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So what happens to Oppenheimer’s 11-mile-long IMAX prints after it leaves theaters?

IMAX went to great lengths to prepare for Christopher Nolan’s movie, and the same goes for when it’s gone

As J. Robert Oppenheimer in the film Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy wears goggles and stares through a porthole at an explosion casting an intensely bright light on his face Image: Universal Pictures
Austen Goslin (he/him) is an entertainment editor. He writes about the latest TV shows and movies, and particularly loves all things horror.

Christopher Nolan loves the big screen. Oppenheimer is proving, once again, that it loves him right back. But long before anyone had actually seen Nolan’s fantastic biopic, the director and his fans alike were talking about its biggest (literally) selling point: IMAX 70mm film projection.

As Nolan and IMAX said in the lead-up to the unlikely blockbuster’s release last month, the three-hour movie spanned a jaw-dropping 11 miles when laid out on IMAX 70mm film, and weighed around 600 pounds. But here’s a question that wasn’t part of the hype cycle: What happens to a 600-pound, 11-mile film reel when it’s done being played in theaters? Polygon reached out to IMAX for the answer.

It turns out that most prints of Oppenheimer will go into storage, despite their massive size. IMAX says it’s worth keeping them around because they will still get plenty of use. According to an IMAX representative, IMAX 70mm film lasts, on average, 10 times longer than standard 35mm or 70mm film, meaning that the existing reels can be used for the next 20 years. The rep noted that Nolan is one of the rare filmmakers to earn IMAX repertory screenings on the regular, and said that the company fully expects to be playing Oppenheimer again in the future.

The massive film drums will end up in a few other places, too. Some will be housed in the film archive at IMAX’s Los Angeles office, according to the rep, while others will remain on site at select IMAX theaters. The British Film Institute in London, for instance, is one of the locations known for retrospectives and marathons of Nolan’s work, “so [they] will certainly find use for it,” the rep said. The bulk of the remaining IMAX 70mm film prints for Oppenheimer will be sent to Universal Pictures, the studio behind the movie, for storage.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, in hat, hands on hips, stands with his back to the camera and considers the tower at the atomic bomb test site before a huge, cloudy desert sky in the film Oppenheimer Image: Universal Pictures

If Oppenheimer does one day return to theaters, it’ll be in part because IMAX spent top dollar preparing them to handle the projection effort. As it turns out, almost as much work went into making sure theaters were ready for Oppenheimer as the other way around.

Getting projectors ready for Nolan’s film was a process that took more than two years, according to the IMAX spokesperson. It started with IMAX’s trained teams checking in regularly on every projector that would be used. They disassembled and cleaned the machines, and ensured that the theaters they were located in had the proper equipment to support them.

Each site also had two or three technicians who would ensure that everything was set up perfectly for the film, including alignment, sound, and brightness. Not every theater did, so IMAX hired 50 career projectionists to make sure that the movie was played perfectly. Each projectionist was provided with special training courses for the movie, and IMAX then sent them out to locations that didn’t have dedicated projectionists of their own.

Thankfully, all two years of preparation seem well worth the effort. Oppenheimer is not only a tremendous film, but alluring enough to entice the common moviegoer to see it in its special format, too. In fact, most theaters are pushing to extend their IMAX 70mm runs of the movie as long as possible — which is good news, since scalpers are already trying to capitalize on demand by selling tickets secondhand. But when it finally does leave theaters, we can all take comfort in the fact that there are closets big enough to hold an 11-mile-long movie.

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