The 70mm roadshow release of The Hateful Eight filled me with dread.
It sounded great - Quentin Tarantino announced he would shoot and release his new film in a defunct format, and The Weinstein Company launched a plan to install restored 70mm projectors in some 100-odd theaters across the U.S. Audiences who turned out for this special release would be treated to not just a longer cut of the film, but an experience - a day at the movies that harkened back to the epic releases of the '50s and '60s, complete with overture, intermission and a souvenir program. Tarantino was taking his fetishism of cinema’s past and extending it all the way to your seat in the theater, promising the kind of movie event not experienced in decades. Hot shit; sign me the hell up.
Then the press screenings happened.
During two press screenings - one in New York, one in Los Angeles - the 70mm presentation hit some technical problems, causing large delays, and in LA’s case the remainder of the film was screened digitally. While experts and pundits all debated what this meant for the ambitious roadshow release, I was confident in one thing: I was fucked. I live in a small town in New Jersey, just outside Philadelphia. Give or take an Exhumed Films or an Awesome Fest, Philly does not embrace this sort of thing. Our newly restored arthouse theater opened with Saving Mr. Banks. I had no hopes that Philly would be screening The Hateful Eight in 70mm.
It sucks for small towns when these events don’t make it out to them, but it’s incredibly frustrating to be in a relatively large city and miss out on the cool stuff. Why do I commute in shitty traffic every day if we aren’t going to get things the suburbs don’t? I can’t go to Independence Hall every damn day. Sigh. No, if I was going to see the film as Tarantino intended, I was going to have to work for it. But that’s not the worst thing in the world, is it? Back in the '80s and '90s, the thrill of the hunt was part of my cinephilia, and sometimes I drove 50 miles or more to see a film. I quietly started making plans to head to New York or DC to catch the film.
Imagine my shock at seeing FOUR Philly-area theaters listed on the 70mm screening list: one in South Philly, a theater where a guy got shot for talking during Benjamin Button; one in nearby King Of Prussia, next to a high-end mall; one in Bensalem, a suburb 20 minutes to the north; and the fourth was in Cherry Hill, NJ. I could walk there from my house. Holy crap.
A new fear crept in as I started thinking about those botched press screenings. There are but a handful of theaters accustomed to screening 70mm in the US - a couple in LA, The Music Box in Chicago, the AFI Silver in DC. There is not one theater in the Philly area that inspires confidence that they’ll be prepared to run a (let’s be honest, hastily restored) antique piece of film equipment. Here in the Illadelph it’s a blessing when they remember to turn down the house lights, and it’s a small miracle when they bother taking off the 3D polarizing filters that dim the image by a significant percentage. Call me a Negative Nelly, but there was no way Philly was getting this right.
Theatrical screenings in the suburbs eat at me. It's more than just a bad movie experience. Front to back, going to see a movie in a shitty suburban multiplex brings to the surface a lot of feelings about how we're just getting worse as a culture. Loud talking to the screen, or about what's on the screen, or about matters altogether unrelated. Babies in R-rated movies. A dozen cell phones out texting at any given time. Absolute shit presentation. That'll be 30 dollars, please. It puts me in a mood. The "pearls before swine" scenario of this special event being undone by all the usual multiplex horribleness made my stomach hurt. But I knew I was going to put myself through it anyway, because I hate myself. My plan: monitor social media during the first screenings and see what the word on the street was regarding the local theaters. I would be out of town on Christmas anyway, so country-wide this first wave of moviegoers would throw themselves on the opening day grenades for the rest of us. We honor those soldiers on this day.
Looks like the HATEFUL EIGHT print melted at Pacific Place tonight.— matt lynch (@colonelmortimer) December 25, 2015
Best part of the broken 70MM projector/Hateful 8 print at King of Prussia? The snide theater manager "This is why we don't do film."— Dissecting The 80s (@Dissectamania) December 26, 2015
What the hell was going on? When they installed these projectors, was there any training in running them? Or were skittish managers adopting a zero tolerance policy and immediately switching to digital at the first sign of trouble? The King of Prussia manager’s response was especially worrisome. Customers had been promised a special event, and the venue’s response had an unmistakable air of “this is what you get for expecting more” to it. Suddenly Drew McWeeny’s post-press screening editorial about the fate of film had a whole lot more merit to it.
