Over the last decade, Hollywood has tried to come up with new fixes for a fundamental problem: Fewer people are going to the movies, with actual ticket sales last year at their lowest since the 1920s. There are a lot of ways for studios, and theaters, to cover for that revenue loss—raising ticket prices, serving food to customers at their seats, offering more comfortable armchairs for a premium. One nightmarishly synergistic strategy is a pivot to toys, recently announced by Warner Bros., which will try to further capitalize on the marketing potential of all its family films.
But the biggest, and most successful, bet in the last 10 years was made on 3-D movies—reviving a gimmick from Hollywood’s golden age, with the help of new technology that was pioneered for James Cameron’s 2009 smash hit Avatar. But even that approach is beginning to falter. Despite an increase in 3-D releases, the box-office market for that particular upcharge is falling as 3-D has gone from being a special experience to a perfunctory feature for every blockbuster. But this summer brings another potential savior from cinema’s yesteryear—the wide release of the director Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk on 70-millimeter film.
Nolan, Hollywood’s preeminent king of the widescreen epic, has long experimented with photographing his films in the biggest formats possible. Beginning with The Dark Knight in 2008, Nolan has used IMAX cameras to shoot certain sequences in each of his following movies (except for Inception), harnessing the much larger film stock used to capture vistas of Mount Everest or NASA space missions for set pieces like The Joker’s bank robbery in The Dark Knight or Bane’s plane heist in The Dark Knight Rises.
The Dark Knight contained 28 minutes of IMAX footage; The Dark Knight Rises had more than an hour, as did Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi epic Interstellar. Dunkirk, which runs 106 minutes, was entirely shot on large-format film and will be released in 70-mm projection in 125 theaters around the country—the biggest such release in decades. It’s a major gamble on an old-fashioned way of shooting and projecting movies, one that was standard for epics like Lawrence of Arabia but has long since passed into near-oblivion as theaters transferred to digital-projection formats.
The debate over the relative value of showing celluloid vs. digital rages on. Nolan has been a clear advocate for the art of film projection and has used his considerable box-office clout to try and keep it alive. His gambit with Dunkirk is the latest, and most prominent, example of that—and there’s some evidence it might work. Interstellar grossed a significant chunk of its box-office total in IMAX theaters. Dunkirk can similarly charge more for 70-mm showings, promising a more thrilling theatrical experience for viewers, without the irritating downsides of 3-D—no glasses required, no action scenes suddenly becoming blurry or out-of-focus, no headaches for people who already wear glasses.
The main problem is that 70-mm projection is expensive, and getting cinemas to come around to expensive technology can be difficult. It took the major success of Avatar for theaters to start installing plenty of 3-D projection. In 2015, The Weinstein Company rolled out Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight with limited 70-mm screenings around the country, costing theaters a reported $8-$10 million to upgrade projection equipment. Though the move attracted publicity (and $54 million in domestic box office), and The Hateful Eight was gorgeously photographed, the film ended up being an odd choice to try and push the format, since the movie mostly takes place inside one large room and is more of a chamber piece than an action epic.
Dunkirk, a World War II film chock-full of aerial battle sequences and daring naval rescues, is much better suited. And if audiences bite, it could be the beginning of a real revival for the format. So far, 70 mm has remained the domain of the auteur; Nolan, Tarantino, and Paul Thomas Anderson (who filmed The Master in 70 mm) have been the only ones to recently embrace it. But there’s no reason it couldn’t become the norm for many an action epic in the future, which, coupled with a comfortable seat, would justify a ticket-price upcharge.
Whether or not 70 mm finds wider success, the simple fact is that 3-D, in its current format, is no longer the answer. “We blew it on 3-D,” the former DreamWorks Animation chair Jeffrey Katzenberg said last year. “It was a game-changing opportunity for the industry. When you gave them an exceptional film that artistically, creativity embraced and celebrated the uniqueness of that experience, people were happy to pay the premium,” he said. But 3-D has, with few exceptions, become a lazy add-on rather than a unique part of a film’s storytelling texture. Cameron deployed it in Avatar to make the movie’s fantasy world more vivid, but only a few films (like Doctor Strange, Gravity, and Hugo) have used it well for thematic purposes.
Cameron, ever the innovator, is trying to change the game again with the upcoming Avatar 2, which he claims could be released in “glasses-free” 3-D, a pie-in-the-sky version of laser-projection that remains in the theoretical stage. Nolan’s 70-mm effort is a little more grounded, but it’d be wise for studios to pay attention to Dunkirk’s specialty box-office performance. As audiences become more comfortable staying at home to watch a movie—or a big-budget TV series—theaters need to find ways to sell audiences on the unique power of a cinema experience. Dunkirk could hold one compelling answer.