm festival closes tonight with Playtime
The Music Box's 70mm series concludes tonight with Playtime at 7:30pm. Although the fest's opening days were plagued by technical problems—a pink print of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; a canceled screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey due to cracks in the audio discs; sound missing from reel five of Lord Jim, leading to the cancelation of a second show—the event as a whole should go down as a major success. Certainly that's been the case in terms of attendance, with seven screenings officially declared sold out. Music Box rep Buck LePard e-mailed that as of this afternoon, the theater had sold more than 6,900 tickets for the 23 shows.
What of the technical difficulties? Remember that 70mm is a borderline-obsolete format. Prior to The Master, it had been 16 years since a fiction feature was released for that kind of presentation. The Music Box is the last theater in town that's 70mm-capable—and many cities no longer have such venues at all. Two projectionists separately told me that the 70mm print of Playtime in the series is the only one that circulates. (I haven't yet heard back from Janus Films, the distributor.) It was one of the less impressive prints shown, more scratched than the (same?) one I saw around New Year's 2005. But the economic incentive to strike a fresh version is low. Figures vary on the cost of a 70mm print, but allowing a conservative estimate of $13,000—and considering the relatively small number of venues that can still show wide-gauge celluloid—one becomes sympathetic to the idea that retros of this nature must make do with what they can get.
Head projectionist Doug McLaren says that while improved picture and sound were a bonus, the chief reason the theater recalibrated its projectors before the series was to avoid damaging rare prints. At a comparable 70mm series in New York in December, I watched a scratched, Swedish-subtitled copy of Cheyenne Autumn that had missing footage at one of the reel changes. A screening of My Fair Lady reportedly encountered difficulties of its own. Relative to what can happen with problematic materials, the Music Box's setbacks were minor (and apart form Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, almost entirely sound-related). 70mm is a great technology. Let's hope it's preserved for future generations.