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The Film Formats of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer



Oppenheimer, USA/UK 2023. Directed and screenplay by Christopher Nolan, based on American Prometheus by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin.

Lichtburg Essen, Row G, Seats 20+21. 70mm analog projector, original version.

A lot has been written and said about Oppenheimer, and right now I don’t have any thoughts to share that haven’t already been discussed elsewhere. Instead, let’s talk about how to get the best possible cinematic experience out of this movie.

Since 2016, according to Stephen Follows, around 90% of the 200 highest grossing movies were shot on digital video. Now, if a movie was shot on analog film, run-of-the-mill digital projectors usually won’t do for film aficionados. The next hurdle to take is the format—if it was shot on 70mm film (or rather 65mm, to leave room for the soundtrack), a 35mm analog film projector won’t cut it either! And when Christopher Nolan is involved, things get even more complicated than that.

What Nolan did was film Oppenheimer in 15perf/70mm IMAX, the original analog film format for IMAX theaters. With time, however, most IMAX theaters have switched to IMAX Digital (2K 2,048×1,080), and there are only a few theaters that have upgraded in turn to IMAX Laser (4K/4,096×2,160). These projectors are a lot easier to handle and to maintain than a 15perf/70mm analog projector.

How many IMAX theaters with a 15perf/70mm projector are left? Apparently, fewer than a hundred, “mostly in museums or science centers and mainly screening short-form documentaries.” How about Europe (where I live)? Not counting the UK, which has three (two in London, one in Manchester), and not counting science centers/dome projectors (like Technik Museum Speyer’s), there’s just one single 15perf/70 IMAX movie theater left in the whole of Europe, which is located in Prague.

So if you happen to live in Europe but not in the Czech Republic, what are your options? Visiting an IMAX theater with 4K laser projectors is certainly an option, but depending on where you live, even these are rare. In Germany, particularly, there’s barely a handful; not all of them are actually 4K; and all but two can’t handle aspect ratios of up to 1.43:1. Pretty bleak.

Then, and that’s what I prefer personally, there’s the 70mm analog option. Yet again, not many theaters are left with 70mm film projectors, and yet again, the situation is particularly bleak in Germany with merely nine theaters left—three of them located in Berlin and two in Essen.

Here, I’m lucky for a change! Essen is less than an hour’s train ride from where I live, and the Lichtburg theater there is also the largest film theater in Germany. It’s a blast, really, to watch movies like Oppenheimer or Dunkirk there on 70mm analog film! And for a full digital IMAX experience, we sometimes travel to Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Not only because 4K/1.43:1 IMAX theaters are practically non-existent around here, as mentioned above, but also because movies screened in IMAX theaters in Germany are practically always dubbed to death.

Here’s the world-wide distribution of analog Oppenheimer copies in numbers:

  • IMAX 15/70: 30 prints
  • 70mm: 113 prints
  • 35mm: 80 prints

To wrap this up, here’s a remark by Christopher Nolan himself on IMAX 15perf/70mm and 70mm analog, respectively:

[Besides IMAX 15perf/70 prints, t]here will also be over one hundred 70mm prints (“a fabulous presentation,” Nolan said) sent to theaters around the world[.]

“The two formats are sort of different and I love them both,” he said.

There you go.

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