Sharing rarities 

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If you're a film buff in Rochester, you've likely developed a Pavlovian response to the slow rise of the Dryden Theatre's iconic gold curtain as it reveals the cinema's pristine silver screen. Along with the dimming of the house lights, the sight inspires a certain excitement, signaling not just that the film's about to begin, but that you're about to enter another world. And when that curtain rises on the first screening of the Eastman Museum's Nitrate Picture Show each year, it offers viewers the chance to embrace a rare piece of film history. With just a hint of danger attached.

From its inception in 2015, the Nitrate Picture Show has been dedicated exclusively to screening nitrate prints, allowing classic and archival films — most at least 60 to 70 years old — to be seen on the big screen in their original format. In some cases, for the first time in decades.

Made from a base of nitrocellulose (a material closely related to gunpowder), nitrate film was the dominant format for motion pictures from about 1895 to 1948. Though nitrate has a picture quality that remains unparalleled for its vibrancy, clarity, and depth, it also had a troubling habit of bursting into flames at the slightest provocation, leading to its discontinued use.

By 1951 the less volatile "safety film," made from cellulose acetate, became the standard. After that point, nitrate prints were rarely screened, both because of their combustive nature and the simple fact that few cinemas remained that were still equipped to screen them safely.

Nitrate film is also physically unstable, and even when treated with the proper care it will naturally deteriorate and shrink over time. Each year sees more and more films lost to history as they became too damaged to project, and those casualties led the adage "nitrate won't wait" to proliferate among film preservationists and historians. But nitrate's aesthetic qualities and its rarity are what have made it the most desirable of film formats for cinephiles.

And the Nitrate Picture Show has given them everything they've wanted.

Creating a dialogue between art and technology, the Nitrate Picture Show exemplifies the Eastman Museum's mission to bring film history out of the archives and invest it with fresh life. In the case of celluloid, that means projecting it to a rapt audience of enthusiastic film fans from around the world. Movies were meant to be watched, after all, and the festival is an opportunity to educate the public by immersing them fully in the history of the medium.

It's a mission that Festival Directors Jared Case and Deborah Stoiber (working with the Eastman Museum's former curator of film exhibition Jurij Meden, now head of programming at the Austrian Film Museum) take seriously.

Nitrate Picture Show co-directors Deborah Stoiber and Jared Case say the annual festival is a chance to nerd out with fellow film lovers, professional and otherwise. The 5th Nitrate Picture Show takes place at Eastman Museum's Dryden Theatre from Saturday, May 4, through Monday, May 6. - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • Nitrate Picture Show co-directors Deborah Stoiber and Jared Case say the annual festival is a chance to nerd out with fellow film lovers, professional and otherwise. The 5th Nitrate Picture Show takes place at Eastman Museum's Dryden Theatre from Saturday, May 4, through Monday, May 6.

"The impetus behind this whole thing was we want to share," Case says. "It's that James Card philosophy," he continues, referring to the founding curator of the Dryden. "He said that his idea of hell is having all these films to show and no one to show them to. So having this place here and the ability to show nitrate film only to the people in the Rochester area seemed so limited. We wanted to expand that, make an entire weekend out of it, and make it a destination for people to come and be able to experience nitrate projection."

And since it's become a tradition for the festival to keep the film lineup a secret until the morning it begins, people are coming purely for that experience, in whatever form it happens to come in.

The result is a festival that caters to those with an interest in what films were made in cinema's early decades, but also the history of how they were made. And the event is doing its part in upholding Rochester's reputation around the world as a "film town."

Fittingly, despite the Nitrate Picture Show's full schedule of lectures, workshops, book signings, and tours, the film screenings remain the stars. Packed showings let audiences appreciate the look of nitrate for themselves, from the saturation of colors to the rich contrast between its gleaming whites and deep blacks. Those are especially evident in the heavy shadows seen in noir films, which is why the festival's curators have made a point to schedule one each year.

The notoriously combustible nature of the medium also gives the festival that slight aura of danger, which the museum is more than happy to play up: "Film is cool, Nitrate is hot" is the festival's tagline. Branded matchbooks have been included in festival bags given to passholders, among plenty of other playful references to the medium's fiery reputation.

For the record, the museum does obey strict codes and undergoes extensive certifications in order to be licensed to project nitrate film. (Learn more about those safety precautions in CITY's May 4, 2018 interview with some of the projectionists behind the Nitrate Picture Show, online at rochestercitynewspaper.com).

But one of the greatest outcomes of the festival, both Case and Stoiber say, is that it's prompted American film archives and others around the world to take another look at their own nitrate material to see if they can be part of it.

The first year, about half of the films shown at the Nitrate Picture Show were from the Eastman's own collection, with the rest provided by American archives that already had some working relationship with the museum. But each successive year has branched out further to include more and more foreign archives. This has allowed the Eastman Museum staff to collaborate with organizations they might not otherwise have had the opportunity to, building bridges in the worldwide film community.

The Nitrate Picture Show program booklet always lists the source of every print, along with notes on the overall quality of the print. Some of these archives have been able to send a staff member or two to attend the festival. Case and Stoiber both admit that the event can be exciting simply for the chance to nerd out with their fellow film lovers, professional or otherwise.

"Sitting back and watching celluloid going through projector with a bunch of friendly faces is, to me, the best vacation I can think of," Stoiber says.

Some of those visiting organizations don't have the ability to screen nitrate at their facilities, so just the chance to see it projected is something that people are making a commitment to fly around the world to experience.

