Written in 2000 for FILM COMMENT.
"She was so old that she could still remember when they called that kind of work 'films.' Films--long strips of plastic printed with darkness and light. The memory of film, the sense and the substance of the medium of film, brought her a nostalgia as sharp as broken glass."--Bruce Sterling, Holy Fire (1998).
The name of this magazine will be an anachronism within a decade. Two at the most. The definitive art form of the 20th century will be lucky to survive even a few years past its widely celebrated 100th birthday. Fifty years from now there may still be public exhibition events that we will chose to call movies, but there will be no more "films" -- not outside museums, anyway, where antique persistence of vision devices, carefully preserved and maintained by university-trained specialists, will still be used to throw beams of light through perforated strips of celluloid, emitting a shadow-spectacle for dwindling crowds of cultural antiquarians.
This, at least, is what some people within the community of souls dedicated to keeping those films viable for a few more years, the archivists and preservationists, are saying.
What on earth could take the place of cinema? Those devoted to the purity of the communal Cinematic Experience may grind their teeth at the notion, but the smart money says that the successor medium will almost certainly be something electronic.
At least one pioneer preservationist, Roger Mayer, President and COO of the Turner Entertainment Company, has heard this song before: "Ever since I started in the movie business in 1952," Mayer says, "I have been hearing that film would not be around very much longer. It was always just about to be replaced by something electronic." First broadcast television, then cable television, than video cassettes and DVDs, then the Internet--all have lined up for the role of movie-killer. The difference now may be that all of these threatening mediums are united by a single characteristic: they are all digital, or rapidly becoming so.
Movie images are already often largely digital. 85% of the shots in The Matrix, and close to 95% of those in The Phantom Menace, have a digital component--and that film will be exhibited digitally in at least four venues. The next Star Wars film will by-pass celluloid altogether: it will be shot on a digital system being developed jointly by Sony, Panavision and Lucasfilm. The electronic version of that movie, in other words, not the release prints on film that will still be required in most theaters, will be the first generation original. Once you get to that point, the rest follows. When the original source material is all digital, a digital pipeline will eventually emerge to transport it to the consumer, whether on fiber optic cables or by satellite, eliminating that cumbersome and expensive intermediary, the print on film.
The digital drum has been beating steadily for years: "Motion pictures...are just a special case of broadcast," wrote Nicholas Negroponte in 1996, in Being Digital. Now that previously extreme view has become conventional wisdom. "At Sony," said the studio's Ken Williams last year, "we see digital as the universal platform that everything will plug into."
It's not only the big boys who are going digital either. The pressure is on from the bottom as well as the top of the showbiz food chain. Digital Video (DV) is rapidly becoming the medium of choice for ultra-low-budget moviemaking.
Assume, for the sake of argument, that something like this happens. Say it does. What happens to film in an all-digital entertainment universe? There won't be any more new ones, that's for sure. But what about the old ones? Will the movies already languishing on celluloid, still often neglected in dark vaults or collectors' closets around the world, some of them deliquescing even now, be left to rot in peace? What happens to all those plastic artifacts, those photochemical relics, once the visual information they carry has been migrated transparently, and permanently, into the digital domain?
At the UCLA Film and Television Archive's preservation and storage facility in Hollywood, you may get the impression that the guardians of cinema have already been driven underground. We may be above the surface of earth here, but not much daylight penetrates. The long, narrow workroom, with its gray-painted cement block walls and industrial metal shelving, doesn't look like the headquarters of a guardian of world film culture. It could be a storeroom in an abandoned chemical plant, or perhaps a bomb shelter. In effect, it's both.
Deep inside the old Television Center building on Cahuenga, at the center of a maze of twisty scuffed linoleum corridors and switchback iron staircases, the Archive maintains 50 cell-like vaults full of cellulose nitrate movie film. Nitrate stock, routinely used for commercial production until 1951, is a legendary fire safety hazard. With a flashpoint of just 105 degrees (lower than newsprint) it was blamed for scores of theater and vault fires in the early decades of the century. Archive staffers prefer to play down the flammability angle--and they have a point. With a few horrific exceptions (a blaze at a lab in London in 1993 that damaged or destroyed 384 films, including the original negatives for several classic Ealing comedies and Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy) it's true that major nitrate "incidents" are now rare. Still, it's hard not to feel that the 30 full-time staffers at the facility are sitting on top of a volcano, patiently pouring over some of the culture's most brittle artifacts.
