Among the many pieces of Star Wars-related history to resurface in the last few weeks was a photo of crowds cramming the sidewalk outside the Sameric theater on Chestnut Street, waiting to see Return of the Jedi in what the marquee proclaimed was "70mm 6-Track Stereo."
Erik Lomis isn't sure whether he was in that line or working inside the theater, but he was there that day, and more than 30 years later, he's working to bring back the nearly obsolete 70mm format, although this time, Star Wars is standing in the way.
The vehicle for 70mm's return is Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, a bloody, profane chamber drama set largely in an isolated Wisconsin haberdashery several years after the end of the Civil War.
The format, which allows for a higher-resolution image than standard 35mm film, gained currency in the 1950s and '60s as Hollywood battled television's increasing hold on audience attentions, and it was typically used for epic spectacles such as Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music. (It is distinct from, though related to, the 70mm IMAX format currently used to show Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the Franklin Institute.)
Further emulating the promotional strategies of a bygone era, The Hateful Eight will have a one-week run from Dec. 24 through 31 in an exclusive 70mm "roadshow" cut with an orchestral overture and (much-needed) intermission. In the Philadelphia area, it will play at the UA Riverview Plaza, AMC Loews Cherry Hill, UA King of Prussia, and AMC Neshaminy.
Tarantino "pitched us this idea 18, 19 months ago," said Lomis, president of theatrical distribution for the Weinstein Co., the film's distributor. Even for a filmmaker fond of grand gestures, it was an extravagant request: He wanted The Hateful Eight to play in 70mm on 100 screens. "Of course, my eyes popped open," Lomis said, "because there weren't 100 theaters that could play 70mm."
Anyone else might have been turned down flat, but Tarantino's relationship with Harvey and Bob Weinstein goes back more than 20 years, to when their former company, Miramax, released a structurally convoluted crime movie called Pulp Fiction to more than $100 million in domestic box office. They made further gambles with Tarantino that paid off, like the epic Kill Bill and the unconventional Grindhouse.
The Hateful Eight, three-quarters of which is set in a single snowbound interior, confounds 70mm's historical association with scenic vistas. Three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson employed the Ultra Panavision 70 process - not used since 1966's Khartoum - to capture an image nearly three times as wide as it is tall, a narrow, sharply defined strip in which Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and the rest of the cast fight to mark their territory. When the arguing threatens to erupt into violence, Kurt Russell's bounty hunter suggests dividing Minnie's Haberdashery along its own version of the Mason-Dixon line: The fireplace will be Georgia, he says, and "the bar is Philadelphia."
A handful of theaters nationwide still screen films in 70mm, although the last Philadelphia release shown in the format was Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet in 1996. Most of the screens belong to art houses or film societies that don't typically show new releases. In 2012, the Weinsteins distributed Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master in 70mm alongside its conventional release. But at its widest, The Master's 70mm version played a mere 14 theaters in the U.S., nowhere near Tarantino's vision for The Hateful Eight.
In order to get to 100 screens, Lomis and his team spent the better part of a year buying and refurbishing old 70mm projectors, choosing venues and custom-making lenses to fit each auditorium.
Then there was the matter of finding projectionists who still knew how to show film in a world where 97 percent of movies are exhibited digitally. In Philadelphia, Lomis reached out to old colleagues from his days as the Sameric Corps.' film buyer. For The Hateful Eight's Las Vegas run, the projectionist will be his brother.
There have been bumps in the road: The list of theaters arrived nearly a month after it was promised, and The Hateful Eight's exclusive 70mm run was cut from two weeks to one. (The digital version, six minutes shorter, will open on Jan. 1.)
Although a representative for the Weinstein Co. says it will try to keep the 70mm run going "as long as possible," the MPAA, which rates movies, has not allowed more than one version of a film to circulate at the same time, and none of the local theaters involved are selling tickets past Dec. 31. (Representatives for AMC and UA did not respond to requests for clarification.)
Is it worth it? Technical experts may argue over which kind of projection is superior, but The Hateful Eight's 70mm version has a lucid quality unlike anything digital projection can achieve. It's not just the sharpness of the image, but something more elusive: In early shots, the sun bouncing off snow-covered mountains has the impossible feel of light pressed between pieces of glass. It's difficult to describe, yet instantly apparent. If you're not sure you've seen 70mm projected before, you probably haven't. It's impossible to forget.
"It immerses you in the film," Lomis says. "If you pay attention, you can see everything that's going on around what you're actually supposed to be watching."
Like vinyl records, which have found a new audience in recent years, film projection has the potential to survive as a niche experience aimed at especially conscious consumers craving something more substantial than digital ephemera.
"We get a significant bump when we're showing something in 35mm," says Andrew Greenblatt, executive director of the Philadelphia Film Society, which screens films at the Roxy and the Prince. "There's always people who just want to see the movie regardless, but film brings out a whole different group of people who are really excited about it."
He is "pleasantly shocked" that The Hateful Eight's roadshow was able to find local venues and hopes it will add momentum to plans to add 70mm capability at the Prince.
As for what will happen to the 70mm projectors, which the Weinstein Co. owns, once The Hateful Eight's run is over, Lomis isn't looking that far ahead yet.
He laughs. "Do you want to buy one?"