This Friday, June 22, the Walker Art Center will unveil its newly renovated, state-of-the-art cinema with the Minnesota premiere of the highly original drama Beasts of the Southern Wild, a winner at this year’s Sundance and Cannes film festivals, a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen and one that may end up in some Oscar discussions toward the end of 2012. Tickets for the free screening are already gone, but the film’s Twin Cities theatrical release will start on Friday, July 13 at a Landmark theater. The Walker cinema first opened in 1971 and has had upgrades since then, but none like this: cinephiles will rejoice when they walk in.
When I first walked in I noticed the new cushy red chairs and I wanted to sit in one immediately, testing out where would be the best spot to park myself down and enjoy the entertainment on screen. The number of seats have not changed (341 seats), just the chairs themselves: they are nicely padded and are arched a bit more upright for a slightly better, more direct view of the screen. The renovations were designed by John Cook of the Minneapolis-based architecture firm HGA; the new theater looks to be on par with some of the best places to see movies in the Twin Cities.
I spoke with associate director of public relations Christopher James, who spoke about all the changes, starting with a brand-new and top-of-the-line 4K DCP (Digital Cinema Package) digital projector along with Dolby 3D capabilities with a Meyer EXP sound system. The Walker also put in Kinoton dual projectors for 16mm and 35mm prints that the Walker can screen for upcoming retrospectives—including some they have in their own collection. With the new Meyer EXP sound system, the entire room was redone for a new enhanced sound experience.
“All the sound panels on the sides (of the theater) have been re-installed and it is all treated to give the maximum acoustic bounce back, which is a huge improvement from before.” James said, as we were standing near the top of the theater entrance surveying the theater. Though renovations began in January, some screenings have been held since then. “We showed Wim Wenders’s Pina in 3D in February; and we showed Sing Your Song, the Harry Belafonte documentary; and we wrapped up our Lawrence Kasdan retrospective in April; but then we closed the theater.”
The upgrade was due in large part to a one million dollar grant from the Bentson Foundation. As Walker curator Sheryl Mousley stated in the press release, “We are at an exciting threshold in the history of film at the Walker with this reopening. Movie-going is experiencing a remarkable transformation in the shift to digital technology, and the Walker Cinema is keeping pace, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of the Bentson Foundation.”
Here is a brief description of the Ruben/Bentson Foundation: “The Ruben/Bentson Film and Video Study Collection was established in 1973 by a gift from Edmond R. Ruben. Ruben, a leading figure in film exhibition in the Upper Midwest, and his wife Evelyn, believed in collecting films as a way of preserving the art form. They both served as members of the Board of Trustees of the Walker Art Center and also bequeathed an important collection of art works to the institution.”
“This might be the only 4K projector to go in the Twin Cities, “ Walker projectionist Joe Beres said, as Christopher and I were looking at the new DCP projector in the projection booth. With studios are starting to steer away from making 35mm prints to provide to theaters, DCP seems to be the new standard in screening films across the U.S. “4K” refers to the projector’s resolution: 4K systems show pictures 4,096 pixels wide, while the earlier standard was 2K (2,048 pixels wide). For comparison, the highest-resolution display currently available on a MacBook is 2,880 pixels wide.
“The film arrives on a hard drive,“ Beres explained, “and then it gets ingested into the server gets decrypted right before it hits the chips [the light] and it is completely encrypted until it goes to that point.” According to Beres, “This is what the studios are basically insisting on. By 2013, the studios won’t be making prints and this is only the thing that they’ll be doing. Ultimately they want to get some satellite distribution system, but for now, they are shipping hard drives around everywhere.”
I asked Beres, who has been a theater projectionist for many years in the Twin Cities, on his thoughts about the transition to digital cinema versus regular 35mm prints. “I’m really glad to be working at a place like the Walker,” he said, “where we are still preserving film and we can still show films in our collection that may never get transferred over to DCP any time soon, if ever. So there will always be a demand for film, but moving forward we can show either format.”
Along with Beasts of the Southern Wild, this weekend the Walker will also be screening another Minnesota premiere: one of the best reviewed films of the year, This Is Not a Film, directed by Iranian director Jafar Panahi and Motiaba Mirtahmash. It’s a documentary about Panahi, who was banned from making films in Iran, yet was still able to make a film that was smuggled out of the country on a Zip drive. This Is Not a Film screens Saturday, June 23 and will be shown on DCP as well. Ending the weekend on Sunday, June 24 for a special matinee will be the 1924 film Aelita: Queen of Mars by director Yakov Protazanov. This Russian silent sci-fi adventure will be presented from the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Film collection and will feature a live accompaniment from composer Dennis James and Mark Goldstein—better known as “The Filmharmonia Duo.”
Image courtesy Walker Art Center