The UCLA Archive is "front-line" film preservation organization. It maintains actual vaults full of shelving stacked with cans of film (27 million feet of it at last count) and employs men like Preservation Officer Robert Gitt, one of the most respected men in his profession, to look after them. It acquires movies and pieces of movies from all over, sometimes from abroad through brother-members of FIAF. It pieces the fragments together and makes the movies, or at least portions of them, viewable again.
Preservation wasn't always a priority in Hollywood. When Roger Mayer was appointed Assistant General Manager at MGM in 1961, he was shocked by the state of studio library, its backlog of classic movies. Much of the older nitrate material was stored "in these little concrete blockhouses. The temperature got up to 130° in the summer, with 100% humidity." Other reels had been stashed in dank tunnels under the stages. "The records of what they had was a card catalog, and even the cards were deteriorating, they turning yellow." Under Mayer, MGM (later Turner) became a bastion of film preservation and restoration. Mayer was around when the term "asset management" was first deployed as a crafty synonym for "preservation." "That was a phrase we used early on when talking to the Board of Directors: 'Do you really want your assets to deteriorate?' When we used the word 'assets,' they sat up."
Forty years on, according to Robert Rosen, Dean of UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television, and the former director of the Archive, "the public profile of preservation has never been higher. Who would ever have thought," he says, "that the label 'restored' on a film would have a positive commercial value?" For one thing, the advent of home video changed the way studios think about the old films. "What used to be viewed as liabilities," Rosen says, "are now seen as corporate assets." Cable channels like American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies have regularly scheduled Preservation Festivals, and Turner's series Silent Sunday Nights has become a showcase for some of the most heroic recent restoration efforts, like David Shepard's near-miraculous revivification of Louis Feuillade's serial Les Vampyres.
Here, as elsewhere in Hollywood, money talks. The commercial wisdom of restoring old films has been born out again and again, especially when there are even tenuous grounds for a hint in the PR that the work now look and sounds better than it ever did--because a stereo soundtrack has been added, or because the director's previously balked intentions are finally being honored. According to Houston, "Columbia made $2 million out of David Lean's preferred version of Lawrence of Arabia; the release on videotape of The Wizard of Oz (which required no restoration) brought in $10 million; Gone With the Wind cost $350,000 to restore and netted $7 million profit from the film and videotape versions." Last year the Rick Schmidlin/Jonathan Rosenbaum reconstruction of the "director's cut" of Orson Welles' 1958 Touch of Evil was a major art-house attraction, almost 40 years after its first screenings.
Most of these projects are undertaken to give a video company something old-yet-new to sell; a limited theatrical release may be arranged advertising for the tape or disc to come. "Market-driven formats like DVD are the biggest boon to film restoration at the moment," says Grover Crisp, Vice President for Asset Management and Film Restoration at Sony Pictures. "Probably half the work that I do is to supply elements for DVD releases. The high-definition aspect, for the future, is having a similar effect, because you see flaws in HD that you can't see in NTSC. It even effects the way films are processed initially. We reject interpositives from brand new films, fresh from the lab, because we know our clients will reject them. We say, 'We can't transfer this.'"
The market may be driving, yet on the front line, where high-profile Lambourghini restorations like Lawrence are rare, the trip is still radically underfunded. The UCLA Archive, for example, can't afford to refrigerate its nitrate vaults, even though cold and dry conditions are optimal for long term storage. There is so much material being stored by the Archive, and by comparable facilities like the Library of Congress, that conservators are forced to practice a form of "triage." Every two years, at the very least, all the cans in the Archive are opened, and any footage that has "gone bad" is trimmed away and discarded.
Cinematic loss estimates make dismal reading. Of the 21,000 feature films made in American before 1950, a little over half survive. Most of silent cinema has been obliterated; only 25%. of all films from the 1910s, and 20% from the 1920s, are still with us. Many silent films were discarded when sound came in, because they were simply deemed worthless. Some burned. And in the pre-video era amnesiac neglect was commonplace. But more fundamental forces were at work, as well. The film stock itself, the plastic base that carries the emulsion that responds to light and produces an image, is radically unstable. Chemical interactions within the material cause it to ooze gelatinous fluids, to crumble into dust, and to generate noxious gases. In extreme cases, the process is well underway after less than 10 years in sub-optimal conditions.
