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Nolan fans are traveling hours to see 'Oppenheimer' in its intended 70mm IMAX format

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This weekend's Barbenheimer (ph) phenomenon was a case study in how to make a movie an event, something no streaming experience can rival. "Barbie" did it through the joyous call of pink. "Oppenheimer" achieved it partly through director Christopher Nolan's insistence that movies belong on the biggest screen possible. From Hollywood, NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Sunrise, Hollywood Boulevard's TCL Chinese Theatre.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Morning.

QURESHI: This is one of only 30 in the world showing "Oppenheimer" on 70mm IMAX film. And this Sunday's screening comes with refreshments, as I learn from fellow ticketholders Russel Carter and Cassie Grilley.

CASSIE GRILLEY: Free coffee, baby. Free coffee (laughter).

RUSSEL CARTER: You know why we're here at 6 a.m.? - because we waited until the last minute to get IMAX tickets.

QURESHI: Was this a normal time to think about coming to see a film?

GRILLEY: No. I've never done this before. Have you done this before?

QURESHI: Never At 5 a.m. No.

Christopher Nolan has insisted that IMAX 70mm film is how his drama about nuclear war is meant to be experienced.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OPPENHEIMER")

MATT DAMON: (As Leslie Groves) How about because this is the most important thing to ever happen in the history of the world?

BENNY HAR-EVEN: I refer to it as 3D without the glasses.

QURESHI: Benny Har-Even covers cinema technology for Forbes magazine.

HAR-EVEN: It's part artistry but also makes for great marketing, and it builds up a lot of hype.

QURESHI: In the marketing buildup to the film's release, an online fandom emerged around "Oppenheimer" unrelated to its subject matter. Videos of projectionists with 11 miles of large-format film stock, huge negatives being assembled onto platters.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It runs through our projection system at 1.7 meters a second, so it is flying through that system.

QURESHI: The strategy worked. Many IMAX screenings are now sold out into August and accounted for more than a quarter of "Oppenheimer's" $80 million opening weekend.

HOYTE VAN HOYTEMA: My name is Hoyte Van Hoytema. I'm the DP of "Oppenheimer." If you see for the first time an IMAX pure-contact print from a negative projected on the screen, it's like somebody is slapping you in the face.

QURESHI: Even though most people won't see it this way, I asked Hoyte Van Hoytema if there is an elitism to saying one version is superior.

VAN HOYTEMA: Well, I'm a big snob when it comes to acquisition - right? - the way that we acquire, you know, the images for this film, and I go through great, great lengths to do my part in making this experience as special as possible. So in a way, yes, I'm very snobby, but I also think that, as we say, sometimes, you know, the proof is in the pudding. You know, you're not doing it just for self-indulgence sake. You're doing it because you're trying to create the best experience possible to see it.

QURESHI: At three hours, "Oppenheimer" is the longest film ever made for IMAX, and it has pushed some projectors to the literal breaking point period.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OPPENHEIMER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes.

(BOOING)

QURESHI: That's the sound of a film reel stopping and audiences booing a few minutes into my second unsuccessful attempt to see it in 70mm here in Los Angeles. Aidan Beatty tweeted about a similar experience in Calgary.

AIDAN BEATTY: And then after 15 seconds, the audio completely cut out. And then we waited a few seconds, and it popped back in. So I thought, oh, this is just something that might get fixed, but - nope.

QURESHI: Technology writer Benny Har-Even says physical film is expensive and unpredictable.

HAR-EVEN: And the fact that it can go wrong, it's more of a performance. It's more of an event. And I think people are seeking that. In cinematic terms, it's the most - you know, it's the biggest event there is.

QURESHI: When I told Hoyte Van Hoytema I wound up seeing the digital version, I asked him if I really needed to go back.

VAN HOYTEMA: Probably you do (laughter).

QURESHI: This can't be the future for all movies and audiences. There is an exclusivity to it, but "Oppenheimer" is one argument for the in-person big-screen experience that clearly worked. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bilal Qureshi