Reel talk: New generation fights for 35mm experience

Special Reports

The students at 5th Avenue Cinema are passionate about the classic format

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — When most people think about film, they picture their favorite movies, actors and directors. They probably don’t spend much time imagining the work that goes on behind the projector, or the people who painstakingly inspect and prepare the film for viewing. In an increasingly digital world, it’s a skill that a group of Portland State University students is fighting to preserve.

“I planned a long time ago that I was going to dedicate my life to running 35mm and appreciating cinema,” Amelia Eichler said.

It may seem like a heavy statement, but the PSU senior and lead projectionist at the campus’s 5th Avenue Cinema has loved film since her life began. Eichler, who now sports a tattoo of a film reel on her right arm, credits her grandfather for sparking that passion.

5th ave amelia tattoo
Eichler has decided she wants to dedicate her life to preserving 35mm film and cemented that plan by getting this tattoo (Hannah Ray Lambert)

“Film is an art form and it’s a physical art form and I think it should be appreciated that way,” she said.

For more than two years, Eichler has found a home at the student-run movie theater, which has been operating since 1989. Movies are currently shown on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The films run in 16mm and DCP (digital), but Eichler said 35mm is her favorite. While venues like the Hollywood Theater and Northwest Film Center still use 35mm, PSU is one of the only colleges that can say the same.

“Most theaters don’t really run 35mm anymore because they threw out their equipment in the early 2000s or the early 2010s,” Eichler said. “So digital seems to be a more economical way to run film.”

There’s much debate over film vs. digital among cinephiles. In decades past, movies were all shot with cameras that would take a certain number of photographs (AKA frames) each second and spit out a negative on a filmstrip. After a chemical treatment, reels of film were shipped off to theaters where people like Eichler run the filmstrip through a projector.

5th ave makaveli
Makaveli Gresham is the cinema coordinator at 5th Avenue Cinema (Hannah Ray Lambert)

Cinema coordinator Makaveli Gresham doesn’t take a strong stance on either side of the argument, but he does believe if “something’s originally produced on film, you should definitely continue to screen it on film so we can preserve the legacy of those films.”

Eichler describes it as a “different experience to run 35,” an experience that many theaters lost after switching to digital.

That 1950s-era experience, from the popcorn (free!), to the old-timey concession stand ads, is re-created at the cinema. Eichler said many viewers feel nostalgic, recalling the first time they saw the movie. While she remains in the booth, switching reels and making sure everything goes smoothly, she loves hearing the laughter from in the theater.

5th avenue cinema ads
5th Avenue Cinema often plays old-fashioned movie ads to preserve the classic theater-going experience (Hannah Ray Lambert)

Graduation is looming for Eichler (next month) and Gresham (spring). They’re two of five employees at the cinema. Now they’re trying to make sure the cinema’s legacy is preserved.

For Gresham, that involves creating an instruction manual of sorts for the students who follow him. He would also like to see the cinema return to the way it was run in the ‘90s, screening films during the week.

Eichler hopes to stick around as a mentor after graduating, to pass on the knowledge that she herself learned from a mentor.

“There aren’t a lot of people who know how to run 35mm anymore and so I want to be able to keep it alive and make sure that it’s still running at the cinema,” she said.

5th ave cinema outside
5th Avenue Cinema, Nov. 5, 2019 in downtown Portland (Hannah Ray Lambert)
  • 5th Avenue Cinema shows films Friday, Saturday and Sunday
  • Admission is free for PSU students & faculty (with ID)
  • General admission costs $5
  • In the spirit of the old-fashioned movie-going experience, the theater only accepts cash
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