We aren't losing films now at the same rate; not even close. For one thing, films long thought lost still occasionally turn up. Film-trackers like USC historian Jan Olsson have wrestled the balance sheet into the black, if only by a hair's breadth. Previously sealed archives like Gosfilmofond in Moscow have begun to crack, and treasures are spilling out.
It was Olsson who found a reel of the 1928 Garbo vehicle The Divine Woman, directed by the great Victor Sjöström, one of the Most Wanted lost movies of them all, during a film-hunting trip to Russia in 1992. And awareness of proper storage is much higher than it used to be. In 1992, Anthony Slide wrote a book on the subject whose title became a battle cry for preservationists: Nitrate Won't Wait. Recent results suggest that nitrate can wait a bit longer than people thought. Aging tests conducted in the early '90s by the Image Permanence Institute at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in association with the archivists at The George Eastman House, found that when stored properly, at 32° and 20% humidity, nitrate film can be expected to survive for 2,000 years--if it hasn't already started to rot. In that case its life expectancy drops to just 500 years.
"This research," says Gregory Lukow, who is implementing the new Moving Image Archive Studies Program at UCLA (the first of its kind in the country at the university level), "was really revolutionary for our field. It gave archivists the tools they needed to justify a better temperature and humidity environment in the face of people who controlled the budgets, who had been asking for years if it really made that much difference. Now we had proof to show them that it did."
The defining act of film preservation used to be copying films from nitrate to another film stock that was judged to be more chemically stable, more "archival." A replacement for nitrate, cellulose triacetate, was introduced in 1940; not to preserve movies but to preserve human beings from incineration. Known as "safety film," for its fire-retardent qualities, acetate, too, is subject to chemical decay, and at an even faster rate than nitrate. The collapse can be forestalled with chemical desiccants and with "molecular sieves" that strain moisture and acids out the air inside the film cans. But this dissolution, too, can only be slowed, not halted. A process known as "acetate degradation" causes the film to shrink, curl and turn brittle. It has been dubbed "the vinegar syndrome," after its distinctive odor. Step into a vault full of safety film and take a whiff: the sour odor actively assaults your nasal passages. It's a sting that slices right up into your forehead. The "horseradish syndrome" would be more like it.
"Acetate was offered to us as a panacea," says Robert Gitt, "but it wasn't. At UCLA we've had so-called safety prints that deteriorated faster than the nitrate they were copied from."
Color fading is another horror that took quite a few people by surprise. Since Martin Scorsese began blowing the whistle on color fading in the mid-1970s, filmmakers have routinely made black and white separation masters of their color films, printed through filters in the yellow, cyan, and magenta range, so that the original color values can be recreated. But many older films, made before this practice was adopted, have already turned deathly pale. Every repertory habitué has groaned through rosy-pink prints of Eastmancolor films only a few years old. And extensive color work was required on many recent reissues, including Oklahoma (1955), Spartacus (1960), and Midnight Cowboy (1969).
Whatever form the deterioration takes, however, traditional "analog" preservation methods offer only a temporary fix; additional ways to fend off the inevitable. Copying a movie periodically from one piece of fresh stock to another and another, can extend a film's projectable lifespan, but not forever. The act of copying itself introduces new forms of incremental, mortal degradation.
Michael Friend, at AMPAS, was among the first to grasp the implications.
"I had the great good fortune and privilege to work with Bob Gitt at UCLA," Friend says. "He taught me most of what I know about restoration. For years my goal was to do this work the way Bob would do it, which means at the best labs and with the best surviving elements, preserved in a cold vault as long as possible. But then you realize that by duplicating in an analog fashion you're going to lose resolution every time. Which means that when we lose the original negative--and we realize that eventually we will lose it, no matter how careful we are--we will have inalterably lost that original achievement. We may put this day off for 500 years, or 1,000 years, but eventually the system has to fail, because of the inherent limitations of analog duplication."
