By Ben Kenigsberg
LOS ANGELES — When Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” is released in a special roadshow version (with overture, intermission and additional footage) on Dec. 25, it will represent a feat worthy of the heist in the director’s “Jackie Brown.”
The film is scheduled to open on 96 screens in the United States and four in Canada, all in 70-millimeter projection, a premium format associated with extravaganzas of the 1950s and 1960s.
Yet from a theatrical standpoint, the technology is nearly obsolete. Last year, “Interstellar” opened in 70 millimeter at only 11 comparable locations. There were only 16 in 2012 for “The Master,” which renewed interested in the format. No film has opened with 100 70-millimeter prints since 1992. According to the National Association of Theater Owners, 97 percent of the 40,000 screens in the United States now use digital projection.
Over a period of a year and a half, the Weinstein Company, which will distribute the film, arranged for old projectors to be procured, purchased and refurbished and new lenses to be made for theaters.
“The charge that we got from Weinstein was that we needed to be prepared to do 100 screens,” said Chapin Cutler, a founder of Boston Light & Sound, the company hired to find and assemble the projectors.
Mr. Cutler said that the hunt began in January and continued through September. (The Weinstein Company plans to release a full list of theaters Thursday or Friday. The film is also currently facing calls for a police boycott because of Mr. Tarantino’s recent remarks about police violence.) Mr. Cutler discovered some worn-out machines in theaters and bought others from service companies. Some projectors dated to the 1950s. Gears, shafts, bearings and rollers had to be replaced, or in some cases the pieces had to be manufactured anew, based on original blueprints.
“We looked around for anybody who was selling them,” said Erik Lomis, Weinstein’s president of theatrical distribution and home entertainment. “We tried to keep it as quiet as possible as to why. Eventually word leaked out why we were looking for them, and then the price went up.”
Both Mr. Lomis and Mr. Cutler declined to comment on what the undertaking cost. Justin Dennis, the principal engineer at Kinora, a Chicago company that specializes in movie theater installations, noted the difficulty of setting a price for equipment that is no longer manufactured. He hazarded that he might charge $60,000 to $80,000 per screen to get the system up and running, not counting any costs for labor at the theater.
“We’ve been accused of actually cornering the market on 70-millimeter projectors,” Mr. Cutler said. “It’s probably pretty true. There probably aren’t too many out there that we didn’t find.” Most of them were destroyed, he added, during the conversion to digital projection.
“The Hateful Eight” is not just any 70-millimeter movie: It is only the 10th feature to make full use of shooting in Ultra Panavision, an extra-wide format, but it will actually have the technology’s largest opening in terms of screen numbers. Dan Sasaki, vice president of optical engineering at Panavision, said his company manufactured “basically a lens a day” during the production to retrofit its long-dormant technology.
The lenses produce an extremely wide image. Think of midcentury films like “Ben-Hur” or “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Before “The Hateful Eight,” the last Ultra Panavision feature was “Khartoum” in 1966.
Ultra Panavision is perhaps best-known among cinephiles for its unusual dimensions: It has an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, which means that the image has 2.76 feet of width for every foot of height. (By contrast, most American movies are projected at 1.85:1 or 2.39:1.) Mr. Cutler said there would be space at the top and bottom of most of the screens that show “The Hateful Eight.”
Ultra Panavision also produces subtle aesthetic effects, unusual even to viewers familiar with 70 millimeter. The lens “for lack of a better word is a softer lens,” Mr. Sasaki said. During a screening of test footage for the film, he pointed out the impressionistic qualities of the focus and explained how the image catered to our eyes’ natural depth cues.
With projectors found and lenses made, the next hurdle is labor: Most theaters no longer have projectionists with a working knowledge of these machines. Mr. Cutler’s company will provide training for each site. “One way or the other, we will fulfill this need,” he said. “It will be a combination of house staff that we can train, professional projectionists that we can bring in, projectionists that we can find locally, and potentially some technical staff that we’ll bring in.” Every theater showing the film will get a spare set of belts, fuses and light bulbs, and instructions. Mr. Cutler’s staff will also be standing by for calls.
One consequence of the acquisition campaign is that the Weinstein Company is now probably the largest owner of 70-millimeter projectors in the country, with 120 complete systems. But the installations for “The Hateful Eight” are temporary. When the movie expands its release in January, the added theaters will mostly use digital projection, Mr. Lomis said, although some of the 70-millimeter sites may continue their runs.
“I don’t think this would be the time to comment on what we’re going to do with the equipment afterwards,” he said. “Certainly we would be listening to offers.”
Such offers may not be entirely far-fetched. Mr. Sasaki noted a quiet uptick in interest in shooting on large-format celluloid in the last five years. “Oddly enough, there’s been this resurgence,” he said, pointing to “Jurassic World,” which used 65-millimeter film in certain shots.
For Mr. Sasaki, the possibilities are gratifying. “What Quentin Tarantino did is amazing,” he said. “He built up this infrastructure which is going to open up the floodgates for potential use.”