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Carnival Barking: Big Movie History

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Courtesy of The American Widescreen Museum - www.widescreenmuseum.com

Written by: Herb Lash
Date: April 2002

What might the marketing efforts of 70mm pioneers such as Michael Todd (with his Todd-AO films) tell us about today's Big Movie marketplace?

  

Category: Columns

If you want people to come in droves to see your Giant Screen movie you have three choices:

1) You can reach into your Disney deep pockets and market your decent film to every man, woman and child who loves Mickey Mouse.

2) You can make a phenomenal movie and let word of mouth work its magic.

Or…

3) You can fill seats the old fashioned way - with ingenious Carnival Barking.

The 70mm film is and always has been a sideshow to the standard 35mm film. In 1952, Michael Todd was one of the first to take on the challenge of peddling Large Format films to the movie going public. A natural born showman, a hustler, a visionary, a veteran of Broadway, an inventor, a gambler, and a fundraiser - Todd knew well the art of Carnival Barking. A generation of movie going audiences could still remember when Talkies killed the Silent film and now Michael Todd had something new to shout about - something new to sell. Just like the bearded woman, lobster boy and the world's smallest man - the brighter, sharper, immersive 70mm images of CINERAMA and later the TODD-AO films had to be seen to be believed. Todd hyped his first 70mm films as thrilling, once in a blue moon events - these "roadshow" films would roll in and out of town like the circus wagons of old. Watching a nice 35mm is grand - but catching the sensational OKLAHOMA! in miraculous TODD-AO 70mm was going to be like running off to join the rodeo. Of course, the films didn't always live up to the sensational billing. The many competing 70mm technologies were not entirely reliable and high quality images were not always delivered as promised. But Todd was out to sell the experience as much as he was any particular film.

Today's Large Format film world would be almost unrecognizable to Michael Todd and the other 70mm pioneers. The battlefield for control of 70mm filmmaking is littered with once celebrated technologies - GRANDUER, CINERAMA, TODD-AO, SUPER PANAVASION, etc., etc. . .But the obvious death blow to all of these formats came with Hollywood's near abandonment of 70mm - prohibitively high production costs, digital sound and significant improvements in 35mm killed off the big star, big budget Giant Screen Hollywood film. During the 1970s documentary filmmakers stepped into the 70mm void wielding the unrivaled IMAX technology. Immersive, lush and mind blowing 70mm images that were only sometimes delivered by earlier formats, were now a consistent reality through IMAX. A niche was born: the under one hour museum-friendly IMAX documentary. Giant Screen theaters specifically built for the projection of IMAX films replaced Michael Todd's concept of the traveling 70mm "roadshow."

Over the last thirty years, more than a few classic IMAX films have left audiences in slack-jawed astonishment. But today, it is extremely rare to encounter a surprising Large Format film. The quality, color and sharpness of the 70mm image have never been better - but this is not enough for an audience of the 21st century. The monolithic nature of today's IMAX films has failed to win any real mass appeal. The Large Format Carnival Barker of today can't just shout about improved picture quality - content clearly matters and the content is clearly lacking variety. Disney's FANTASIA and then BEAUTY AND THE BEAST marked Hollywood's reentry to the 70mm world. The Walt Disney Corporation took a page out of the Michael Todd book in marketing their 70mm FANTASIA. Disney built a multi-million dollar temporary Giant Screen theater in Los Angeles and the film was treated as an event, a spectacle, a not-to-be-missed, once in a blue moon occurrence. Disney built it - and the people came. And now, APOLLO 13 looms large on the horizon. A new IMAX printing process allows for a higher quality output of 35mm to 70mm - the result is not just another blow-up, but a supposedly legitimate 70mm experience. Connoisseurs of the true 70mm image will have much to moan about - films originated in 35mm are not conceived or composed with the Giant Screen in mind. It will make a difference to even the slightly discerning eye. But Hollywood content on the Giant Screen will give the Large Format Carnival Barker something to shout about - something exciting and new to sell.

If the new IMAX 35mm to 70mm process takes hold and is used as a sort of showcase marketing tool for Hollywood films - the traditional/true 70mm IMAX film is going to be out in the commercial cold. The Carnival Barker never puts much stock in preserving personal dignity - selling tickets is the thing. But Museums, on the other hand, put a premium on at least the appearance of dignity. The well made, the standard and the staid/dignified IMAX documentary will still find a home on museum screens - but the already stiff competition for bookings might become ferocious to the point of prohibitive, for producers.

Hollywood's renewed interest in 70mm could save the Large Format exhibitor and at the same time kill off the authentic 70mm filmmaker. But what can never be counted out in the world of Large Format film is the rise of a new Carnival Barker - one who has something to new to sell. Something mind blowing. Something that has to be seen to be believed. Someone like the evangelizing Large Format director/producer Ben Stassen, with his plan for a world dominated by the Miracle! of Giant Screen 3-Dimensional technology. We will watch and see. . .

Articles by Grant Lobban, John Belton and Roy C. Gunter Jr. available at IN70mm.com give a full and essential picture of the TODD-AO story.

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