What’s Missing from St. Louis Movie Theatres

ca may_2015_75The disparity between what nearby cities are getting on 35mm and what we aren’t here in St. Louis only seems to be growing.



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I’ve used this column in the past year to celebrate my favorite theatres in St. Louis and to give some encouragement to those who, like me, sometimes drive to other cities to see a movie (or movies—plural) in the theatre. But those sharp-eyed readers may have noticed a gap there—if the movie theatres in St. Louis are so great, why would someone need to drive to another city to see a movie in the theatre?

Usually the answer is related to film festivals or one-off repertory screenings, but there is one area where St. Louis movie theatres are lacking: we don’t have any one theatre that frequently shows films from film prints (as opposed to digital projections, which have of course all but taken over the industry). It’s true that the Webster Film Series will sometimes show movies from film prints, as does the Hi-Pointe, but neither does it with the frequency of some more specialized theatres in neighboring cities. And I’m not blithely wishing that we had something akin to the Quentin Tarantino-owned New Beverly in Los Angeles, which exclusively shows film prints, as I suspect our market couldn’t support that. But hell, probably the last movie I saw from a film print in a movie theatre in St. Louis was Interstellar last November—can we at least have a good film projection opportunity, I don’t know, once or twice a month?

ca may_2015_350Which leads me to another point: I’ve gotten the impression that St. Louis, as we speak, is already better-equipped to show film prints than many other cities. This is based on the fact that we had a better-than-average rollout of Interstellar on 35mm last year—most cities only had 35mm prints showing at one or two theatres, but here in St. Louis it ran at the Hi-Pointe as well as the majority of local Wehrenberg theatres. Many theatres are entirely getting rid of their ability to project 35mm at all, so at least we haven’t gone that far. But then why don’t we use these projectors?

Now, to be fair, St. Louis did not get one single 70mm print of Interstellar; the closest 70mm copy to here, sadly, was in Branson. (Nor did we get a 70mm print of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which, released in 2012, was the last big 70mm film prior to Interstellar.) It’s been said that when Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight comes out later this year it’s going to get the biggest 70mm push of any film in the past two decades. But what will that even mean? What’s its competition? Will we get it in 70mm in St. Louis at all? (Maybe at Ronnie’s? They had a 70mm print of The Dark Knight Rises on their IMAX screen back in 2012, which the projectionist broke on its first screening.)

Elsewhere, many cities not much bigger than St. Louis have at least one theatre that routinely projects from 35mm (I’ll spare you the list, as it’s mostly the same theatres mentioned in the above-linked article about going on movie road trips). That’s all we really need—one theatre that does this. And I don’t expect new films, either. In most ways, repertory screenings are better suited to my love of 35mm projection. (Besides, most new movies don’t have any 35mm prints of them struck at all these days…apart from Interstellar.) It used to be that if a local theatre was showing an older movie I loved, I’d go and see it every time, especially if I’d never seen it on the big screen before. These days, if a local movie theatre is showing an older movie I love more than half the time I wind up not going, because they’re not showing it from a film print, and indeed sometimes even project them from blu-rays, which, if it’s a movie I love, of course I already own in that format.

A common example of how film prints are screened in other cities is as part of retrospectives. For example, I strongly considered driving to the Belcourt a couple of months ago to catch a film print of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, which showed as part of a centenary retrospective on Welles. At the end of this month I’m headed to Cleveland to go to a retrospective of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films to catch a very rare screening of his 1989 film that many consider to be his masterpiece, A City of Sadness, which has never had U.S. distribution of any kind—theatrical, home video, whatever. If it were being projected digitally, I wouldn’t make the effort. The disparity between what nearby cities are getting on 35mm and what we aren’t here in St. Louis only seems to be growing. And it’s getting to be a near-weekly thing of hearing about some film screening somewhere maybe kind-of accessible and start drooling over it.

The dearth of film in St. Louis is also starting to give me the urge to hoard it. While full 35mm prints of films are way out of my price range (and where do rich people acquire them from, anyway? The studios?), there’s burgeoning business of 35mm trailers being sold on eBay. Though I haven’t gotten stuck in that trap just yet, it’s alarming that this is what it’s come to—I miss 35mm so much that I’m starting to feel compelled to acquire it myself in any form that I can, even if that means just a two-minute trailer that I wouldn’t even be able to project.

So, yes, I love St. Louis movie theatres, I love our film festival, I love that we have a good film series, and most of the time I even love the St. Louis film audience and community. So let’s just get one good theatre to solve this one big problem, and then I won’t have to go to other cities to see movies so much. | Pete Timmermann

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