“Faith, Hope & Chariots”: Programming Widescreen Weekend
A personal review of Widescreen Weekend 2019.
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The 70mm Newsletter
|Written and photographed by: Mark Trompeteler, UK||Date: 08.11.2019|
|Professor Sir Christopher Frayling’s above amusing riff on the biblical quotation, “Faith, Hope and Charity” – that he used in his introduction to the 1959 version of "Ben-Hur", - in some ways summarises the challenges and opportunities of programming Widescreen Weekend. For the past 23 years cinema enthusiasts, cinema exhibition professionals, film critics, authors, and academics have travelled from very many countries, including the USA and Australia, to attend this annual event. This event celebrates the spectacle, technology, legacy and culture of large format and widescreen cinema. The projection equipment in the three screen complex at the UK’s National Science & Media Museum, in Bradford, allows delegates to enjoy films in 35mm. and 70mm. analogue film, 2K and 4K Digital Cinema, Digital Imax, and three strip Cinerama. It really is a very rare and very special cinema exhibition complex, and delegates travel to view films in ALL these formats in the space of three to four days.|
The word Chariots indicates how the programmers continue to include epics, the old roadshow movies and the more modern large scale tent pole movies as part of the programme. These both showcase the advantages of the plethora of premium large formats that cinema culture has given us over the years, as well as giving the audience’s existing demographic the kind of classic and modern films they like to see. This element of the programming might also possibly draw in a new audience to see such movies as they were intended to be seen on both a flat and a curved screen. The weekend was bookended by two such films, the screening of a 70mm. film print of “Ready Player One” on the flat screen on opening night, with the 1959 epic “Ben Hur” in a 4K DCP version on the curved screen on the closing night. In between came “The Sound of Music” and “West Side Story” both on 70mm. film on the curve, with Kenneth Branagh’s "Murder on the Orient Express" filmed on modern 70mm. film emulsion and projected in 70mm, perhaps not my favourite version of the story – the print looked immaculate and pristine on the flat screen. Also screened was a digital presentation of “Ice Station Zebra.” In the smaller Broccoli cinema, 35mm. film prints featured in screenings of “Barabbas” and “Gladiator.” Imax screenings included the interesting pairing of “First Man” and the feature documentary "Apollo 11" which features newly discovered immaculate 70mm. footage that raises the impact and veracity of the well known footage. It does this to the extent that it launches this documentary way above the others that cover the subject. Presented in Imax it is a very powerful feature documentary.
If ever there was a brilliant demonstration of the immense value of the restoration and preservation work that Dave Strohmaier and his team have successfully completed in saving the three strip Cinerama travelogues from decaying into oblivion, - this weekend featured it. As many already know it was the 1952 three strip Cinerama process that was the impressive catalyst that sparked the widescreen cinema revolution. It is for the general cinema public today a largely forgotten and unknown format – but weekend regular contributor, Dave, has made it a personal mission to save this cinema legacy.
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Widescreen Weekend, Bradford, England
Widescreen Weekend 2019
|A screening of the first half of the museum’s three strip celluloid archive print of “South Seas Adventure” in its faded condition, followed, after the intermission, by the screening of the second half of the new digitally restored version, fully demonstrated how successful and valuable restoration work can be, and was a tribute to Strohmaier and his team’s work, executed on very limited budgets. A little related to this was a fascinating earlier weekend discussion on the history and the ethics of colourisation in cinema. All the programming as above seems to keep Faith with the regular audience that the weekend attempts to have return year after year. |
Programming can also be key to building new audiences and to driving ticket sales. For the past two or three years programming new strands into the weekend indicates a Hope to build up a new younger and more diverse audience, to add the existing one. Interesting developments include the embedding of the strand “Celluloid Saturday” – to my mind an excellent idea that rests easily within the traditional weekend fare – whereby every film screened across the cinemas on Saturday is an analogue celluloid print. The addition of a day pass to attend just this one day – provides an opportunity for cinemagoers who have only ever heard of traditional film and traditional projectors, but who have never experienced them, – to dovetail into the existing longer staying audience, and attend for just Saturday at a modest comparable cost. In this strand, this year, were such films as “Forrest Gump,” “Carmen Jones,” and “Pulp Fiction” which featured alongside the other celluloid film prints mentioned above.
