Martin Greaves on the cinema that’s reverted back to 35mm.
Question: what do the movies Diary Of A Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules and Once Upon a Time In Hollywood have in common? Although there might be an obscure cast or crew member tying the two films together, the answer I’m looking for is that they are the last and then the first movies shown at The Station Cinema, Richmond, North Yorkshire in 35mm.
Flashback to 2011, and Rob Younger, the owner of this absolute gem of an independent picture house, had decided that the time had come to decommission his two trusty Cinemeccanica 35mm projectors. Rob began as a trainee projectionist in Barnsley in 1979, and like most other managers had seen that digital was the way that most, if not all, of the films he was showing were now going to be distributed and shown. One of the projectors was put away in storage and the other was placed where it still proudly sits up in a display at the top of the former railway station building that houses the cinema.
The digital method of shooting and distributing movies had become the norm. But still, much like vinyl and its re-emergence despite the ease and popularity of streaming music, the demand to see films projected from celluloid never lost its appeal amongst some filmgoers.
Rob left the cinema industry for a short while in the early 1980s but later that decade went back, first installing projection and sound equipment throughout the UK and parts of Europe. He then became head of Technical Operations for Picturehouse Cinemas in 2005. In early 2007, he visited the site of The Station, to advise on the possible installation of cinema on the site. The original investors decided against the project, but Rob opted to take it on himself, and later that year the three-screen theatre opened. The station’s original platform still stands in front of screen one.
Rob’s other cinema – the Parkhouse in Barnsley – decided against removing its film projectors, and in mid-2016 a week of screenings of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight in 70mm was programmed (the Roadshow version). This included the overture and the intermission. Readers in London may not think this is anything particularly special, but for the definite version of the movie to play this way away from a huge city was a real coup.
Slowly but surely more prints became available. Parkway screened 70mm versions of Alien and Interstellar. When Quentin Tarantino announced that the best way to see his new movie Once Upon A Time In Hollywood would be in 35mm, Rob put the idea to followers of The Station’s Facebook page to gauge whether there would be an interest in seeing the film in that format. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
The only issue in securing the precious reels was that there just seemed to be one print in the UK playing exclusively in Leicester Square. It could take weeks for the film to make its way up to Yorkshire. By then, the patrons of The Station may have already caught up with it.
As luck would have it, they happened to have two 35mm prints of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – one a spare in case anything happened to the original – so the spare was sent up north. Rob set to work recommissioning the old film projector, having to beg, borrow but not steal some of the parts required to get the dusty equipment back to its original glory. Apart from a brief equipment test, this was the first time for nearly nine years that any film had run through the machine. It was decided that, just in case, a digital copy would run in the background on the usual projector, two minutes behind the film version.
The screenings went brilliantly. Rob added a vintage roll of ads and trailers to the beginning. I’m ashamed to admit I remembered several, including the old Kia Ora ad where the projectionist reaches down and takes the drink from the screen. The audience were invited to go up to the projection room, and were shown the equipment and the enormous platter that housed three miles or 161 minutes of celluloid. It was a boyhood dream seeing what happens behind the little window at the back of the auditorium.
Tarantino himself was quoted as saying “when you’re filming something on film you’re not recording movement, you are just taking a series of still pictures. But when shown at 24 frames a second through a lightbulb it creates the illusion of movement. So thus as opposed to a recording device, when you’re watching a movie, a film print you are watching an illusion, and to me that illusion is connected to the magic of movies”.
Devotees of the Wittertainment radio show and podcast will know how perilously close that is to a comment made during a frosty interview on the show by another filmmaker. Friends may ask what is the actual difference in seeing the same 161 minutes stored on a hard disk and then projected or the movie being on a reel and projected on to the very same screen. I would say that it’s the knowledge that a few feet behind you, in a small room, people like Rob are showing the skill and effort to present a film, knowing that it’s not always about being easier, sometimes it’s about carrying on the magic.
I’m hopeful that readers of Film Stories will agree that the best way to see a film is in a darkened room with other like-minded souls. To see the same film while a technological tightrope walk is going on in another room to me is the real beauty of cinema. In an ideal world, directors like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino would have the opportunity to keep the magic of pure cinema alive, and while we have cinema owners like Rob Younger, we as an audience can still marvel at the illusion.
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