Ten years ago, when digital screenings became the industry norm and cinema operators scrambled to upgrade their projection systems for fear of losing out on major Hollywood releases, John Tutt had a very different perspective.
Back then, the owner of Waterloo’s Princess Cinemas was scrambling to swap the massive, money-sucking, maintenance-heavy, operator-dependent 35-millimetre film projectors that had dominated the industry since 1909 for a pristine digital system that could beam in movies without nicks, scratches or shipping costs.
“You can just start digital and walk away,” he told The Record at the time, decrying the “fussiness” of 35-mm films and need for a seasoned operator. “It’s all automated.”
But 10 years is a long time in a tech-heavy, fast-forward culture that never abandons an entertainment format without a stubborn hub of purists attempting to turn the clock back.
It happened with vinyl.
It happened with cassette tapes and tube TVs (for gaming).
And if the Princess Twin in Waterloo is any indication, it’s happening with film.
“You’re not gonna get the same experience looking at a picture of a Picasso painting on a cellphone as you would standing in a gallery,” points out Tutt’s son, Jacob Tutt, who runs the family’s Playhouse Cinema in Hamilton and is overseeing, with his dad, the installation of two old-school 35-mm projectors at the Twin.
“Even though we’re playing prints, it’s of original material shot on film. It’s the closest thing you can get to an original piece of work.”
It speaks to the times in which we live, where the internet has placed the past and present on equal footing and nothing ever really goes out of style, that a technology considered obsolete a few short years ago would suddenly be making a comeback.
“With digital you think of perfection, getting everything just right,” points out Jacob, who installed two 35-mm projectors in Hamilton’s Playhouse a year ago to supplement digital screenings and watched the audience, mostly youthful, grow exponentially.
“Film is not about that. It’s about something else. It’s a physical thing, an object we can engage with. Think of film as a canvas you paint on.”
Call it The Analog Revolution, a return to the recent past with the imperfections that eleven drove crazy filmgoers now perceived as a badge of authenticity.
“If 62-year-old John could hover above 52-year-old John with knowledge of the future, he would whisper in his ear, ‘Don’t get rid of it! Keep it! People want to see 35!’ Tutt notes of his fateful decision to dump 35-mm projectors a decade ago.
“But a guy on the other shoulder is saying, ‘Get rid of it! It’s a bunch of crap!’ ”
I laugh. “The guy on the other shoulder won out. And they were paying pretty good for scrap copper in those days. We just never thought it was coming back. ”
It was with some irony that the Tutts recently wheeled up to Toronto’s Hot Docs theater to make a “no-cost trade” for the cinema’s 60-year-old workhorse projectors no scrapper would agree to haul away.
“We took them apart and loaded them down, piece by piece, from the third-floor projection booth,” says Jacob. “It took us 20 trips up and down the flight of stairs, one piece at a time. It was exhausting work.”
No one is saying 35-mm film is going to replace the digital disrupter that usurped it.
At best, the Tutts agree, it will become a “museum-quality” alternative, suitable for classics and the kind of art house fare for which the Princess is known.
“There’s the occasional new print that floats around,” says Jacob, who learned to operate 35-mm projectors working at the Princess as a teenager.
“In Hamilton we’re playing a brand-new restoration print of Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Conversation.’ We played ‘The Power of the Dog,’ which is strange because the movie was shot digitally and released on streaming. And the last Marvel movie (‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’) had some 35 prints made, so we’re starting to see a little bit of studio distributor interest.
“But a lot are classics: ‘Labyrinth.’ ‘Pulp Fiction.’ Hitchcock titles. ‘The Shining.’ Whatever we can find.”
With only four theaters in Ontario currently screening 35-mm films, it’s a niche market, like the other niche markets serviced by art house cinemas like The Princess.
“It lines right up with what we offer anyway: film series, foreign films, Canadian cinema, panel discussions,” says John, who envisions 20 to 30 35-mm specialty screenings a year alongside regular digital offerings.
“With anything and everything we do, we have to set ourselves apart from peak blockbuster movie chains. This is just one more arrow in our quiver.”
The move to 35mm won’t happen until late fall, because that’s how long it will take to regrease, restore and revive these near obsolete flicker machines.
“Technology progresses and you never think it’s ever gonna go back,” says Jacob.
“That was the mindset: 35 had served the industry for 100 years, but it wasn’t coming back, so everybody threw out their parts and projectors. The projectors we got out of the Hot Docs theater each weigh 450 pounds. They couldn’t even convince the scrap guys to take them out of their booth.”
Purchasing them was only the first step. To make them operational, they have to track down replacement parts.
“It’s incredibly hard to find them,” says Jacob. “We’re cleaning the projectors up right now and I’m documenting all the parts I’m missing. To do this in Hamilton, I had to get in touch with parts suppliers in Boston and travel north four to five hours to find a collector who had the specific part I was looking for. None are being manufactured anymore.”
In the end, it’s worth it, because the more technology pushes forward, in search of Teflon perfection, the greater the human desire to revisit the tactile, imperfect past.
“Thirty-five mm becomes the domain of the theatrical experience,” agrees Tutt senior, touting the medium’s superior color saturation and tone.
“You can’t replicate it online. You can’t Google a 35 screening. You have to buy a ticket and walk across town and walk to the theatre.”
“Digital will always be here. I’m offering something no other theater can offer. I’m convinced of that.”