The remission of the original (analog) sin of cinema may be at hand, however, ironically supplied by the very technology that will soon render all plastic filmstrip exhibition devices obsolete. More and more preservationists, it seems, are lying down with the enemy, embracing what UCLA's Rosen calls "the promise of the digital future." Michael Friend says: "It became clear to me that we had to domesticate digital so that we could absorb all the data in a given image and transfer that to another piece of film without loss of resolution." He trumpeted the potential of the new technology in a the trend-setting article "Film/Digital/Film." in The Journal of Film Preservation (Issue 50, March 1995.)
"With photomechanical copying," explains Robert Gitt, "some information is always lost; the image is degraded slightly. This is all right as long as we have the original negative as a source of new prints and masters. But take a case like Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress: We no longer have the original negative, but we do have beautiful nitrate prints that were made from it. If we could copy those digitally, without losing any information, and at the same time eliminate all the blemishes that have accumulated over the years, it would be as if we had that negative back again, in pristine condition, and could keep on making prints from it forever."
Needless to say, digital technology has been gaining fans steadily in preservation circles over the past decade. It is already widely used as a tool to invisibly removes scratches, brighten colors, and de-fuzz soundtracks. "Fifty or sixty kinds of errors," Friend says, "which cannot be fixed photomechanically, can be fixed digitally. And there are all kinds of tools out there that hold additional promise for restoration in the future."
Friend collaborated with Sony's Grover Crisp on the first all-digital restoration of a live action feature film in 1990, when they resuscitated Frank Capra's third silent feature, a 1928 comedy called The Matinee Idol. A celebrated "lost film" that had been hiding in the collections of the Cinematheque Français (under its French title, Bessie a Broadway) the work was repatriated to the US through the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) At the Sony Pictures High Definition Center in Culver City, repairs were made in the digital domain: computer generated title cards were inserted, duplicating the original typeface, and scratches were "painted out" one laborious frame at a time. Finally, the images were copied back to 35 mm celluloid using an electron beam recorder. And (the proof of the pudding) it looked great.
Despite the cutting edge methods employed, the ethos of the Matinee Idol clean up was traditional if not downright conservative. A document about the project prepared by Friend and Crisp offered what amounts to a statement of the preservation profession's basic code of ethics: "Throughout the restoration process, the goal was always to protect the integrity of the original image while removing only those defects that were clearly produced by damage, severe wear, misuse, or deterioration. In cases where the repair of a defect resulted in an artifact more perceptible than the defect, the decision was made to leave the defect. ... The goal of the work was always to restore the original achievement of the director; to return the film to a condition as close as possible to the original without changing, 'improving' or otherwise denaturing the film."
The Matinee Idol was a showpiece restoration, designed partly to show off the cool new digital tools. Few studios except Disney (which gave Snow White a complete digital makeover in 1992) have since attempted to digitize every single frame of a damaged movie. But similar techniques have been successfully employed many times, on a smaller scale. Crisp recently restored two reels of Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider, after learning that portions of the original negative had been inadvertently destroyed. The black and white separation masters for the missing footage were digitally recombined to produce a new color inter-negative.
With digital restorations like these, Robert Gitt says, "the footage comes back looking good, but not quite as good as if you still had the original elements-- but the blemishes are gone." Eventually, Gitt hopes to see digital copies from a film print that look not merely as good as photomechanical copies of the original, but as good as the original itself. "Much of what we have been preserving may eventually have to be re-done electronically," he says, "to remove the specks and scratches and other artifacts that we still accept as just being part of the film experience." Gitt recently collaborated with Crisp on a digital re-restoration of portions of Frank Capra's Lost Horizon, eliminating a distracting flicker in sequences added on the last go-round. At the moment there is no way to correct the other obvious shortcoming of the new footage, the grainy softness of a blow up to 35 mm from a badly duped 16 mm copy. "But we hope that in the future," Gitt says, "we will be able to correct that."
Digital tools for film restoration are wonderful innovations, and their implications are enormous. (When there's no longer anything we can't "fix," where do we draw the line?) It is nevertheless a big leap to the notion that digital media could be the ultimate long term archival platform for visual information. Even the most ardent digital futurists warn that before that can happen, there are major wrinkles to be ironed out. For one thing, visual information is a notorious glutton for storage space. At a conservative estimate, 360 gigabytes of tape or disk capacity would be needed to store all the information on the 150,000 frames of an average-length feature film.
