What connects upcoming screenings of “La haine,” “Aliens,” and “Scooby-Doo” at the Coolidge, and 13 films by director Akira Kurosawa at the Brattle? They’re all being shown in 35 millimeter (35mm) format.
The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge and Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline recently announced the creation of a “35mm Film Fund.” The funds are being established separately for each institution to assist with the costs and other challenges of projecting movies on 35mm prints. Both efforts were launched with seed money from a small group of initial donors.
“This was something we had amorphous plans for pre-pandemic,” said Ned Hinkle, creative director of the Brattle Film Foundation, adding that there are “so many reasons that the continued existence of 35mm is a valuable cultural practice” — but that increasing expenses have threatened the institution’s ability to keep playing “films on film” whenever possible.
“The goal is to keep the 35mm community alive,” said Ian Brownell, a former filmmaker who is on the Brattle Film Foundation board, and one of the initial donors behind each fund.
35mm film prints were the standard format used to exhibit commercial features in theaters from the silent era until the early 2010s, when the vast majority of theatrical screens removed their analog 35mm equipment for digital projectors.
Here in the Boston area, 35mm screenings have continued with regularity despite the national digital changeover. The Brattle and Coolidge each hosted well over 100 screenings on 35mm last year, with more shown at the Harvard Film Archive and the Somerville Theatre. These venues are something of a last bastion, confirming Boston as one of the country’s few remaining “celluloid cities.”
The Brattle and Coolidge teams are now asking for donations, both online and by other means, to maintain the pace of these increasingly specialized events.
Haden Guest, director of the HFA, said that a vintage 35mm print allows the viewer to see film as it was meant to be seen — “closer to the artist’s original intention.
“Even the feeling and emotion of the image is fundamentally different,” he added. “The viewer who chooses to see 35mm over digital is not selecting it because of some blind devotion to 35mm. It’s because they’re seeking out the most authentic mode of experiencing the film.”
But that authentic mode comes with an increasing price. Brownell, Hinkle, and Coolidge deputy director Beth Gilligan all cited a significant rise in shipping costs on 35mm film reels as a major factor in starting the fund. Hinkle estimated that average 35mm screening costs, which also include rights fees and other expenses, were around $750 per film pre-pandemic. “Now it’s north of $1,000 per film,” he said.
The funds will also be used for upkeep and upgrades to projection equipment, as well as to support the need for each institution to occasionally train new projectionists in-house.
“We take great pride in our amazing projectionists, and in keeping that pipeline going,” Gilligan said.
For both the Brattle and the Coolidge, the fund-raising campaigns are not designed to immediately alter operations, but instead to provide resources to maintain their current level of 35mm exhibition.
Starting April 18, the Brattle will present “The Emperor & The Wolf: The Films of Akira Kurosawa & Toshiro Mifune,” a repertory program showing 13 collaborations between the legendary Japanese director and lead actor, all to be presented on 35mm.
“We may not have chosen to do our Kurosawa program if that fund hadn’t been initiated this year,” Hinkle said.
The Brattle’s Kurosawa program underscores the need for such a fund on another level: “Not every film is digitized,” said Ivy Moylan, executive director of the Brattle Film Foundation. “For a cinema like the Brattle that plays films from the entire span of film history, having the resources and access to show all of the media formats of film history, as well as the institutional knowledge on how to project them, is important.”
That’s key to ensuring Boston remains what HFA lead projectionist Greg Abrams considers to be “a haven for film.” Abrams, who also worked as a projectionist at the Brattle, the Coolidge, and the Museum of Fine Arts, noted that an independent cinema is a rare place “where you can experience art authentically, scratched as it may be.”
“I screened the original theatrical release print of ‘Blade Runner’ to students recently, and it was thrilling to me that we were seeing the same print that audiences saw in 1982,” he said. “Having that link to the past is profoundly meaningful for people.”