“I am big,” Norma Desmond snaps in “Sunset Boulevard.” “It’s the pictures that got small.”
Well, they’re growing again.
Helping “Oppenheimer” tote up domestic grosses of roughly $300 million and counting? Premium-priced IMAX screenings, which had real fans driving miles to find a suitably equipped theatre (and, if they couldn’t find that mammoth format, “settling” for a mere, oversized 70mm print).
And now its box-office rival, “Barbie,” has announced it will have a special week of IMAX screenings at the end of September, too.
The maximum-screen format has long been a fave of superhero films, special-effects epics, and heavily hyped action franchises. But Tom Cruise was one of the few actors who wasn’t in “Oppenheimer,” and an atom-bomb blast was one of the few wild ideas that didn’t find room in “Barbie.” Both films are simply films — a biopic and a musical comedy — that people really wanted to see.
And see big.
They weren’t alone. Recently Lincoln Center ran a 70mm print of “Boogie Nights.” Although that drama came out more than 25 years ago — and has recently been on heavy rotation on cable — the theater was packed with people willing to pay $20 to see it projected in a big theater. Fans posted pictures of themselves brandishing their tickets. The screening turned into an event, with the audience even applauding the onscreen entrance of favorites like the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
And the interest in bigger, better movie experiences is growing.
Cinema purists everywhere are searching out places that show real prints — genuine film, not the digital downloads that have become standard. A slew of new theaters, including an IMAX, are opening in Los Angeles. And in New York, the Paris Theater, Manhattan’s only single-screen venue, has just finished a second, major renovation. Its kickoff program? “Bigger & Louder,” which will run Sept. 1-24 and feature 50 films chosen to show off the picture palace’s improved sound and projection systems.
Visual highlights include 70mm prints of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”; among the aural treats are immersive Dolby Atmos sound mixes for “Blade Runner: Final Cut,” “The Matrix” and “A Quiet Place.”
The maximalist movement isn’t only a new trend, it’s exactly the opposite of what was supposed to happen.
Decades ago, big theaters started splitting themselves up, figuring it was easier to sell out three 200-seat venues than one 600-seat one. Then cable started an audience exodus by making small-screen dramas that were worth staying home for. And now, with fistfuls of streaming services, people can watch even theatrical features everywhere — on TV, on laptops, on their phones.
Theaters, we were told, would soon become reserved for only the biggest events.
But there is nothing particularly “epic” about “Barbie” or “Boogie Nights.” Along with the usual Hollywood blockbusters the Paris is programming — like the original “Top Gun” — are 70mm prints of favorite foreign films like Jacque Tati’s wry comedy “Playtime” and Alfonso Cuarón’s bittersweet memory trip, “Roma.” They’re great movies, but not what are usually thought of as big-screen musts. When they were released, most people first saw “Playhouse” in a local arthouse, “Roma” on Netflix.
And yet seeing them now in a theater adds so much more.
Some of that, of course, is simply the pleasure of experiencing a communal art in a communal space, which elevates everything. You’re far more likely to laugh out loud at a comedy (or jump a bit in your seat during a horror film) if you’re seeing that movie in a theater. Plus, it’s not just a singularly focused experience — no doorbells or pets to distract you — but a commitment. Once the lights go down, you’re there for the duration, whatever happens, unless you’re willing to climb over people’s knees and flee.
But a lot of the pleasure comes from the top-notch technology.
For years, chain theaters have been cheapening out. Blemished screens aren’t repaired. Faulty speakers aren’t fixed. Projector bulbs dim to the edge of uselessness. Even the theaters that have spent money on bells-and-whistles like reclining chairs and upscale food service have pinched pennies when it comes to what should be the basics — the vibrancy of image and the complexity of sound.
Recently, though, it seems some studios and exhibitors have come to realize something: If all a movie fan really wants from the experience is a comfy chair and a craft cocktail, they can get that in their own living room. But if they want a 180-degree array of top-shelf speakers? A screen the size of a small apartment building? For that, they’re going to have to come to your place and buy a ticket.
And it seems people not only are, they’re willing to pay a premium price.
I’m not suggesting this is a simple solution to an industry that is still recovering from the pandemic, and desperate to bring back audiences. Nor are top-notch sound and picture quality probably going to be deciding factors for college students thinking about seeing a horror show like “Talk to Me” or retirees considering a sweet Sunday matinee of “Jules.” Right now these upgrades seem to be resonating most with diehard followers of stylists like Christopher Nolan, and fans who can’t wait to see an old favorite like “Lawrence of Arabia” the way it was meant to be seen.
But for someone like me — someone who always sits in the front row and turns his music up loud — this is the way all art should always be experienced. I guess I’m one those movie-mad enthusiasts Bernardo Bertolucci saluted in “The Dreamers,” the film buffs the hero dubs “the insatiables, the ones you’d always find sitting closest to the screen … because we wanted to receive the images first. When they were still new, still fresh.”
Because sometimes size does matter. Occasionally more is more.
And maybe pictures don’t get small if you keep the screens big.
For more on the “Bigger & Louder” series, visit paristheaternyc.com/series/big-loud.
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