Home cinema was around long before VHS tapes hit the scene in the late seventies, and owning a personal screening room traces its origins back more than a century. Even during the era of Nickelodeon picture houses in the early 20th century, wealthy Hollywood execs could be found in their own darkened rooms, adjusting recliners, and kicking back for that special feature presentation. But in those early years, you would normally need to rely on expensive 35mm reel-to-reel projectors (as found in commercial cinemas) – as well as your own projectionist – to produce images in the home, so the private screening room was a rarity. Consequently, after The Great War, other more compact and manageable film formats started to emerge.

By the mid-1960s, a revolution took place in the form of Super 8mm film. Suddenly the act of beaming a favorite movie onto a living room wall was a luxury that the masses could now enjoy. The worldwide leading manufacturer of Super 8 projectors, Eumig of Austria, was producing over half a million projectors a year by 1976, while the public could increasingly opt for a big screen experience at home as an alternative to watching a small black and white TV. Collecting Super 8 films became an obsession for thousands of cinema devotees before the VHS revolution, but the magic of projected celluloid film in the home still hangs on to this day. Like the return to vinyl for audio enthusiasts, there is now a growing curiosity for collecting and showing vintage film in the home.

Gauging Interest

The driving force for residential film projectors at home was not only film collecting, but movie-making itself. The market for film formats less bulky than professional 35mm film goes back to 1923 when Eastman Kodak introduced its ‘amateur’ stock, 16mm. Marketed as a budget alternative for keen makers of silent films, the company sold its first ‘outfit’, consisting of camera, projector, tripod, screen and splicer for US$335 ($5,034 in today’s money). 16mm’s acetate base, as distinct from 35mm’s flammable nitrate base, made this new film gauge appealing to household users. The ability to rent and buy commercial films from the Kodascope Library was a further attraction for customers of this new equipment. In 1935, optical soundtracks became available on 16mm stock, and amateur filmmakers, documentarians and news stations continued to use the format right up until the 1990s. Before the VCR arrived in schools in the 1970s, 16mm film projectors remained the most popular AV educational tool, as well as the chief means by which to show rented commercial films in institutions.

Bell & Howell TQIII 16mm projector

In the early 1920s, French company Pathé Frères introduced the 9.5mm film format primarily for collectors of commercial movie titles (including Mickey Mouse shorts and feature films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail), although it also became a favorite with amateur content creators. Its slightly awkward single central sprocket hole mechanism meant that cheap toy projectors destroyed a lot of early films, and the arrival of Standard 8mm film in 1932 largely outmoded the gauge. There are many film collectors today who concentrate exclusively on this format.

Also known as Regular 8, Eastman Kodak’s Standard 8mm film used side-mounted sprocket holes, identical in size to those on 16mm prints. Modified 16mm stock formed the basis of spools inserted into a Standard 8 camera, which needed removing and turning over mid-filming to render images down both sides of the exposable area. Major studios began to release what became known as ‘package movies’ for collectors – usually commercial shorts, cartoons or clips from features – but few were more than 200ft in length (about 8 minutes), and Standard 8 projectors with sound were rare.

Eumig S938 Stereo Super 8 projector

Eastman Kodak transformed the home movie industry again in 1965 with its brilliant innovation, Super 8 film. Smaller sprocket holes than Standard 8 allowed for a larger exposed picture area, and oxide stripes on both edges of the stock provided the means by which to easily record sound during image capture, or later during the editing process at home. Fujifilm, meanwhile, introduced its competing format known as Single-8. This Japanese challenger used a polyester (rather than acetate) film base, and its cartridge loading system required the use of proprietary licensed cameras for shooting, even though the final developed film would run fine in a Super 8 projector.

