Preservationists make gains

Digital prints a dilemma

HOLLYWOOD — After decades of promoting film preservation as a worthy goal, preservationists are increasingly optimistic that studios and other funders are starting to see the light.

“Film is finally being recognized as a true art form, and the concept is accepted that you shouldn’t let a film deteriorate anymore than you would a piece of art or music,” says Roger Mayer, prexy of Turner Entertainment and chairman of the National Film Preservation Foundation. “You won’t let your Renoir deteriorate, so why the hell would you let ‘2001’ deteriorate?”

Hollywood studios — fueled by profits from video, cable and especially DVD — are spending millions to protect their vast libraries with multiple cold-storage facilities, expanded preservation staffs and often accelerated restoration programs.

Three of the biggest archives — UCLA, the Library of Congress and the Motion Picture Academy — are getting state-of the-art quarters. UCLA also will offer a graduate program this fall in moving-picture image archiving.

Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts and foundations led by David Packard at the Packard Humanities Institute and Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation are funneling millions more dollars to save worthy nonstudio or “orphan” films in danger of being lost.

And fans are flocking to events such as the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s silent film gala (which this year featured a pair of restored Harold Lloyd comedies) and the UCLA archive’s biannual Festival of Preservation, which opens July 25 with a showing of “The Barefoot Contessa,” the 1954 Ava Gardner classic directed by Joe Mankiewicz.

For all the progress, even preservation’s most optimistic acolytes say much work remains.

“The studios have all turned the corner and are working with appropriate restoration efforts,” says Grover Crisp, VP of asset management and film restoration for Sony. “Having turned that corner, we still have a long way to go to the end.”

“If you look at the size of the holdings just here and at the Library of Congress, we’ll never do it all,” says UCLA archive director Tim Kittleson.

A black-and-white feature costs $25,000 to $50,000 to restore, color a whopping $150,000 to $250,000. Multiply that times thousands of titles, and the costs can be staggering.

“In some ways, we’re really approaching a miracle,” says Michael Pogorzelski, the Academy film archive director. “On the other hand, there’s such an immense amount of material to be taken care of, and we still have so far to go. There are still films falling through the cracks today.”

That’s where DVD has helped, giving studios sound financial reasons to invest heavily in at least the most commercially viable of their holdings.

“DVD has been the best thing to happen to film preservation because what it demands is the best technical representation of the film,” says Margaret Bodde of the Film Foundation.

MGM hired 15 temp workers for a “very aggressive” two-year program to restore 950 of its 4,100 films for DVDs and TV. Sony, which has restored about a third of its 3,000-film library, has nearly doubled staff to accelerate work.

Even the best-kept libraries have problems. Silver nitrate film stock, the norm until 1951, is notoriously flammable and must be specially stored. More recent titles with single-print processes are fading and reddening with age, particularly in bad storage conditions. And sometimes previous restorations were botched, with problems only now being uncovered.

“Orphan films,” those now in the public domain without obvious commercial prospects or ownership, are most at risk, along with indie pics and docs. Many 1980s indies, for instance, weren’t cared for in their day, given the tight finances of their parent companies. Piecing those works together now may be difficult.

The biggest new headache is digital film. Already big in the doc and indie worlds, and championed by industry stalwarts such as George Lucas, movies eventually will be largely digital. ormats being used now are likely to be long out of vogue, and perhaps even unplayable, by 2050. Film’s basic technology, by contrast, has not changed in a century.

As befits the somewhat cloistered and painstaking nature of preservation, something of a holy war has broken out over what to do with digital.

“There’s a big schism: ‘Are you going to collect digital media?’ ” says UCLA’s Kittleson. “Some say, ‘No, no, film only.’ When archivists get together, this is one of the major fights that breaks out, I’d say, by drink two.”

The Library of Congress plans to create vast computer data banks to store digital TV and film information. The reasoning, says assistant director Gregory Lukow, is that it’s easier to pour billions of bits from one computer storage device to a newer one than it is to try to keep and maintain the ever-evolving digital devices being developed to play them back.

“Up to and including George Lucas, everybody agrees that actual film is the best medium to preserve the content,” says Lukow. “But at some point, we know that all audiovisual media will move. Not only will it be born digital, it will remain digital. We have to plan for the eventual preservation of everything that remains digital.”

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