If you've followed our film program long enough you know that one of our guiding principles—heck, our pledge to you—is that we will do everything that we can to present works in the best possible format. Occasionally, especially with newer, independently produced and distributed work, this might mean a variety of video formats, including Blu-ray. But for repertory (think classic) titles, we really only consider two formats to be acceptable: DCP (Digital Cinema Package; what most theaters show these days) and actual film. Exceptions (and last-minute emergencies) are inevitable. For instance, during our Terry Zwigoff retrospective in October, we will be showing Bad Santa on Blu-ray because it is the only way the Director's Cut (Zwigoff's preference) is available. We'll also be showing Louie Bluie via digital video, as it's in much better condition than the original 16mm prints. And, during our recent Richard Linklater retrospective, we were worried we would have to show both Tape and Waking Life on DVD, but thankfully, some arm-twisting turned up 35mm prints. Still, in all but the rarest of exceptions, we strive to show rep titles on film or, increasingly DCP.
With this in mind, we were excited to be able to once again show Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm last week. We've shown it twice in the past in 70mm, so we thought we knew what to expect. Instead, we had an unprecedented couple of days that found us exhausting every contact and extracting every last drop of knowledge and experience from our tech team to get it on the screen, even if the first show was delayed by a day.
We were set to show the film on Thursday and Friday, August 28 and 29. The print arrived on Tuesday and upon its inspection, our projectionist Bruce Bartoo realized that the print had a DTS soundtrack and that the required DTS discs with the soundtrack were not with the print. This isn't that uncommon for older titles. Occasionally they come in a separate shipment. But when we contacted Warner Bros., they said there weren't any DTS discs. This was a problem. You see, 70mm film prints have either a magnetic soundtrack on the actual print or, with DTS, a code on the film that syncs with an external disc that provides the sound. With a 35mm print, a DTS print will also have an optical track so that if the DTS track is unavailable for whatever reason, it can default to the optical track and play without issue. For a 70mm print, however, it's the DTS disc or nothing and—as mentioned—the DTS discs were missing. We considered having a 70mm print with a magnetic track shipped overnight (at great expense), and we were set with that plan, but we decided to do a bit more research.
On Wednesday, we called two venues that had showed the print recently. They didn't have the discs, but the Music Box in Chicago suggested we call Datasat in Los Angeles. They are the main company that produces DTS discs and to our very welcome surprise the agreed to burn us new discs and to ship them overnight to us. Problem solved. There was much rejoicing in our department. But when the discs arrived Thursday morning, they didn't work. With less than 12 hours before the show (for which we had already sold around 150 tickets), we were sent scrambling.
Bruce, along with our engineers Steve Jones and Scott Austin, looked at our projection system to see if they could detect a problem. Nothing. In fact, we had played a number of titles with DTS tracks (but in 35mm) throughout the past month with no issues. Was it our sound system, the DTS player, the discs, or perhaps the 70mm sound readers on the projectors? Everything seemed to be fine. We brought in John Williamson from the nearby American Theatre Equipment Company for help. John has been a godsend to our program for decades. He's helped install equipment, guide decision-making, provide rare pieces of equipment often at the last minute, and help out in emergency situations like this one. (It's John in the truck at our Wex Drive-Ins, for those of you who may have peeked inside.) John came in and, along with Bruce, gave our system a top-to-bottom examination. Again, nothing. Panic set in. In a fit of insanity, we even purchased a Blu-ray of 2001, praying it wouldn't come to that profoundly distasteful end.
After hours of tinkering and tests and more thoughts of having the print with the mag track overnighted, John and Bruce concluded it had to be the discs. Bruce contacted Daniel Schulz and John contacted Karen Hultgren, both of Datasat. We figured it out. We had the wrong discs. They would overnight new discs but it was too late for our Thursday night show. We couldn't bring ourselves to show 2001 in Blu-ray, especially after touting our 70mm shows for the past couple of months, so, with much regret and hand-wringing, we decided to cancel our Thursday screening and add a Saturday show. (I have to add that our communications, box office, and house management departments handled this late-breaking decision and its impact on that night's guests with their usual grace, support, and professionalism.) We tried to get word of the change out as best we could via social media, but we did have a few disappointed folks show up that evening, and we offered refunds or exchanges along with our sincere apologies. We promised things would be fixed for the Friday and Saturday shows.
So, Friday morning the replacement discs arrived, Bruce popped them in the player and…they still didn't work. Now what?
After more consultation between Bruce, John, and the folks at Datasat, we finally realized the problem. We had been operating under the false assumption (a misinterpretation of lab notes on the print) that this was an older print, when in fact it was from 2010. The print we had was a unique one that required a slightly different model of DTS player than the one we had. Simple enough, we'd get a replacement. The problem is that with virtually every theater in the area converted to digital projection, there aren’t many DTS systems around. We tried calling a handful of local theaters to see if they might have one lying around. Nothing. John checked his warehouse. Nothing. John knew that Dennison University had one in their theater, but would they be using it over the weekend and, if not, would we be able to get a hold of them, drive to Granville, get the player, switch it in for our existing player (switching in an XD10 for a 6D, for those who really want to know), and test it in time for our 7 PM show? We got ahold of the very kind folks at Dennison and they very graciously said we could use their player for the weekend. John drove to Granville, pulled it out of their system, and drove the 45 minutes back to the Wexner Center. Time was of the essence. There was a lecture at 4:30 PM in our theater and once that began we wouldn't be able to do anything until around 6 PM. John arrived at the center, installed the new player (this makes it sound far too easy), and was able to do just enough testing by around 4:20 PM to confirm that, finally, the show would go on. It was worth the wait. The film looked great and sounded even better—much better, in fact, than the print with a magnetic track we showed a number of years ago. Those in attendance were thrilled to be able to see the film this way (someone even drove from Philadelphia!), and it’s very rewarding to get enthusiastic responses at the end of a film. We took some additional solace in the fact that we would never have known we had this problem unless this unusual set of circumstances lined up just the way that they did. If we had simply requested a replacement print with a mag track on Wednesday, we would never have discovered the lurking flaw in our system.
We offer this case study not to pat ourselves on the back (we’re too tired and stressed out) but to demonstrate how deeply committed we are to presenting films the way you (and we) expect: in the best possible formats. It also illustrates how increasingly difficult it will be to present actual film. Not only are film prints becoming less available, but the equipment to show the films will be harder and harder to maintain. Most presentations don’t involve anything remotely this difficult. We call a distributor, archive, or studio, inquire about print or DCP availability and condition, and they either have it or they don't, and it’s either available or it’s not. One or two emails or phone calls at most. But, occasionally, we’re presented with a challenge we’ve never seen before. And, truth be told, I think we all kind of enjoy it. (THANKS, JOHN!!!)
—David Filipi, Director, Film/Video