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Music Box offers first 70mm fest, thanks to ‘The Master’

Gary Lockwood (left) Keir Dulle'2001: A Space Odyssey'

Gary Lockwood (left) and Keir Dullea in "2001: A Space Odyssey"

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When: Friday through Feb. 28

Where: Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport

Tickets: $9.25; pass, $70


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Updated: March 16, 2013 6:07AM

The Music Box owes its first-ever 70mm Film Festival to a bit of serendipity set into motion by Paul Thomas Anderson.

The festival, which opens Friday and runs through Feb. 28 at the historic movie house, offers cinephiles a rare opportunity to see nine classic films projected in the 70mm format. Among the titles: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), recently named the best film of all time in the British Sight & Sound poll; Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968); Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise’s “West Side Story” (1961), and Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” (1967).

But the film that made it all possible is “The Master,” which Anderson decided to shoot in 65mm. In the pre-digital era, most films intended for theatrical release were made in the 35mm format, and in the late ’40s and ’50s, in part to combat the advent of television, the 70mm-era began. (“70mm” is a misnomer: frames are 65mm, with the remaining 5mm devoted to sound data.) Though filmmakers have rapidly moved to digital, some directors prefer actual celluloid, and 70mm offers maximum visual clarity.

The Oscar-nominated “The Master,” a fictionalized drama inspired by the origins of Scientology, was the first major U.S. studio release in 16 years to be filmed entirely in 65mm. (The last was Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version of “Hamlet.”) Because of its cost, the format has fallen out of favor.

Like Anderson, Doug McLaren, the Music Box’s chief projectionist, loves 70mm. “It has such a brighter, sharper image, free of the image distortion sometimes seen in 35mm wide-screen formats,” he said. “There’s always a wow factor.” It’s the theatrical equivalent of Blu-ray, “only times 20. There’s a big difference. When you look at the frames, you can fit four 35mm images in the space of one 70mm.”

The Music Box is one of the few remaining U.S. movie houses equipped for 70mm projection. So when Anderson’s reps asked Music Box programmers if they would like to present “The Master” in a sneak preview before the film’s commercial release last September, they jumped at the chance.

“Over the summer, when people were getting wind of ‘The Master’ coming out, we also were getting a lot of questions from fans about it, because they knew we are the only [local cinema] that shows 70mm,” said McLaren, who also is the lead programmer of the 70mm Film Festival. “So then we got a call from Paul Thomas Anderson’s team asking us if we wanted to screen it before it was released, and we said yes, of course.”

Tickets for that screening in late August were quickly snapped up. Meanwhile, the film’s distributor, the Weinstein Co., decided to release “The Master” just in 35mm for the Chicago market.

“Fans were disappointed that they couldn’t see ‘The Master’ in 70mm here, and we spent a lot of time and money getting ready for [the August sneak preview],” McLaren said. “It went so well that we thought we should capitalize on it.”

And thus the Music Box’s first-ever 70mm Film Festival was born. One of its anchors naturally is “The Master,” which will be screened Feb. 22-23 and Feb. 25.

“It wasn’t in the cards for us to show it last fall,” McLaren said. “Paul Thomas Anderson wanted it here. But the Landmark Century [where ‘The Master’ first opened in Chicago] has more screens. We’re a calendar house, and we book far in advance. But we always planned on showing ‘The Master’ in 70mm at some time in the future. And here it is.”

With that booked, the rest of the fest fell quickly into place. “There are so many great 70mm prints out there,” McLaren said. “For instance, ‘2001’ is now available in a new print. We decided to program around it. ‘Vertigo,’ because it recently unseated ‘Citizen Kane’ in the Sight & Sound poll, was a lock when we were putting the list together. It was No. 3 in our lineup behind ‘The Master’ and ‘2001.’”

Another must was “Playtime.” “It’s just such a fantastic movie,” he said. “I couldn’t conceive of a 70mm festival without it. Paul Thomas Anderson has said that one of the reference points for ‘The Master’ was ‘Playtime.’ Plus, I’m a huge fan of ‘Hamlet,’ because anybody who has the guts to make a movie longer [in running time] than a stage production and shoot it in 70mm is my hero.”

The Music Box also will screen rare 70mm shorts, including “The March of Todd AO,” before the festival’s features.

McLaren hopes to make the festival an annual event, even though 70mm is now a virtually obsolete format. “I would love it if everyone would shoot in 70mm, but it’s going to be marginalized or reserved for very special projects,” he said. “I’m still hoping it will stick around.”

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