RICHARDSON — During the filmmaking process, many efforts are combined from talented individuals to create a specific vision for a film. That same sort of dedication carries over to the passionate projectionists who take special care in ensuring audiences get a cinematic experience that is as close to the intentions of the people who created it.

As the cinema world is in full digital swing (thanks to Avatar), it’s rare to find a modern multiplex that is still involved in the delicate art of handling reels of 35 mm film. It’s a dying art form that takes immense skill to pull off with precision. But the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain works hard to preserve film history. They are often finding ways to combine new and old school ways of sharing movies with audiences.

“I am super proud of our dedication to preserving the arts,” said Jordan Michael, Alamo Drafthouse’s vice president of creative. “I started in this career walking upstairs [to the projectionist room] and hearing the clicking and clacking sound of 35 mm rolling. Now when you walk up there, it’s an electronic buzz. I love hearing the nostalgic spinning of film.”

Luckily for Michael, the release of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood will keep those sweet sounds of the good ol’ days alive. Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, about a television actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his companion and stuntman (Brad Pitt) living in the twilight years of their career in 1969 Hollywood, will be screening in 35 mm at 45 theater locations across the nation throughout its theatrical run. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, cinephiles will have the opportunity to witness 35 mm film projection at three Drafthouse theaters: Cedars, Las Colinas and Richardson.

Running 35 mm, as one could guess, is a commitment and a cost. It’s not a simple press of a play button. Projectionists are busy in the room looking after the show and making sure each reel runs smoothly. Each spool of film holds roughly 20 minutes of the narrative, making Once Upon a Time‘s reel count nine in total.

Before an advance screening of Once Upon a Time in Richardson last week, a projectionist manually added marks to each reel of Tarantino’s new film. A black “X” was made on a few frames of the celluloid to signal to the projectionist that the reel needs to be switched over during its presentation. It’s a lengthy process, but to the Drafthouse, it’s time and money well spent.

“Keeping projectionists around who know how to run the equipment properly and can take care of the audience — it takes a commitment to honor cinema. It’s a trial-and-error process to learn it,” Michael said.

“Someone stands beside you, you loop the film and you mess it up, but you learn how to build the print backwards and forwards, head to tail. It takes education and a lot of side-by-side training. But the Drafthouse runs, at least, one or two 35 mm screenings a month to keep projectionists sharp. We are fully prepared to make Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood a joyous occasion to visit the theater.”

That preparation could best be summed up with a story Michael shared about the storage process for 35 mm film cans. He explained that the Drafthouse will ask permission from the studio that owns the film they want to screen. Often the studio will have a 35 mm print and will carefully ship them the product.

However, just before one 35 mm screening, the Drafthouse opened one of the film cans only to discover that it was missing a reel. This means the audience would miss out on a significant portion of the film. Rather than cancel the screening and potentially upset ticketholders, the Drafthouse reached out to universities and independent collectors and was able to secure a replacement reel. It was overnighted to them, and the program calendar was not affected.

“It’s always a hurdle when it comes to 35 mm. But again, it’s worth it, especially with older titles,” Michaels said.

“We’re going to have these nice new prints of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and there won’t be time for the projectors to give them character. Older films have been played at tons of theaters over its life. You can see the age of the film when you watch it at one of our 35 mm screenings. For me, as a film lover, I like when the sound pops and crackles because the sound bar is worn. That, to me, tells a story beyond the story of the film. It’s like the story of that print’s life, too.”

Some audiences may favor the crisp presentation of digital projection, and that’s perfectly OK. But when you watch a 35 mm showing, everyone is quietly sharing this communal experience. It’s not just about watching the on-screen film but connecting with it on a deeper level. You get an exclusive opportunity to participate in a multidimensional storytelling event.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

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