"The costs are horrible," admits ardent digital advocate Timo Muinonen, Deputy Director/Head of Collections at the Finnish Film Archive. "Compare the $1.5 million it cost Disney to digitally restore 'Snow White' to our most expensive duplicates onto safety film: we can copy six SovColor color nitrate features for $100,000 dollars and get a dupe-negative, a dupe-positive and a print for each one. But the prices of digital systems continue to get lower, and lab costs for film continue to rise, so the situation is changing rapidly."
The computer industry is also making rapid progress in data compression technology, which could bring the future closer still. But all compression systems involve a degree of approximation. "We don't know all the aspects of what a film image is yet," Friend points out. "We literally don't know how much resolution there is on a film. And then how does a computer read, and re-write, and re-allocate that information? You hear things like, 'People can't see more than 2,000 line pairs of resolution, so we don't have to achieve any more than that.' But you have to have more resolution in the original than you have in the print, and if you impose artifacts in your digital original, you might have a problem. We have to make sure that the digital image will not be denatured by what we do with it."
One great obstacle is the creeping plague known as "digital decay." Awareness is spreading among that information stored digitally is much more vulnerable to corruption than people who are rushing to embrace that alternative have assumed. One of the earliest trumpet blasts came from the Rand Institute's Jeff Rothenberg, in a pivotal Scientific American article "Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Documents" (January, 1995). Recently a film on the subject by Terry Sanders, "Into the Future: On the Preservation of Knowledge in the Electronic Age," aired on PBS, and last February a conference at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, "Time & Bits: Managing Digital Continuity," drew cyber-celebrities as diverse as Whole Earth futurist Stewart Brand, software guru Danny Hillis, science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, and musician Brian Eno to a summit meeting on the looming bit rot plague. Information is being blithely stored in digital archives around the world, says conference organizer Ben Davis, of the Getty Information Institute, "with no guarantees that it will be easily available even five years from now, when the hardware and software used to create it have fallen pray to planned obsolescence."
Archivists are well aware of the perils. "With digital," says Jan-Christopher Horak, Director of Archives and Collections at Universal Pictures, "you not only have to save the software, you also have to save all the hardware, otherwise you don't have anything. I could look at an unperforated frame from a film made in 1896 and know what I have. And I can figure out a way to transfer that chemical image to something else that I can project. With a digital image, I don't have anything unless I have the equipment. We're already having this problem with tape. There is a graveyard full of dead tape formats. You can't play it back to transfer unless you have the original equipment."
A few years back, the original two-inch master videotapes of a pair of Fred Astaire TV specials, from 1959 and 1960, were discovered festering in a musty vault. "These were the first nationally broadcast shows shot on color videotape," Robert Rosen says, "so they were of major technological as well as aesthetic interest." Trouble was, the tapes could not be viewed, because not one specimen of the requisite playback equipment had survived into the '90s. Luckily, a set of blueprints for the lost hardware was eventually located, in the garage of a retired engineer in New Jersey, and from these the long lost tape deck was reconstructed.
"The major unsolved problem of the whole digital revolution," Horak continues, "is that we are producing tons and tons of digital information, but there is no carrier for that information that is archival. None of the carriers at present has a life span longer than 20 or 30 years. When you are dealing with thousands of films, you can't take your whole archive and re-master it every 20 years. Right now, if I have film and I can store it properly, I know it is going to last a lot longer than anything I put on digital."
Friend hopes to get a tighter grip on all these problems when a planned new Preservation Center, a joint project of the Academy and the UCLA Archive, opens in a few years. The facility will incorporate state-of-the-art refrigerated storage vaults and a laboratory for research into some of the profession's basic questions. "My overall project," he says, "is finding out how to capture the characteristics of an image--and the image is an object. It is a surface. It is not three-dimensional, but it's also not a language or a code. You can encode anything, but our task is a little different, a little more Faustian. It's like capturing all the atoms or molecules of that object. It is perhaps like capturing a DNA code. You capture this code, which describes an object, which creates an image. It's a tall order, and it is right at the edge of what we can imagine today."
