For ‘Oppenheimer,’ These Fans Go to Great Lengths for Just 30 Screens (2023)



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The IMAX 70-millimeter format is usually associated with action. But Christopher Nolan says his biopic benefited from the tall image.

For ‘Oppenheimer,’ These Fans Go to Great Lengths for Just 30 Screens (1)

By Marc Tracy

(Video) Oppenheimer | Opening Look

On Friday morning, Vasili Birlidis and three friends will pile into a rented car in Gainesville, Fla., and drive 10 hours round-trip to see a movie that will be playing on thousands of screens across the country, including in their own town.

But this is not just any movie. And more important, they are not traveling for just any screen.

It’s “Oppenheimer,” the new biopic about the man who spearheaded the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, and Birlidis, 27, insists on seeing it at the Mall of Georgia outside Atlanta on opening day because that is the closest the movie is being shown in IMAX 70-millimeter.

Many movie aficionados consider that format the gold standard, and Christopher Nolan, the writer and director of “Oppenheimer,” made it to be seen that way. But the film is available in IMAX 70-millimeter at just 30 screens in the world, 19 of them in the United States. None of those sites are in Gainesville. Or Chicago, where Ayethaw Tun, 30, lives; he is driving to Indianapolis to see it. Or Rome, where Federico Larosa, 34, lives; he is flying to London.

If you see an IMAX theater option for “Oppenheimer,” odds are it is not 70-millimeter film but a digital projection. This format, in which “Oppenheimer” is available on more than 700 screens globally, has much to recommend it: high resolution, excellent sound. Like IMAX 70-millimeter, digital IMAX has a different aspect ratio than standard theaters, meaning you will get a taller image. Imagine watching E.T. and Elliott bicycling past the moon, but you also see the night sky above the moon and all the way to the ground.


To film buffs who are buffs, specifically, of film — of movies shot and projected with a physical, photochemical product — comparing IMAX 70-millimeter to IMAX digital, let alone standard digital, is like comparing lightning to the lightning bug.

“It’s how much of the image you’re missing if you see it on another screen,” said Birlidis, a former theater manager. “To be able to see the full film the way the director intended,” he added, “and see it on film, which is a dying breed, and at one of 30 theaters on the planet — that’s pretty special.”

Nolan acknowledged in an interview that the vast majority of moviegoers will not see “Oppenheimer” in what he considers the optimal way. “I am of the first or second generation of filmmakers for whom it was absolutely clear that the majority of people were going to see their work on television, after the fact,” he said. The first time he saw the 1982 film “Blade Runner,” one of his favorites, he added, was on a pirated VHS tape.

But Nolan, who brought to our interview two kinds of film stock and a flip book the IMAX company made for him to illustrate film’s superior visual detail over digital, is evangelical about the format. He explained that IMAX 70-millimeter negatives are roughly 10 times the size of those for 35-millimeter film, for decades the theatrical standard that digital projection aspired to supplant, resulting in a crisper, clearer image. He can cite several IMAX 70-millimeter destinations off-the-cuff. (The AMC Metreon in San Francisco is “a wonderfully huge screen.”) He knew Brooklyn has one of the roughly 100 theaters showing “Oppenheimer” in ordinary 70-millimeter film — an “absolutely beautiful” print, he said.

Despite the comparatively few theaters showing the most advanced formats, he argued, the effort to make it available at all was worth it to him as well as to audiences, who can expect to pay a premium (an evening ticket to see “Oppenheimer” in IMAX 70-millimeter film in Manhattan costs nearly $30). “It’s like getting a nice dinner rather than going to Jimmy John’s,” Julian Antos, the executive director of the Chicago Film Society, said, referring to the Midwestern sandwich chain.

“The event, epic size, quality of that trickles down to the excitement for the film in all other mediums, down to when somebody’s watching on their telephone,” Nolan said. “They have different expectations of what a film that has been distributed in that way is. And so it’s always been important beyond the sheer number of screens.”

