Fueling the crisis is the Library’s finding that films from 1950 to the present — those pix made from acetate rather than nitrate stock that were previously considered not at risk — face decaying problems of their own.
For example, acetate film’s ongoing problem is color fading, along with “vinegar syndrome” in which the film turns to a vinegar-like substance unless stored properly.
Lack of funding is also a persistent headache, the report found. Funding for the largest federal film preservation efforts has fallen to half its 1980 level after inflation is factored in, the report said.
The study — done in consultation with the National Film Preservation Board — also found that fewer than 20% of feature pix from the 1920s survive in complete form, and the survival rate is about 10% for films from the 1910s.
“The moving picture is not so much the art form as the language of the 20th century,” said Librarian of Congress James Billington. “Future generations will wonder why so little of such a marvelously appealing record was ever preserved.”
The report found that “motion pictures of all types are deteriorating faster than archives can preserve them … Today’s film preservation crisis is not merely the result of substantially decreased public funding but also arises from a growth in the types of film now valued and requiring preservation.”
Newsreels, documentaries and avant-garde works face particular problems because of a lack of preservation coin, the report states.
Though the report provides a mostly gloomy assessment of pic preservation, there is some reason for optimism.
The booming homevideo industry provides film studios with financial incentives to support restoration, the study notes. “In 1980, as industry executives admit off the record, it was the rare studio that took adequate care of its surviving library; today it is the rare company that fails to protect it.”
Permeating the report, however, is a sense of frustration over the lack of money to address preservation needs. “The current level of support — a patchwork of federal money, foundation grants and donations — only chips away at the problem,” the study states.
Moreover, preventative measures that would encourage filmmakers to preserve their own works “fit nowhere in the current picture, even in federal grants to filmmakers,” the report said.
“Current laws provide little incentive for forging public-private partnerships to restore valued filmed, or indeed for doing film preservation at all.”
The Library’s study will be followed with another report next year offering specific recommendations for a national film preservation plan.