|Thematic strands across this year’s weekend criss-crossed the screening schedules in abundance. To two of the above titles a 35mm, print of the film “The Haunting” was presented thus making a mini retrospective of Robert Wise within the weekend. Fitting in with the potential interests of more contemporary audiences the massive recent hit of “Black Panther” was programmed to contrast against an earlier superhero fantasy type film “Blade.” Developments right across the film industry to fully reflect and promote women’s contribution to cinema, and women’s issues in society and cinema, also resonated as a strand within the programming. Penny Marshall’s “A League of Their Own” was screened and the film “Effie Gray” highlighted how women had to struggle in Victorian society. Clio Barnard chatted on stage by way of an introduction to her film “The Selfish Giant,” this helped cement a Bradford link to the programme, where parts of the film were shot, supported also by a walking tour of Bradford filming locations, which was also on offer. The contribution of Doris Day to cinema was represented by the showing of two of her films – and modern interpretations acknowledge the importance of the female characters she played in her later films which began to give far more modern representations of working women than had previously been featured in mass popular cinema. One session I attended “Girls On Film - Live”, was the transmission of a live podcast, hosted by the film critic and commentator Anna Smith. The analysis and critique of gender representation and related contextual issues in some classic musical sequences was contemporary, forthright and highly relevant. This was followed by some refreshing audience discussion and debate. It was very worth attending and to my mind deserved a bigger audience.|
It is good to see The Student Widescreen Film of the Year Competition and Award embedded as part of the weekend. It was a pleasure to meet with and talk to the student team from the University of Roehampton who won in the category for the best British entry.
The weekend quite sensibly now frequently offers alternative titles screening in different auditoria, so delegates can have alternatives to films that they may have seen a number of times before or that for some reason they dislike. This coupled with the multiple programming strands across the schedule might lead some to think the offer could appear as a little confusing at times.
As the themes, content and issues raised by the films overtake the interest in the process and the format issues of the films, some may wonder if there is a danger of any focus of the weekend being lost a little. However with such an abundance of choice within the programme, it does allow the delegates to individualise their weekend experience - which is also a strong advantage. At one point I was able to attend the introductory talk to “Barabbas,” then I walked over to hear the extended introduction and talk about Doris Day, and then as soon as the house lights went down there, I went on to the Imax for the introductory talk for “Apollo 11” and its screening.
|The key issue for the weekend is how does it maintain a core identity for the weekend and maintain a common experience for the whole audience, whilst providing opportunities for individualisation and alternatives, without giving the appearance of a little confusion or over complexity to some. Some seemed to comment that the weekend is not the same as it used to be, and it is very different from other related weekend festivals. Surely nothing is ever likely to stay the same for over nearly a quarter of a century, and isn’t it the point that it each film festival be a little different?|
The challenges for the projection team at places like BFI Southbank and The National Science and Media Museum at events like this are immense – a rapid succession of films in different formats, ratios, and from different periods projected over a concentrated short period of time, and some requiring individualised tweaks in projection. All this in front of a highly knowledgeable audience on all aspects of cinema exhibition and projection result in any technical snags or exhibition faults being very quickly noted by some in the audience. Inevitably there was such an instance or two during this weekend. However long gone, it seems, are the former technical breakdowns that used to occur in the weekend that not infrequently pushed the days’ schedule further and further back often resulting in severely limited breaks. One of the main joys of this weekend is to be able spend time sharing drinks, meals and conversations with fellow cinema enthusiasts or industry professionals when films are not being screened.
Even if at first glance audience numbers might not appear to be rising in a spectacular chariot race manner - then if the audience for this special niche event is being maintained at a steady solid level, with people still travelling from many countries, then in these days of competing entertainments and work schedules for busy people, then after 23 years, that is a major achievement in itself. The history, the legacy and the developments associated with this event should ensure that it reaches its 25th anniversary and I hope it goes well beyond that and more.
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