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Eastman Museum cancels 2020 Nitrate Picture Show


The 2020 Nitrate Picture Show is yet another cultural casualty of COVID-19. Eastman Museum announced Wednesday that the 6th Nitrate Picture Show, scheduled for June 4-7, has been postponed to June 3-6, 2021.

“More than 80 percent of current festival passholders would need to travel to Rochester from across the country or overseas, making their attendance inadvisable and nearly impossible in the current environment,” read a prepared statement from the museum.

Since 2015, the Nitrate Picture Show has functioned as a recurring niche gathering with a global draw, pulling in patrons as well as visiting lecturers from around the world, and garnering national attention from VICE, Film Comment magazine, and other outlets.

The festival was expected to generate $71,000 in revenue for the museum, according to museum staff. Of course, the cancellation will also have a ripple effect in the wider community, particularly because the event was known to draw so many visitors from out of town.

Last year’s event, for instance, drew about 400 attendees from 12 different countries, and museum staff said this year’s registration was tracking ahead of last year’s. Over its history, the festival has drawn attendees from 20 nations, according to the museum.

With a vibrant picture quality that remains unmatched in clarity, nitrate film was the dominant medium for motion pictures from 1895 to 1948, but fell out of use due to its volatility — the notoriously combustible material had a habit of burning movie theaters to the ground. Today, only a handful facilities worldwide are equipped to safely screen movies on nitrate film.

For festival goers, the schedule of specific movies took a back seat to the experience of seeing a screening on nitrate. The annual event is as much about education as it is about entertainment — aside from screenings of rare films on nitrate (most of which are kept secret until a big reveal at a press conference held just before the festival), the event features lectures, workshops, and tours of the museum’s vaults, projection booths, and special locations around Rochester that highlight the city’s potent history in film manufacturing and culture.

This year’s festival was to include a Louise Brooks Locations Tour, an exclusive one-hour bus tour of Rochester’s Park Avenue neighborhood where Brooks lived and wrote until her death in 1985. Also planned was a three-hour Guided Kodak Factory Tour led by Kodak personnel that was to provide an inside look at modern film manufacturing, including the film sensitizing facility and the film finishing factory. These events, as well as the feature scheduled to open the festival, the 1948 film “Portrait of Jennie,” will be part of next year’s festival.

The museum’s Dryden Theatre has been closed for months due to construction to relocate and redesign the Eastman Museum’s main entrance. The Nitrate Picture Show was meant to herald the theater’s reopening. The virus has since halted the construction and closed the museum, leaving the reopening date of both uncertain.

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY’s arts & entertainment editor and can be reached at