When the Showcase Luxury Cinema opened on Speedway in May 1969, it was likely equipped with a state-of-the-art 70-millimeter projection system designed to enhance roadshow screenings of Hollywood extravaganzas.
Those screenings were the ultimate entertainment experience for moviegoers, starting with a musical overture and including an intermission.
The Loft Cinema has returned that element of moviegoing to Tucson by installing a restored 70-millimeter projection system to the main screen at the biggest — at 500 seats — of its three theaters. TheLoft moved into the former Showcase at 3233 E. Speedway in 1991.
Saturday night’s scheduled screening of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic “2001: A Space Odyssey” was Tucson’s first in 70 millimeter since the 1980s, said Zach Breneman, The Loft’s deputy director.
It also launched The Loft’s 70-millimeter Showcase series, which will feature “Lawrence of Arabia” in February and “The Wild Bunch” in March.
The expectation of a sold-out screening Saturday prompted The Loft to add a show at noon Sunday, Jan. 3.
“It’s something we’ve talked about for a really long time, probably a couple years at least,” Breneman said.
The project accelerated in August along with buzz about the Christmas Day roadshow version release of Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” which the director shot in an extra-wide format.
The film also prompted the film’s distributor, Weinstein Co., to scour the country for 70-millimeter projectors it could refurbish and install in time for the release. While “The Hateful Eight” was released in 70 millimeter in about 100 theaters, most of the country, including Tucson, has watched it in the standard digital format.
While unable to show “The Hateful Eight” during its holiday release, the nonprofit Loft proceeded with it’s plans to restore 70-millimeter projection and contacted Joel Miller of Northwest Projection & Sound in Portland, Oregon.
Despite Weinstein’s success in picking up as many projectors as possible, Miller found one in Atlanta. “I don’t know how they missed it, but they did,” Breneman said.
Miller refurbished the projector and recently installed it at The Loft. He trained its projectionists and was to run this weekend’s inaugural screenings and maintain the system. The project has cost about $30,000, which is about half of what a new digital projector costs, Breneman said.
While the building remained a theater over the years, Breneman surmised that its 70-millimeter projection system was removed sometime during the 1980s “when it lost popularity, basically.”
Recent films, such as “Interstellar” which opened in 70 millimeter at just a handful of locations across the country, have been credited with renewing interest in the experience of watching films in that configuration — especially as movies become more accessible in smaller formats, such as TVs and laptops.
“The level of detail is just incredible compared to digital and 35 millimeter. It’s a world of difference,” said Breneman, who watched “The Master,” which starred Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, in a theater with 70-millimeter projection when he was in Chicago a few years ago.
Since “The Hateful Eight” was released, there have been reports of problems with converted 70-millimeter systems, such as blurry visuals and out-of-sync audio. Breneman said The Loft opted for a different system that uses two adjacent projectors rather than just one with a giant spool of film.
In addition, he said, several of The Loft’s projectionists each have at least a decade’s experience with film.
“Whereas these other theaters haven’t played film for a while, it’s not so much of a leap for us,” he said. While The Loft has upgraded to the digital projection technology most theaters now use, it continues to use 35 millimeter for retrospective screenings.
Breneman also remains confident The Loft will eventually show “The Hateful Eight.”
“We’ll bring it back later for the road show,” he said.
”The most interesting thing to me in doing the research is that the size of our screen and the curvature indicates it was actually built for 70 millimeter,” he said.
“For me, it’s like we’re getting back to our roots — which is really cool.”