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Originally published September 24, 2011 at 7:02 PM | Page modified September 26, 2011 at 9:40 AM

Film Festival: Cinerama shows off its curves

The Cinerama presents a 2 1/2-week film festival, Sept. 30-Oct. 16, which will include two three-strip films and several classic 70mm films, all shown on its deeply curved screen.

Special to The Seattle Times

Festival preview

'The Big Screen' 70mm Film Festival'

Only the three-strip Cinerama films "This Is Cinerama" and "How the West Was Won" will be shown during the opening weekend, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, and on closing day, Oct. 16. "West Side Story" and "Lawrence of Arabia" will play Oct. 4; "My Fair Lady," "Cleopatra" and "2001: A Space Odyssey," Oct. 5; "Playtime," "The Sound of Music" and "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines," Oct. 6. Several TBA slots have yet to be filled. Among the rarities later in the festival are "South Pacific," Oct. 7 and Oct. 13; "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," Oct. 10; "Baraka," Oct. 10; and "Lord Jim," Oct. 11. 2100 Fourth Ave., Seattle; $12 (206-448-6680 or www.cinerama.com).
quotes I've always enjoyed the 35mm/70mm Cinerama screen, even as a child while watching... Read more

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It's been a few years since the Cinerama has shown three-strip Cinerama movies, but this week the theater will be back with its most impressive widescreen festival to date.

Over a 2 1/2-week period, starting Friday, Sept. 30, the theater will screen "This Is Cinerama" and "How the West Was Won," the most popular three-strip Cinerama movies, plus more than a dozen 70mm classics including "2001: A Space Odyssey," "South Pacific," "Cleopatra," "Lawrence of Arabia" and such rarities as "Baraka," "Lord Jim" and "Playtime."

All will be shown on the theater's deeply curved Cinerama screen — not on the theater's "flat" screen, which is slightly curved and used for most 35mm and video presentations.

The curator and theater operator for the series, Greg Wood, spent much of the past year tracking down 70mm prints of films that were originally shot in 70mm. (A few blockbusters, like "Doctor Zhivago," were disqualified because they were shot in 35mm, then blown up to 70mm.)

"It's by far the most challenging thing I've ever done," said Wood, who discovered that some films no longer exist in their original form.

Even a few that played the Cinerama in recent years, including the 70mm version of "Porgy and Bess" and the three-strip travelogues "Windjammer" and "Search for Paradise" have nearly disintegrated.

The top-grossing film of 1955, "Cinerama Holiday," doesn't exist, said Wood. Neither does "Around the World in 80 Days," which won the 1956 Oscar for best picture. One of only two films that were shot in Todd-AO, a 30-frames-per-second process (the other was "Oklahoma!), "Around the World" now exists only in a 35mm 24-frames-per-second version.

Some of the prints are from studio vaults, some are from the archives of the Motion Picture Academy, some are from European sources and private collectors. Many are not meant for general distribution. Seattle philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, who rescued the theater from oblivion in the late 1990s, owns the print of "How the West Was Won" that will be shown Friday.

Thanks to the demand for near-perfect DVD versions, a few films are being rejuvenated and reissued in theaters. "My Fair Lady," which will be shown in the Cinerama festival, was one of them. Wood said he couldn't get "Ben-Hur" for the festival because it's undergoing "a massive restoration."

But the festival isn't just another film-restoration project. It's intended to show off the unique qualities of the Cinerama since Allen restored it to its original three-projector status. Last year, he upgraded it again so that it can show 3-D films.

The turning point, Wood said, came with "Avatar," which the Cinerama had to show in 2-D because it wasn't equipped for 3-D. Allen gave the go-ahead to invest in an upgrade. Equipped for so many formats, the Cinerama may now be the most versatile theater in the world.

It's become something of a tourist attraction, with out-of-towners already booking hotel rooms and buying up tickets to "Lawrence of Arabia," which is so far the hottest entry. Yet the popcorn is still $2 and admission to each of the Cinerama movies will be $12 — less than many customers have paid for 3-D presentations.

"I have a great passion for this business," said Wood, who also runs a Portland theater, the Roseway. Now 40, he commutes by train between Portland, where he's raising a 4-year-old daughter, and Seattle, where he has a brother.

He's all for keeping the curved screen at the Cinerama after the festival, even for 35mm films. Objections have sometimes been raised over distortions caused by the curve, but Wood thinks any distortion can be corrected by newer and more sophisticated lenses.

"We can do it better now," he said.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

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