Super 8 projectors at a variety of price points, and with sometimes a huge range of features, could be purchased from camera stores across the USA in the 1970s, with the bulk of the manufacturers hailing from Austria (Eumig), Germany (Bauer) and Japan (Elmo, Sankyo, Chinon), while America’s own Bell & Howell was also a major player. By the end of the decade, anamorphic lenses were available for 2.66:1 CinemaScope presentations of commercial releases, while two-channel stereo and Dolby Stereo could exploit both magnetic sound stripes (the second designed originally for ballast as the film ran through the projector).

Package Delivery

The thrill of Super 8 was unquestionably the wide selection of films available to collectors. Prior to the availability of commercial VHS tapes, there were literally thousands of film titles for purchase by mail order, or at photographic retail stores. Some specialist manufacturers and outlets continued to strike film prints well into the 2000s, even though projector production all but ceased by the late 1980s.

2001: A Space Odyssey 8 x 400′ Super 8 feature released by Ken Films, NY

The most popular package movies to buy were 17-minute highlight reels (mounted on 400ft spools) of major feature films, and which the Hollywood studios released directly or via third parties. A highlight reel would include a usually skillful edit of an entire feature film with beginning, middle and end intact, and usually cost $30 for a recent release. To compete with the proliferation of VHS, Warner Bros., Fox, Disney and Columbia presented their titles in evermore alluring packaging, while Universal Pictures’ Universal 8 distribution arm pushed out a series of beautifully-transferred reels from its archive, housed in rugged injection-molded casings, and which included Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds, disaster movies, and legacy horror.

Every taste was catered for, from the latest tent-pole Hollywood offerings, to the rarest Harold Lloyd silent caper. Paramount Pictures released full length feature films on 6 or 7 x 400ft reels, including Grease, Saturday Night Fever and Marathon Man, while UK-based Derann Film Services (who sadly finally closed doors in 2011) specialized in full-length British greats from the Hammer vaults and Ealing Studios, and went on to release unabridged features such as Alien, Poltergeist and Raiders of the Lost Ark. German-based Kempski, meanwhile, produced beautiful full-length prints of Ben-Hur and West Side Story on mylar stock, in both Cinemascope and stereo sound. Walton Sound and Film Services in London also provided a host of excellent abridged and feature prints, mostly gleaned from the Rank catalogue. Price tags were usually north of $300 for a modern feature, so film collecting at that level was never a game for the faint-hearted.

Collectors of 16mm titles were also rewarded by the disbandment of film libraries in the 1980s, which left thousands of titles in circulation even to this day. Perusal of eBay and other auction sites will show both Super 8 and 16mm sought-after titles in good condition fetch eye-watering prices.

Fade to Black

Not everything is perfect about film. Colors fade over time, prints get scratched, the projectors are usually noisy (and should ideally be in a booth), and putting on a movie show is hard work. But if you’re even remotely repelled on occasion by the clinical sterility of your Blu-ray Transformers collection, then you might just be in the market for a film projector.

The act of watching film in the home is quite unique. Showing a Super 8 or 16mm trailer, cartoon or selection of cinema adverts before your main 4K/Dolby Atmos digital feature can be an intriguing way to kick off your movie night, and something that I regularly do. One could even make the case for no home cinema being complete without a Super 8 or 16mm machine to sit alongside your Epson or JVC. If you’re interested to explore this side of our hobby, check with your relatives to see if they have a film projector and selection of movies in their loft. A lot of these gadgets got sold, and a lot of them are still in existence. If you’re not getting any joy on that front, then there are still dealers like The Reel Image in Ohio or Classic Home Cinema in the UK, each of which might just help you discover a world of untapped euphoria.

After all, this is about the romanticism of allowing yourself to be hypnotized by the mechanics of a persistent turning feeder reel and take-up spool, or memories of wandering down to your local fleapit for a double-bill feature in the 1970s; all those things of which Quentin Tarantino was reminding us in Grindhouse. It’s also about analogue warmth, a gently meandering weave as the film passes through the gate, the sumptuous contrast and depth of field, and picture grain so dense you can bathe in it. The greatest travesty of the past 30 years has been the slow, miserable decline of film. Let’s all play a part in keeping it alive!