(Video) Why you need to see Oppenheimer on IMAX 70mm film




IMAX has come to stand for an entire experience: IMAX certifies theaters for stadium-like seating, viewing angle and darkness. The film itself is projected onto a huge screen — the one at the AMC Lincoln Square in Manhattan is 97 feet by 76 feet — that dominates your peripheral vision.

Nolan’s are practically the only feature films these days that both use IMAX film cameras and are shown using IMAX projectors. (Several recent movies shot partly with IMAX cameras, including last year’s “Nope,” were not projected on IMAX 70-millimeter.) For “Oppenheimer,” theaters are trotting out most of the 48 working IMAX 70-millimeter projectors left in the world. These mammoth machines can drag an “Oppenheimer” copy — 53 reels that together weigh 600 pounds and hold footage that would run 11 miles — across their 15,000-watt lamps. The theaters call into service 60 projectionists with special training, some of them retired.

“Chris has a particular affinity — and he’s almost a unicorn in this regard — for IMAX film,” Rich Gelfond, IMAX’s chief executive, said. “Without Chris, certainly, there wouldn’t be as many as exist today.”

(Video) When Directors Go To The Absolute Extreme


After his 2005 action movie “Batman Begins,” screened in digitally remastered IMAX, Nolan’s follow-up, “The Dark Knight” (2008), was the first Hollywood feature shot partly with IMAX cameras. He used them for the opening set-piece, a daring bank heist masterminded by Heath Ledger’s the Joker, and showed a reel to studio executives. “They were absolutely thrilled,” Nolan said. “Once you see it, you understand it kind of in your bones.”

Almost every Nolan movie since has used IMAX cameras. “Dunkirk” (2017) is roughly two-thirds IMAX, and, as in both his 2020 drama “Tenet” and now “Oppenheimer,” what is not IMAX was shot in traditional 70-millimeter. If you are seeing a Nolan film in IMAX, you might notice how the image toggles between filling up the whole screen and letterboxing to fill just the middle.

Unlike many Nolan movies, “Oppenheimer” is dominated not by action spectacle, but by tense conversations. Nolan said he and his cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, realized IMAX was “a wonderful format for faces” and even for the cramped committee room where a good deal of “Oppenheimer” takes place. “The screen disappears,” Nolan said. “So you’re in intimate space with the subjects.” (The filmmakers also helped develop the first black-and-white IMAX film expressly for certain scenes.)


Nolan argued that his passion for how his movies are made and displayed was justified by their influence over the viewer’s ultimate experience, even if the average filmgoer might not consciously register the difference.

“I have to believe I wouldn’t care about it as much if it didn’t have an emotional effect,” Nolan said. “There’s a favorite tactic of studio executives,” he added, “which is to say, Well, at the end of the day, isn’t it all about story? To which you say, Well, no, otherwise we would be distributing audiobooks or radio plays. In the last analysis, it is not all about story. It’s about the moving image, it’s about cinematic storytelling, and the greatest movies made could only be films.”

A correction was made on

July 20, 2023


An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misidentified a projector in the background. It was a film projector, not a digital projector.

How we handle corrections

(Video) The ‘Oppenheimer’ Cast on Filming the Trinity Test, Immersing Themselves in Their Characters, & More

Marc Tracy is a reporter on the Culture desk. More about Marc Tracy

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(Video) Oppenheimer | Official Trailer


Is Oppenheimer IMAX worth it? ›

And that's where the added power of the 70 mm IMAX format, which offers more than four times the resolution of the best commercial digital projection, really comes in. Oppenheimer is most effective when the audience is as seduced and haunted by these images as its protagonist is.

Was Oppenheimer a good movie? ›

The three-hour-long biopic recounts the life story of J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy), the theoretical physicist widely known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” and has been praised by critics for its nuanced examination of a complicated historical figure.

How can I watch Oppenheimer? ›

There are a few ways to watch Oppenheimer online in the U.S. You can use a streaming service such as Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime Video. You can also rent or buy the movie on iTunes or Google Play. You can also watch it on-demand or on a streaming app available on your TV or streaming device if you have cable.