As Director of the Thai Film Archive, Chalida Uabumrungjit has repeatedly made the trek from Thailand to attend the festival. Because the Thai archive doesn't have the ability to screen nitrate, the festival offers a unique opportunity.

"Nitrate film is always a myth," Uabumrungjit said in an email to CITY. "I work in the film archive so we get to inspect it, but never see it projected. So I was so excited to see the film on screen, but it also provided me an understanding of the characteristics of the material, which is very useful for my work."

Which is not to say that the Nitrate Picture Show is intended exclusively for film scholars or those in the film preservation community. Stoiber particularly encourages attendees to make it a family affair, and bring their kids along; the communal nature of movie-watching is one that anyone can enjoy. "It's really wonderful because you have such an enthusiastic audience, and it's good for kids to get that experience," she says.

Nora Fiore — better known as "The Nitrate Diva" to the more than 38,000 Twitter followers who delight at her thoughtful and entertaining postings about the world of classic cinema — is one film lover who's traveled to attend the festival multiple times. This year will be her fourth. Fiore had never viewed nitrate when she chose that name seven years ago, but when she heard about the Nitrate Picture Show through social media, the chance to see the format that she'd long romanticized projected for the very first time was too much to resist.

"There's all these fabled stories about what this film stock looks like, and the glow it has, and the incredible lost beauty of these prints, on a material that's not used anymore," Fiore says. "So just that tantalizing possibility from a bygone era lured me to Rochester. And it was everything I wanted it to be."

And Fiore is just one of many film lovers who come together in Rochester to be a part of the festival. "You don't have to have anything in common with anybody else in the audience except that you're both there to watch a film. That's all you need to have in common with the person next to you," Stoiber says. "And when you get everybody who loves celluloid together, it really just makes all the work that we do worthwhile."

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The festival's continues to expand, bringing in audiences far outside the greater Rochester area and garnering increased national and international press. With people traveling in from France to Japan, Portugal to Australia, each edition of the festival has seen an increase in the number of passes sold outside the United States.

Back in 2015, the Eastman Museum was one of only three venues in America that were licensed to project nitrate. Following the success of the festival's first installment, several theaters have been inspired to reconsider their capacity to project nitrate film.

Following the first year of the festival, the Mexican film archive Filmoteca UNAM immediately scheduled some nitrate screenings for that fall. Within a year there were plans for the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard — which had long ago removed its capacity to screen nitrate — to retrofit the venue to screen the format once again. And The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, currently being built in Los Angeles, will have the ability to show nitrate film built in. "It's become a symbol of status to have the ability to embrace the entire breadth of filmmaking history," Case says.

Despite the increased interest in projecting nitrate around the world, Rochester's Nitrate Picture Show remains the only full-fledged festival of its kind.

The films screened have ranged from behemoths like "Casablanca" to lesser known and foreign titles. The goal is to have a wide variety in the lineup, Stoiber says. "Particularly since we're not announcing the titles before the start of the festival, we want to make sure there's something everybody can enjoy when they come: the big headliners, but also the obscure ones that allow people to discover new things."

And the atmosphere inside the theater can be lively. Besides the gasps, laughs, or tears the narratives inspire, it's not uncommon to hear the audience react audibly to a particularly striking image. And the films often leave their viewers eager to learn more about the medium they've just watched.

Stoiber leads many of those visitors on tours of the Eastman Museum's nitrate vault, giving them a peek at the facility that houses 24,000 reels of film at the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center in North Chili. It's a chance for the public to see for themselves how nitrate reels are housed, inspected, and organized. These tours give people a sense of the time involved in preserving film and why it's important to keep them, but it's also a chance for them to thrill at sharing the same physical space as the original nitrate negatives that were on set during the filming of "Gone With the Wind" or "The Wizard of Oz."

The festival has developed its own traditions, including the popular "Blind Date With Nitrate" as its final screening, which remains a mystery up until the moment the audience has taken their seats. That screening always generates its share of discussion, and part of the fun comes from guests attempting to guess the title based on the clue of a single frame printed in the festival program. For the record, no one's ever guessed correctly.

Also popular is the annual shorts program, which traditionally kicks off the weekend's screenings. Last year, the program included a costume drama all the way from 1913, titled "In a Roman Garden" as well as "Movies Are Adventure," a promotional short produced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that heralds the magic of the movies. Each film selection gets an introduction from a representative of the archive that provided it.

Just two weeks after the festival ends, Stoiber will be traveling to the Library of Congress, and the process of selecting next year's films will begin.

Five years in, the festival feels on the precipice of evolution, and its runners are taking the opportunity to rethink some things and look for new ways to grow and expand. Those changes include a potential reconsideration of the traditional secrecy of the festival's lineup, and a shift in dates, with the sixth edition of the Nitrate Picture Show scheduled for June 4-7, 2020.

But no matter what changes lay ahead, the focus will always remain on entertaining and educating audiences, spreading the passion for film, and showcasing the beauty of nitrate by giving these artifacts of film history another chance to shine.

"There's things here that you're never going to see again," Case says. "Not just because they're rare, but these particular artifacts, for some of them this is the last time that they're going to be run through a projector. We're not going to bring the print from Japan out here again. And there are no places in Japan that can show nitrate. And all these films are meant to be seen on a big screen. So this 65-year-old film has one more chance to fulfill that destiny, and that's by sending it to Rochester to be part of the Nitrate Picture Show."

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