09/07/2012 08:50 am ET

Paul Thomas Anderson's 'The Master' On 70mm Harkens Back To Hollywood Epics

When famed Austin, Texas, movie theater the Alamo Drafthouse announced its newest series of classic film screenings, they were quick to tout that they'd be showing the movies in 70mm -- a rarity now in most modern movie house projection booths.

"Nothing -- digital or otherwise -- can ever match the power and glory of 70mm film!" the Alamo Drafthouse statement read. "While movie studios and theaters dump celluloid to replace with computer files and giant TVs, the Alamo is proud to instead leap into the tremendous, triumphant arena of 70mm."

Indeed, 70mm is certainly a "tremendous and triumphant" arena, in the past reserved for epic Hollywood movies like "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Lawrence of Arabia." But now the award-winning director and screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson has made 70mm a buzzword again, becoming its poster boy by wading into a debate that has been raging in film circles for the last decade: With all this new technology available, do films really look better than they used to?

"Do you remember what a movie should look like?" Roger Ebert asked in a 2011 essay. "Do you notice when one doesn't look right? Do you feel the vague sense that something is missing? I do. I know in my bones how a movie should look."

Anderson seems to know, too, and he has been shunning modern digital technology since the first take of his newest film, "The Master," which he and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. shot in expensive and expansive 65mm, without any digital cameras (65mm is the negative film stock which is then printed on 70mm film). Anderson also favored a more obsolete form of post-production, having his editor cut the film the old-fashioned way: with a pair of scissors.

Anderson has been extremely hands-on in all aspects of production, in fact, creating his own teaser trailers for the film and uploading them directly online without studio involvement. And when it came to presentation, he wanted to see "The Master" look the best that it could before it was released around the world to cinemas with digital projectors.

So in the past few months, Anderson embarked on a sort of special screening tour in advance of the film's release, choosing to screen "The Master" in old movie houses known for their grandeur, their style and their aging projectors capable of screening in 70mm -- like Chicago's Music Box and San Francisco's Castro.

Keith Arnold, the general manager and programmer for The Castro, a 1400-seat theatre, said the impact of screening in 70mm is clear.

"When it comes to 70mm, the big show becomes the really big show, the details of the picture and sound, the resolution -- it all becomes bigger," Arnold said. "It's a very provocative conversation that Mr. Anderson and the studios may be getting into. With this 70mm pre-released tour he orchestrated, maybe it gets a big enough response that the studios make more 70mm films."

The problem is most theaters don't have the capability to screen films in 70mm anymore, as many have already transferred to using only digital projectors. The New York Times reported that 20th Century Fox will phase out 35mm film altogether next year, and many smaller theaters will need to shelve the projectors they've used since they opened in favor of costly digital ones.

"The Master" will be released digitally in many theaters as it rolls out over the next few weeks, but that version certainly won't look as crisp or expansive as it could, said Arnold.

Steve Kraus, a film projectionist and owner of the Lake Street Screening Room, whom Ebert once referred to as one of the best projectionists in the nation, said many studios don't seem to mind that the digital incarnations diminish the quality. While film projectionists might never have been artists, he suggested, they at least used to be valued masters of a craft. Nowadays, he said, there's "one person running ten screens," and a lot less tender loving care involved in screening films.

"The career projectionist, I think, has kind of gone away," Kraus said. "People complain that film scratches after only a few uses. Well, a proper projector in a proper booth does not scratch a film every time you run it. What's the point of having the best images if they're not being taken care of?"

Kraus said many of those older 70mm prints of classic films still hold up today, and they still "look glorious" when they're shown on the big screen. The Village Voice pointed out that "The Master" is the first film to be shot entirely on 65mm since Kenneth Brannagh's 1996 version of "Hamlet."

"It's possible some might not notice," Kraus said of the difference between a 70mm film projection and a digital transfer. "But something shot on 65mm, shown in 70mm, would still blow away the digital projection."

As "The Master" builds in buzz around the world, will more cinemas demand the best version they can get? Will audiences even notice the difference? Anderson fansite Cigarettes and Red Vines has compiled a list of the cinemas showing the film in 70mm, so you can see for yourself.

"No digital format can compare to the 70mm experience," said The Castro's Arnold. "It really show's Anderson's love of the game."