How many theaters are showing Oppenheimer in 70mm IMAX? ›

Only 19 U.S. theaters will show 'Oppenheimer' in 70mm Imax. It's epic.

Is it better to see Oppenheimer in 70mm or IMAX? ›

Our film tries to take you into his experience, and IMAX for me is a portal into a level of emotion that you can't get from other formats,” Nolan said in a video urging audiences to watch a 70mm film projection of the film in an IMAX theater. “It allows you to fully immerse yourself in the story.”

Why is IMAX so much better? ›

Regular film formats are either 35 mm or 70 mm. Whereas IMAX film formats are 15/70 mm. This means that each frame is 70 mm high and 15 perforations wide. This also means that the film size is about 10 times bigger than the standard 35 mm film, giving the visuals in incredible clarity.

Why is Oppenheimer so popular? ›

A major reason to see this movie is because of the director and co-writer: Christopher freaking Nolan. This man is a superstar. He has likely written and/or directed some of your favorite movies, including "The Dark Knight," "Inception," "Interstellar" and many, many more.

Is Oppenheimer worth watching? ›

Many have already declared Oppenheimer as Nolan's best work so far and the movie as one of the best of this decade. While the film is engrossing, it can be challenging for the viewers. It is lengthy and intense. It does not take the easy way out of explaining everything.

Will Einstein be in Oppenheimer movie? ›

Einstein only has a handful of scenes in Oppenheimer, but each of them packs a similar punch—particularly another (fictionalized) Princeton meeting that the film keeps coming back to, revealing its full significance only in the movie's final moments.

How can I watch Oppenheimer for free? ›

MAPPA has decided to air the movie only in theaters because it has been a huge success. The studio , on the other hand, does not wish to divert revenue Streaming the movie would only slash the profits, not increase them. As a result, no streaming services are authorized to offer Oppenheimer Movie Movie for free.

Will Oppenheimer release on Netflix? ›

Oppenheimer may be in theaters for a while yet, so if you want to see it, snag your tickets now. Oppenheimer should eventually be released on Peacock rather than Netflix, (HBO) Max, or Disney+, given Universal's deal with the streamer. A streaming release date has not yet been announced.

Why is the movie called Oppenheimer? ›

Following 2020's time-bending thriller Tenet, Nolan's next movie is Oppenheimer, which is named after its subject, theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Like all Nolan projects, the film has a tantalizing premise, an impressively stacked cast and an assemblage of trusted collaborators behind the scenes.

What is the biggest movie theater screen ever? ›

The Traumplast Leonberg, a multiplex chain in Baden-Württemberg, installed an IMAX screen measuring 127.2 feet by 68.8 feet, setting the Guinness World Records for the largest permanent IMAX screen and the largest permanent cinema screen (overall).

What is the biggest cinema screen in the world? ›

Also, the rows of seats are set at a steep angle (up to 30° in some domed theatres) so that the audience is facing the screen directly. The world's largest IMAX screen currently stands in Leonberg near Stuttgart, Germany and measures 38 by 22 m (125 by 72 ft).

What is the biggest movie theater in the world? ›

The Kinepolis-Madrid Ciudad de la Imagen megaplex in Spain is the largest movie theater in the world, with 25 screens and a seating capacity of 9,200, including one 996-seat auditorium.

Is Oppenheimer worth watching in theaters? ›

Why you should watch the film only in theatre? The movie has been shot with wide-angle deep-focus IMAX cameras. As per Nolan, "The sharpness and the clarity and the depth of the image is unparalleled… You're getting a feeling of 3D without the glasses.

Why should I watch Oppenheimer? ›

[Oppenheimer] explores how one man's brilliance, hubris, and relentless drive changed the nature of war forever, led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and unleashed mass hysteria. The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer's role in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II.

Should I watch Oppenheimer or Barbie first? ›

First Oppenheimer (But Leave Before the Explosion), Then Barbie, Then the Rest of Oppenheimer. Even if you're more excited for Barbie than Oppenheimer, it's hard to deny that the Trinity test — the thing to which a significant part of Nolan's three-hour movie is building — is going to be hard to follow.


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