Destination Film: Chicago Music Box Theater - 70mm Film Festival

Next on our movie destinations is the Chicago based Music Box Theater.

Near the end of March 2016, I made a special trip to Chicago's prestigious and wonderfully old fashioned Music Box Theater when I got wind of their forthcoming 70mm Film Festival.  Unbeknownst to me, this was an ongoing festival favorite for many years and 2016 marked the largest accumulation of 70mm prints from across the country yet as well as their first time blow up prints were added to their schedule.  After a lengthy drive I arrived to a tall and gorgeously illuminated theater sign with the words '70mm Film Festival' encrusted on the top marquee.  Barely able to contain my excitement which would encompass a total of ten 70mm prints shown back to back over the course of two separate weekends, I rushed up to the front lobby and learned very quickly I was stepping into one of the finest movie theaters in the United States.  While smaller in size than the Museum of the Moving Image, it is second to that theater in my top favorites and a venue I will one day return to in the future.  

Built in 1929, the interior lobby and theater itself is adorned with dark blue ceiling adorned with soft twinkling lights resembling a star field and tall pillars reminiscent of ancient Rome, the Music Box Theater is steeped in wonderfully archaic structural design by Louis B. Simon.  Adjacent to the theater lobby is a cafe that is as important to the overall theater experience as it is a casual lounge for cineastes to enjoy a good drink while perusing the vast library of film books on the shelves.  Atop the concession stands are stacks of DVDs and Blu-Rays distributed exclusively by Music Box Films, the most expansive release of theirs yet being The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.  In addition, Music Box Films is also responsible for the theatrical distribution of many foreign and independent releases, including the Academy Award winning Ida.  It was a bona fide cornucopia of cinema and I haven't even been able to step into the main auditorium yet, with the first picture on the roster being a rare 70mm print of Ghostbusters.  Moments later, the doors opened and patrons were turned loose inside.

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Unlike major multiplexes, light levels were kept considerably low inside the theater before the pictures began and the projectionist came out to introduce each picture with a story behind how each particular print came into their programming.  I noticed sitting down what looked like large bells on the floor beneath the theater seats, not knowing until the film began these were in fact part of the original heating system which warmed the auditorium up to cozy levels akin to an electric blanket.  I can say without hesitation this is one of the best looking theater screens I've ever seen with top notch 7.1 surround sound and for the two Ultra Panavision features screened, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Hateful Eight, the screen was adjusted to proper size allowing for viewers to experience the full unexpurgated spectrum of 2.76:1 widescreen.  On the program detailing the full list of films to be shown was a table indicating which films were shot in VistaVision, which films were blow-up prints and which ones had 6-track magnetic sound over DTS digital sound.  

The films shown with magnetic sound were among the loudest films I have ever heard in a theater, played to near deafening levels with razor sharp clarity.  Every presentation was flawless with no problems involving focus, audio dropouts or the sounds of the projector whirring whatsoever.  You were totally immersed in the experience of the film and for my money, for as many times as I saw The Hateful Eight roadshow at the AMC Forum 30 in Sterling Heights, Michigan, the Music Box Theater blew that presentation away in every conceivable area.  For smaller programming to maintain multiple screenings throughout the day instead of relegating everything to one main screen like the formerly operational Ziegfeld Theater, the Music Box Theater recently installed a smaller auditorium outfitted with a 35mm film projector where I managed to see the Academy Award winning Son of Saul on a celluloid print.

Reportedly the Music Box Theater, an avid curator of genuine celluloid prints, is also a hot spot for celebrity red carpet Hollywood premieres.  Inside the cafe are a collection of framed photographs from past celebrity premieres with many including Q&As with the actors and/or directors involved and theater owners have many a story to tell about past experiences with filmmakers in attendance.  You're also unlikely to find outside of New York a greater collective of cinephiles gathered in one area and chatting our own experiences with 70mm venues is something I wish more modern moviegoers used to the multiplexes would engage in.  Unique to the festival were custom made 70mm poster prints for several of the films on the schedule and on the wall was a large chalkboard collage mural of the films themselves, giving viewers a taste of what awaited them.  As I left the theater after two long weekends of movies back to back, I couldn't help but stop midstep to take one last long gander at what proved to be a cinephile's dream come true.  These are people who really genuinely care about film preservation and understand the importance of a high quality presentation as integral to the overall experience.  If only more modern cinemas displayed this level of dedication to giving viewers the idea cinematic experience.

- Andrew Kotwicki