2001: A Space Odyssey 
A second festival of film formats begins at the Somerville Theatre
In September 2016 the Somerville Theatre hosted its first annual 70mm and Widescreen Festival, dedicating nearly two weeks to film screenings projected via high-resolution analog formats. And for evidence of its apparent success, one need only take note of the theater’s latest purchase: As announced on its Facebook page last week, the Somerville Theatre will be commissioning a new 70mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey , to be struck for the theater’s own exclusive use. That print will be ready in time for the third annual 70mm and Widescreen Festival, in 2018—which, it just so happens, will coincide with the 50th anniversary of 2001.
“We chose 2001 because number one, when I think of 70mm film, it has to be one of the top three titles that you think of,” explained Ian Judge, director of operations for the Somerville Theatre (he’s also the head programmer of the 70mm and Widescreen Festival, though he notes it’s a “group effort” among the theater’s staff, including “essential” input from head projectionist David Kornfeld). We spoke in the Somerville’s main auditorium last week, right after the 2001 announcement. “That, and Lawrence of Arabia ,” he continued. “We played those titles last year, and we’re playing them both again this year.” On that note, this year’s iteration of the 70mm and Widescreen Festival begins tonight, opening with screenings of The Agony and the Ecstasy  (Sept 20 at 7:30 pm) and Lawrence of Arabia (Sept 21 at 7 pm, Sept 23 at noon). The 2017 fest continues until Oct 1, when it will conclude, appropriately, with 2001 (Oct 1, 7:30 pm)—a relatively older 70mm print, of course, given that the Somerville’s own won’t be ready until next year. Regarding that commissioned 2001 print, Judge continued on: “And let’s face it: It’s also a moneymaker! It’s a movie that has a demand to be seen in that format.”
Moneymakers have always been intrinsic to the 70mm format, which in America has mostly been utilized for the sake of high-budget genre films (historical epics, action blockbusters, and adventure stories, to be specific). For the 2016 festival, the Somerville showcased 70mm’s most storied run: More than half of the movies played last year were made in the late ’50s and early ’60s, representing the first wave of American studio films that were both shot and released in the format. The 2017 festival will include a few movies from that era—Agony, Lawrence, and Cleopatra  (Sept 28, 7 pm), along with 35mm screenings of North by Northwest  (Oct 1, 1 pm) and Vertigo  (Oct 1, 4 pm). But for the most part, this year’s program is focused on another part of 70mm film history: Eight of the 15 movies in the 2017 festival were made between 1982 and 1993. They span across the aforementioned genres, including historical epics (Gettysburg , Sept 29, 7 pm), action blockbusters (The Untouchables , Sept 24, 7 pm; Days of Thunder , Sept 25, 7:30 pm), and adventure narratives (The Dark Crystal , Sept 22 at 7:30 pm, Sept 24 at 1 pm; Hook , Sept 24, 3:30 pm); and they also range from the lasting financial successes of the era (Top Gun , Sept 27, 7:30 pm) all the way down to the film that may be its most notorious economic failure (Howard the Duck , Sept 22, 9:45 pm). They’re each connected, however, by one particular formal quality: All eight were originally shot on 35mm formats and were then “blown up” to 70mm for limited specialty releases, which were marketed on the basis of increased resolution and remarkably superior sound quality (the blown-up 70mm prints featured six-track analog sound, which the respective film’s 35mm prints could not replicate).
“I wanted to focus on something a little different this year,” Judge told me. “We’ll probably return to more of a ‘classic’ form next year, but you’ve got to mix it up. Aside from 2001 and Lawrence—which people will come to see all the time—you’ve got to give people a reason to come back right away … They may not want to see West Side Story  every year … they may not want to see It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World  every year … so what do you put in its place? And there’s certainly a limited amount of 70mm titles in general. The good news is that during the ’80s, so many films were blown up to it for the sound and everything else.”
To say that “there’s certainly a limited amount of 70mm titles in general” seems, if anything, to be a significant understatement. Contemporary films do occasionally get 70mm rollouts, if the director has the necessary clout (Dunkirk , The Hateful Eight ) or if the studio has the desire to do so (10 70mm prints of Wonder Woman  were struck this summer, for instance; one of them will play at the Somerville on Sept 26, 7:30 pm). But older films are rarely exhibited or reprinted in the format, giving this festival its whole raison d’être. Which is also to say that once these prints are gone, they can be gone for good. And that kind of disappearance happens suddenly, which is something the Somerville team knows all too well. They had to cancel a planned 70mm screening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan  last year once the distributing studio deemed the lone print unplayable. And this year, they ruled out Chitty Chitty Bang Bang  because the only available 70mm print had faded to an extent that made it not worth showing. In some cases, the prints are lost to “natural causes,” like color fading. But in other cases, the damage is more preventable. As Judge says himself, all it takes is one ill-equipped projection booth to irreparably damage a print. And given the way that digital technology has nearly eradicated the proliferation of analog screening materials—as well as the very craft of film projection on the nationwide level—the risk that such damage will cause rare exhibition prints to go completely extinct is almost certainly on the upswing.
Part of the reason new 70mm prints of 2001 can be struck is because the film’s stature has ensured its careful preservation. But that’s the exception, hardly the rule. With regards to most other films originally released in the format, the 70mm prints currently in circulation are quite possibly the last ones that will ever be played. And for even more evidence that the opportunity to see specific films in the 70mm format may be quickly expiring, Judge gave yet another example, which was linked to the main focus of this year’s programming: One of the most well-regarded ’80s action films to ever receive the 70mm blow-up treatment may never be seen in that format again. “We wanted to book The Road Warrior  this year,” he told me, “but the [70mm] print was mangled by the last place that played it. So that print is not in circulation anymore. You face things like that.”
THE 70MM AND WIDESCREEN FILM FESTIVAL. 9.20–10.1. SOMERVILLE THEATRE, 55 DAVIS SQUARE, SOMERVILLE. $15 PER FILM, WITH SOME MATINEES AT $12. VISIT SOMERVILLETHEATRE.COM FOR COMPLETE SCHEDULE AND SHOWTIMES. ALL SHOWTIMES GIVEN ABOVE ARE FOR MOVIES SCREENING VIA 70MM UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.