The upshot is that while the development of practical digital archiving procedures may be inevitable, it is not imminent. For the time being the key task for film preservation is still, in Friend's words, "the primacy of the original negative or master as the source of all valid picture information." In this regard, he warns, the interests of the studios and the preservationists may soon cease to coincide: "My job as an archivist is always to be able to present film as film, as the artists and the original public saw it. You don't look at slides in a classroom to learn about painting. But the dream of the studios is a platform-independent art form. To them the image is what matters and it is equally lucrative in any number of distribution platforms."
Penelope Houston reports, in Keepers of the Frame, that in the early innings of the preservation movement, in the 1930s, when the National Film Theater, MOMA and the Cinematheque Français dominated the field, the studios regarded all archives with suspicion, as possible poachers on their precious copyrights. Public screenings of choice acquisitions, so useful in raising public awareness and attracting cash, were then considered risky propositions. (In the current more open phase of the movement, "access" has become a watchword.) The archives sought to avoid even the appearance of exploiting their holdings--even holdings the studios had no interest in milking themselves.
Even further over on the dark side were the private collectors, furtive purchasers, and hiders, of often-illegal prints. "For a long time," says film critic Dave Kehr, "the spade work of preservation was done by collectors, who were paranoid about hearing the FBI hammering on the door--and with good reason. That situation has changed a lot; there are even cases of studios and archives cooperating with collectors to get the materials they need for restorations. Perhaps they have finally begun to recognize that for years these guys were doing the work that they should have been doing."
After decades of often malign indifference, the major Hollywood studios are now actually doing good work in preservation -- at least when they have a direct financial interest in the outcome. Even some of the betes noirs of film buffs have ended up doing more good than harm. According to Michael Friend, "Ted Turner actually created a vast amount of value for older films by demonstrating that they could supply programming for major cable franchises." Columbia Pictures repertory czar Michael Schlesinger agrees: "When Turner was taking all that heat for colorizing films, people tended to forget that he was also putting a lot of money into restoration. And he's made good on his promise to keep the black and white versions available, so the net result was all to the good." To date, Turner has spent over $40 million dollars restoring and archiving his acquisitions from the MGM/UA film library.
Private funding for high-profile restoration work on classic feature films is up, too, Robert Rosen says, with organizations like the De Mille Foundation and certain individuals, including Playboy's Hugh Hefner, leading the way. In addition to the British Film Institute, for instance, it was Hefner, among others, who footed the bill for the 1996 restoration of the uncut original release print of Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep.
At long last, studios and archives have learned to collaborate on restoration projects. Sony has set up the Sony Preservation Committee, which includes a representative from the studio (Grover Crisp), The Museum of Modern Art, The George Eastman House, The Library of Congress, the UCLA Archive, and the Academy. "We meet to discuss issues related to preservation. We also enter into joint restoration projects. We worked with Michael on Oliver, a project that was divided 50/50 in terms of the work but funded entirely by Sony. We're currently working together on a cycle of Columbia film noir titles, including The Lady from Shanghai, which seems to be going very well. We're doing On The Waterfront with MOMA. We make use of their technical expertise, they get funding from us, and everybody benefits. They get a print and pre-print elements for their collection, and we get restored assets that we can provide access to."
Sony has also donated over $1 million to various archives, on a no strings-attached-basis, much of which has been spent on non-studio material.
Now that the films in studio hands are mostly being well looked after, the focus in the field seems to be shifting to work that only disinterested funds can pay for, the so-called "orphan films." This is a broad category that embraces commercial movies that have fallen out of copyright, old newsreels and industrial films (and the raw footage that went into them), exploitation films and pornography, and even amateur films, home movies that are often unique visual records of private life and social customs -- "the collective memory of our past," according to UCLA's Steven Ricci. All are films that do not have owners ready to hand with an immediate financial stake in seeing them restored.
