SFIFF: The Challenge of Film Festival Projection

The San Francisco International Film Festival presents as many as 26 features, talks, and short subject collections a day. How do they handle all those movies?

Festival Technical Director Jeremy Stevermer was kind enough to sit down with me Thursday evening and explain how it’s done.

I was particularly curious about the challenges of running a festival at the Kabuki. After all, the Castro and the Pacific Film Archive project a wide variety of formats year round, and are well equipped for versatility. They’re also equipped for changeover projection, which allows 35mm films to be shown with a minimum of prep work. Like most multiplexes, the Kabuki uses only platter projection.

Before you can project a movie with platters, you have to transfer the film from multiple 2,000-foot reels onto a huge, horizontal platter beside the projector, removing the leader and spicing the film together. This saves a lot of work if you’re showing the same feature over and over for weeks, but it hardly seemed practical—or even possible—when you’re screening four or six movies a day on each of four screens. Yet that’s exactly what Jeremy and his staff of two to four projectionists do.

(See Methods of Projection for more on platter vs. changeover.)

How do they do it? With clamps. When a film comes in, one of them transfers it onto a platter. Then they use clamps to hold the thousands of feet of film (about 1,000 feet for every 11 minutes of runtime) together so they can lift it off the platter without it unraveling. They store these clamped films on racks, and carry them from projector to projector.

Needless to say, rare, archival prints can’t be handled this way—or, for that matter screened on platters. That’s why most of the classics shown at the festival are screened at the Castro or the PFA, where they have changeover projection.

But film is only part of the problem. The festival also gets a lot of stuff on video, and that comes in all sorts of formats. Jeremy told me that they try to get everything in either HDCam or Digibeta. “Ninety percent of our shows are in one of these formats,” but occasionally they have to deal with something else. To make things more complicated, the Kabuki’s screens don’t all have digital projectors. And only one, Theater 4, has the sort of professional DLP projection system turning up in more and more multiplexes.

It’s quite a job, and Jeremy starts planning for it in January. This is his 11th year on the festival’s tech team, and “the shows have gotten bigger.” And in some cases, the hardware has gotten smaller. The clips I saw at the Conversation with T Bone Burnett and Walter Murch’s State of Cinema Address PowerPoint presentation were both done on Jeremy’s laptop.

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