Dunkirk and Film Format Snobbery

I’ve been accused of being a film snob numerous times. Any time you disagree with someone about the merits of a film, particularly a blockbuster action film or comedy, you open yourself up to accusations of snobbery. In general I say, each to their own. We all like what we like, and hate with equal individuality and vigour. I reserve my right to prattle on about Footloose but turn my nose up at Step Brothers; there’s no accounting for taste.

The advance of digital filmmaking and projection has brought with it a new flavour of film snobbery; one that focusses on what format the film is projected in. This snobbery tends to favour 35mm film projection over digital and when Christopher Nolan gets involved it goes even further.

A few weeks back after the first press screenings of Nolan’s Dunkirk my Twitter feed was littered with critics and more successful bloggers tweeting about how everyone has to go see Dunkirk and more importantly how they must see it:

A. On the big screen

B. Projected on film

C. In 70mm

D. In IMAX

Seeing it in any other format simply will not suffice apparently.

I have lots of issues with this fetishisation of projection format. But first, some concessions. Yes, I have seen Nolan’s Interstellar projected in 70mm. Yes, Christopher Nolan does specifically use IMAX cameras because he ideally wants people to see the film that way. But… The fact is that not everybody can, nor should they.

If I want to see Dunkirk tonight I have the choice of heading to Waterloo for a 70mm IMAX screening and pay £18.50 or go down to the excellent Peckhamplex and pay £4.99. I will get different experiences at both and the IMAX isn’t necessarily the better. I would say roughly 70% of seat in an IMAX screen are in suboptimal positions that will result in a cricked neck or awkward viewing angle (this is not a scientific measure). Add to this the increase in cost and IMAX is simply too pricey for everyone to consider seeing the film in this format.

I suppose my real problem with the snobbery around film projection format is that it is inherently elitist. Suggesting that there is a proper, and more expensive, way to watch a film creates a strange hierarchy of viewers that only benefits the larger wallets. Let’s not forget that the critics, and sometimes little old me, have seen this film in their “best” format for free with the occasional glass of wine thrown in. They have also only seen the film in the one format so have no comparison to make.

I remain of the opinion that if a film is any good then it doesn’t matter how it is projected. A film that is beautiful and immersive should draw you in whether projected from celluloid of any size or whatever science happens inside a digital projector. So long as the format isn’t obstructing you then stop worrying about pixels or film grain, sit back, and enjoy the film.

Heck, Nolan himself doesn’t mind you streaming his films so long as they’ve had a chance in the cinema first.

Films are, and should remain, an accessible part of British culture. The obsession with 70mm over 35mm over digital may be grounded in truth but the most important consideration should be what film to watch, not what box it comes in.