The big surprise for me was that the “nice” theater at King Of Prussia toppled so damn early. I’ve had miserable experiences at all three other local theaters, and had purchased tickets to the King Of Prussia theater. That’s a one-hour drive, and I’d wrongly bet on them being the best chance to see the film as intended. They roached their print an hour after I purchased tickets. Conversely, reports from the crappy theater near my house confirmed that they were pretty much keeping it together over there. I exchanged my tickets online, and headed over, putting myself into a state of zen pragmatism, figuring I’d stand up and leave at the first sign of technical mishap.
That moment never came. About a minute before the scheduled start time, the overture began. The audience (some drifting in late, no doubt accustomed to 20 minutes of trailers) quietly found their seats and mercifully went silent. The film started and we were watching a Western, filmed in Ultra Panavision 70, projected on film (I’ve never been so happy to see a small scratch on a print) and scored by Ennio Morricone. The next three hours were thrilling and tense and hilarious and exhilarating.
Devin’s review wonderfully details what’s so great about the film, but I’ll double down on just a couple of things. When Devin likens the film to the live television dramas of the '50s, he’s really onto something. Tarantino is using the large format not to convey an epic scope (though the three-hour film stops to do just that here and there), but as a way to reintroduce the raw intimacy of old programs like Playhouse 90 or General Electric Theater, where early adopters of the Method went for broke in harrowing close-up. It had a shocking, in your face immediacy to it, and Tarantino replicates it with an unlikely set of tools. (The 70mm also opens his frame the hell up, and you can whine that the movie doesn't have enough vistas, but every interior shot in this movie is an aesthetic joy to behold, purposefully placing characters and doling out information masterfully.) The “new” format seemed to make the theater rise to the occasion; I’ve seen no shortage of poor digital presentation at this theater, but whoever was inside that projection booth was stewarding us the sharpest picture I’ve seen in a local theater in years.
Of course, there’s much more to geek out over than presentation. Kurt Russell has said of Tarantino “there’s only one of him,” and when I watch the director’s films I almost preemptively mourn the day we don’t get any more movies from him. I’ve seen causal comments calling The Hateful Eight “more of the same” from Tarantino, and I have to enthusiastically disagree. While the film’s drawing room mystery claustrophobia might recall the director’s Reservoir Dogs, under the surface there’s something else going on entirely. The Spaghetti Westerns of guys like Sergio Sollima, Enzo Castellari, and especially Sergio Corbucci really wore their politics on their sleeves and it’s here (more so than the plot or the visuals) that The Hateful Eight feels like a direct descendant of those great Italian films. But instead of a blunt sociopolitical screed along the lines of The Great Silence or Run, Man, Run, Tarantino serves up a pissed-off, unsubtle call to arms against 2015’s police state. If cops weren’t so busy boycotting this movie, they’d find something inside it to get REALLY pissed off about. Walton Goggins, the absolute MVP of the film, at one point says “when niggers are scared, white folks feel safe.” I do hope that moment of the film makes its way to the boycotting cops.
On the night before Christmas, Tarantino gave this interview along with Paul Thomas Anderson (whose The Master similarly “wrongly used” 70mm to tell an intimate, close-up heavy tale). In the interview below, which is super worth your time, Tarantino mentions wanting to create an excitement on both sides of the transaction. He wants the audience to be excited about being part of a genuine event; mission accomplished there. But he also wants exhibitors to be excited about “not just renting you a seat”, and it’s here where there’s clearly more work to be done. Because anecdotally at least, more than a few theaters seem to have greedily agreed to take part in a promise which they were unequipped and/or uninterested in delivering, and greeted customers’ disappointment with frustration and deception.
That said, I have to give full credit to whoever it was at my local theater (The AMC in Cherry Hill, NJ) who seemed to understand the event Tarantino was trying to create. Someone at that theater genuinely “got it” and put in the required effort, and I want to thank them. From the excited ticket taker who asked us “do you have your programs yet??” before finding them for us, to the uncharacteristically respectful audience, everything Tarantino hoped for with this roadshow release came together in that theater and gave me my best theatrical experience of the year - maybe of the decade. I advise you to pay attention to your local showings - don’t give them your money if they’re swapping out a DCP when you paid to see 70mm - but if you’re able, and your local theater is able, make the effort to take part in this event that Tarantino has attempted to create for you.