Cinerama Holiday: The Original Widescreen Process Returns

Cinerama, the original widescreen motion picture format, has made something of an encore this year. This is largely due to the special-edition DVD release in September of one of only two narrative feature films made in Cinerama, "How the West Was Won" (1963). In the wake of this release, Rebecca Paller, a curator at the Paley Center for Media (a major media archive), blogged about Cinerama; and journalist Keith Phipps has written about Cinerama on Slate (comparing its brief use for narrative films in the early-1960s to the similar potential today for IMAX).

Both of these writers make useful observations about Cinerama. (Readers not familiar with the widescreen format can study up here, here, here, and/or here.) Both offer personal stories about viewing Cinerama, Paller about seeing it when it was first available in the 1950s and 1960s, Phipps about experiencing it during an unlikely Cinerama revival in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, in the 1990s. These anecdotes point up a terribly important feature of the experience of Cinerama--that is was an experience. As Paller recounts, her family travelled many miles to a theatre in another town to attend Cinerama films, and as the title of her piece ("Put on Your Sunday Clothes") indicates, this was the kind of experience that people anticipated for days if not weeks, dressed up for as if going to church, and bragged about to their neighbors afterwards. I know from my own research that theatres featuring Cinerama advertised and tried to attract patrons from a very broad geographical range, due to the limited number of Cinerama-equipped theatres and the uniqueness of the experience.

The importance of Cinerama, especially to film exhibition, cannot be underestimated. It was important for several reasons: First, it created a cultural sensation in the early-1950s that reignited public interest in movies and moviegoing, after it had slumped for several years post-World War II and had begun to be affected by competition from television. Second, it established a new technical standard, that of the wide screen, that invigorated film exhibition in the early-1950s (precipitating CinemaScope and all the other widescreen processes of the 1950s) and introduced widescreen as a means of viewing visual media that continues to reverberate today with the diffusion of widescreen TVs. Next, it transformed the stylistic palette of cinema, requiring filmmakers to adapt to creating moving images for a wider screen. Finally, it introduced a new mode of moviegoing--what came to be known as "roadshow" or "hard ticket" exhibition (due to the fact that patrons needed reserved seat tickets), that included advance ticket sales, printed programs, intermissions, and a new lease on life for picture palace movie theatres, which were well-suited for the kind of film viewing experience provided by Cinerama.

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