This article was adapted from similar pieces I wrote for Home Cinema Choice and Cinema Technology print magazines

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Martin Dew

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Rob W

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I was one of those Super 8 collectors back in the heyday and had full-length prints of Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Barbarella, and King Kong (1933) among others and they were all beautiful quality prints obviously printed from legitimate negatives. I drifted away from the hobby several years into VHS like so many others.

Back in the mid-2000's I was stunned to discover that the hobby had not died and Derann Films had a huge library of great titles they were still printing and selling. I got the itch back and hunted down a Eumig ST1200 in great shape and matched it with the scope lens I still had from my long gone projector. Derann were offering a scope reel of The Matrix with a major action scene as a 17 minute stand-alone (in scope) so I ordered it as my first "new" film in 20 years.

The quality was dreadful. It had been copied from a release print rather than a proper negative and was overly contrasty, minimal shadow detail and had far too many white flecks which were the result of black dirt and marks on the source print . That ended my reunion with film for good and I re-sold the projector and most of the few films I had left. I had a similar experience with a Bugs Bunny cartoon I ordered at the same time, although I can't remember if it was from Derann or not.

In fairness, Derann also released many of the Disney animated features and were provided with high-quality negatives from Disney so the final prints were from all reports superb. But the hit-and-miss issues with quality (combined with the high costs compared to DVD or blu) cured me of my Super 8 collecting itch for good.
 
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Back in the day (early '80s), Blackhawk Films and other sellers were a gold mine (and a budget-buster) with their fun assortment of classic films and shorts.

I bought my favorite Star Trek episode ("The Menagerie," both parts) from one such seller. Cost me $250, and my family nearly had me certified nuts for such a wild purchase. But it sure was fun to watch it on the projector.
 

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How did they handle 'scope films on super-8 and 16mm? Were they squeezed, letterboxed or pan-and-scanned?
 

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How did they handle 'scope films on super-8 and 16mm? Were they squeezed, letterboxed or pan-and-scanned?
If a title was sold as a Cinemascope print, it was extracted from the negative or positive squeezed master, but at 2x, so the final aspect ratio was 2.66:1. This meant that heads or feet could be lopped off on both Super 8 and 16mm! MGM also did an interesting thing on Super 8 called Cineavision which was 2.35:1 scope with black bars at the sides to prevent the head lop-off problem just mentioned.

Some releases were marketed as 'widescreen' which is what we know as letterboxed, so some scope titles were reduced to 1.85:1 or 2.0:1 with black bars top and bottom. Not sure if pan-and-scan was used but I suppose it must have been on scope titles presented as 1.33.
 
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When I was a little kid in the mid-80s, no older than five, my parents would take me to the local public library for their story time events and they’d often show cartoon shorts and educational films in 16mm. I was fascinated by the projector and the librarians noticed, and soon taught me how to thread the film and operate it. Whenever I was there, they’d let me help. At home, I became obsessed with playing my grandparents’ home movie collections on silent 8mm film.

A few years ago, I looked into buying a 16mm projector and old prints, but I just couldn’t find a way to make it feasible given that I was living in a one bedroom apartment with pretty much every movie I’d ever want in high quality HD versions. I really wanted to find a way to justify it but I just couldn’t bring myself to go down that road - when a print of a movie could cost a hundred bucks and be of lower quality than a disc I got for five bucks, along with the extra storage space needed - but it was a reluctant sort of letting go. I felt a little better when more than one collector let me know that a lot of the 16mm things I was eyeballing were on the whole of lower quality than DVD versions made from good 35mm elements. Doesn’t make the mechanical aspect any less fun but made me feel a little better for the sanity check

If I win the lottery and could buy a house big enough to hold my dream collections, I’d love to re-evaluate.