"Once you leave Hollywood," says Gregory Lukow," the concept of a library becomes much more amorphous. We have this cliché in the field: 'Since video rentals and cable TV emerged the studios have discovered the value of these precious artifacts on their shelves, etc., etc.' Well, that's still not the case with a lot of production. It's value has not been recognized. This problem is only growing more acute as digital technology takes over TV production. Even documentaries that are shot on 16 mm film are scanned as raw footage, edited digitally on the Avid, and then transferred to tape for broadcast. The film is never conformed to the digital edit. I asked one of these guys: 'What happens to the film?' And he said, 'It's just sitting on a shelf. I really should do something with it.' This is why groups like the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) use that phrase, 'the moving image;' because there are new realms of production out there that require fresh preservation strategies."
Dave Kehr says that these orphans are still hard to raise money for, "apart from certain vogue areas. Ethnic film records are relatively easy to fund-raise for right now"--the home movies shot by interned Japanese-Americans during World War II, for instance, or the Yiddish-language films of Edgar G. Ulmer and others, an on-going restoration project of National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University. Silent cinema, too, seems perpetually in danger of being orphaned. "The restoration of silent films is extremely difficult to fund," Roger Mayer says, "because there is no market for it. They are actually easier to fund when we spend more and go the next step of adding color tints or music, so that they can attract an audience on video and cable. To a purist perhaps we have destroyed something by doing that, but often it's a choice between doing that and doing nothing."
The bad news at the moment includes a drought of federal funding from traditional sources like the National Endowment for the Arts, which has been preoccupied of late mostly with self-preservation. Some of the other organizations that have put themselves forward have met a mixed response in the profession--to put it mildly. "Despite what the AFI says," Dave Kehr declares, "there is no national film preservation organization." "The only outfit that comes close is the National Film Preservation Foundation. Established in 1996 and administered by the Library of Congress, the Foundation is charged by law to "raise private funds to help American archives preserve films and make them publicly available.". The Foundation's primary mission is to save " orphan films, films without owners able to pay for their preservation." Roger Mayer, who is Chairman of the NFPF Board of Directors, reports that all the professional guilds of Hollywood (SAG, DGA, WGA) have contributed to the Fund--"as they should, since this is the medium to which they owe their very comfortable livelihood."
In 1998 the Foundation announced its first set of 12 grants. Recipients included Northeast Historic Film, of Bucksport, Maine, which got $2,100 to restore some valuable home movies, and the Yale University Library, which took $3,200 for to rejuvenate early class reunion footage.
These grass roots, spit-and-baling wire archives, which can seem downright quaint, could actually be harbingers of things to come. For Gregory Lukow, "The penetration to niche markets that we might imagine happening someday in a 500 cable channel universe is happening already in local communities."
He's referring to a standard feature of the daydream of convergence: that all the orphans will eventually be called home to eternal life in the coming Broadband paradise. Archivists have occasionally found markets for their relics with documentarians, of course, especially of the voracious TV variety. And some, like UCLA's Steve Ricci, are trying actively to develop additional markets in "new media." With the Japanese American National Museum and the Mitsui Corporation, Ricci used the Archives' collection of internment home movies to create the CD ROM Executive Order 9066, released this year by Grolier. Meanwhile, there are reports to the effect that new Internet services like Bravo Broadband and Broadcast.com are "fanning out" (as one source put it) "and buying up anything that moves," beginning the process of amassing huge libraries of material that they believe will eventually be available on demand, only a mouse-click away. UCLA, which owns the entire Hearst Metrotone newsreel collection, all the company's released reels and raw footage from 1919 to 1967, which was donated outright, along with its card catalog "database," in 1981, could benefit substantially.
For Gregory Lukow, though, "this dream of convergence will have to confront certain cultural economies of scale." Lukow acknowledges the appeal of the dream: "It is a validating reason for archivists who want to save everything for the future. I went to the University of Nebraska, where college football reigns supreme, and someday I'd like to have access on-line to all those old videotaped games that I can't afford to buy on cassette. But that's football. How much attention within the popular culture can historic moving image artifacts command? What are the limits of what is economically viable as a targeted niche? This is not a small question, because the 'everything' that we are trying to save is just going to keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger."
Portions of this article appeared in LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times, in different form.
Thanks to: Manohla Dargis and Judith Lewis (LA Weekly), Bruce Sterling, Ray Price (Zoetrope), Betsy Sharkey (Los Angeles Times), Peter Broderick (NextWave Films).