If I were rich, I'd collect 16mm & 35mm prints, though I think even with unlimited funds, good prints are hard to come by these days.
That’s what I was led to believe in my research. There was a robust collector’s market for many years but the easy availability first of discs and then streaming in many ways made those collections mostly irrelevant to modern viewing. And not to be grim about it, but younger generations tend not to be as interested in this stuff so when some of the older collectors have passed, their heirs haven’t had the interest in continuing the hobby or the desire to sort through and sell what they’ve inherited. I can certainly understand it - if no one wants a DVD collection, what chance does an old 16mm collection have?


How did they handle 'scope films on super-8 and 16mm? Were they squeezed, letterboxed or pan-and-scanned?
All of the above, I think, depending on the title and the distributor.
 

Worth

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Five or six years ago, I spoke with a fellow who runs the local repertory theatre and tried to book 35mm prints whenever possible. Even then, he said it was becoming increasingly difficult. The distributors didn't even know what they had - they'd promise a print only to discover that they no longer had one or that it wasn't in good enough shape to run. Sometimes they'd say to just show the blu-ray.
 

Martin Dew

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I can certainly understand it - if no one wants a DVD collection, what chance does an old 16mm collection have?
I can only understand it to an extent. There is still no projected video technology that can replicate blacks and contrast like film, so there should be younger people taking interest in our old analogue world. Luckily, I do notice younger collectors coming onto the scene at the Super 8 conventions I go to.

While 4K UHD discs have gone a long way to replicate a professional Cinema DLP presentation with HDR and P3 color, as well as make catalogue titles look much more organic with more detailed grain structure (paradoxically), there is no substitute for blocking light completely to reproduce projected black on-screen. My friends at Dolby tell me they're always striving to reproduce that benchmark. Some of the Derann LPP Super 8 titles I have blow DVD - and sometimes even Blu-ray - out of the water, simply because you're viewing the entire color spectrum and contrast range. Same goes for 16mm - a premium print can be extraordinarily vivid after watching a diet of digital presentations. Small format film may not compete with BD on resolution, but it will compete on three-dimensionality and realism.

The hassles with film are the costs of film ownership, as you said, the time it takes to put on a show, wear, storage, and painstaking maintenance. If you can put up with all that, then it's just as fun a hobby as its digital cousin!
 

Worth

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If you have deep pockets, there are a large number of 16 & 35mm prints for sale on eBay.
 
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Some of us still haven't grown up! I'm still projecting reels of film in my home cinema on 8mm, 9.5mm, 16mm and Pathe 17.5mm sound. I retired my 35mm Kinoton projector just a couple of years ago after well over 50 year of reel film collecting.
In our home cinema film projection has the top spot and the 4K system sits underneath it :)

It's been a fascinating interest throughout my life including making my own films to project and perhaps the greatest thrill is projecting Star Wars full length, un molested in Scope using a Anamorphic lens and Stereo sound on the Elmo S8 projector still going strong since I took it out the box in 1983. I got into film collecting in the 1960's.

Reel film collecting is actually quite healthy with collecting events still taking place across the UK pre Karaoke Virus.
 
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Up until around 15 years ago I projected 35mm movies at home using a 1928 model Kalee projector with a QI light source. Although ancient, the projector gave images as good as any cinema with good quality sound. I built a walled-off projection booth in a back room of the house yet was able to sit with my friends during a screening. Having only one projector meant a five-minute break every 20 minutes or so, but this gave me time to pour yet another drink for my enthusiastic audience.

In Melbourne, Australia at the time there was a group of like collectors who would share their films about. There were always plenty to run.
kalee.jpg
 

OLDTIMER

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I should have added in my posting above that my home-35mm years came after many years of collecting and projecting films since the late 1950s. This included 8mm, 16mm and even 9.5mm sound.

I was so keen that in the 1970s I moonlighted as a 35/70mm cinema projectionist. Real film projection (no pun intended) gets into your blood!
 
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