Films are fading, and digital can't save them

In Cannes this year, Martin Scorsese talked about the importance of preserving such films as Ahmed El Maanouni’s 1981 Moroccan music documentary “Trances.”

But he didn’t mention that his own “Taxi Driver” is deteriorating.

Although the 1976 film is part of Sony’s vast library, few are rallying to its aid. The myriad film-preservation orgs throw their money and muscle behind titles that are indie, foreign or obscure. It’s assumed Hollywood’s majors will take care of their own films. In fact, they don’t.

One Paramount veteran compared the studio’s vault to a teenager’s chaotic bedroom. In fact, a visitor accidentally stepped on the negative of “Rosemary’s Baby,” which was unspooled on the floor.

With constant pressure on the bottom line, studio execs often lack the funds — or interest — to make sure their heritage is being cared for properly. Digital technology, which was touted as the salvation of film, has turned out to be deeply flawed, deteriorating faster than anyone imagined.

Movies “get lost in the wilderness unless (studios) pay attention to them,” says Ridley Scott, who found the digital version of his 1982 “Blade Runner” in fragile condition. “We discovered inadvertently that a lot of digital stuff was fading quicker than expected. We think it’s safe forever on disc, but, in fact, it was actually fading.”

Roger Mayer, a former MGM honcho who’s now chairman of the National Film Preservation Foundation, estimates each studio spends $5 million to $10 million a year to fund preservation or restoration programs — a sum that wouldn’t even cover the marketing costs of a low-budget comedy.

Furthermore, the current funding is not enough to undo the damage after decades of neglect. While Sony and Warner Bros. get high marks for attempts at maintaining their libraries, Fox and Paramount get lower grades.

But preservation execs are facing impossible odds. Even though Columbia’s “Taxi Driver” is stored in Sony’s climate-controlled vault, it’s losing its color (though some critics have placed the blame on the restoration work Scorsese performed in 1996). Meanwhile, many 1970s films are suffering because they were preserved on a form of film called CRI (Color Reversal Intermediate), instead of a negative.

“That particular form of negative turned out to be unstable and not good enough. A lot of the films had to be redone,” Mayer says.

Other vulnerable pics from the era include the seminal dark comedy “Harold and Maude,” which is in grave condition. Even “The Godfather” was recently in need of triage. Paramount sent the original camera negative to Warner Bros.’ facilities for color correction and sound remixing, among other restorations.

The Francis Ford Coppola movie has been a consistent money-maker since its 1972 bow, on vidcassette, DVD and homevideo. If that movie is in need of repair, what hope is there for lesser-grossing films?

In December 2006, the National Film Registry listed, as usual, 25 films it feels warrant preservation, including “Groundhog Day” (1993) and “Fargo” (1996). Clearly, this is not just a concern for early Hollywood films.

Studios are quick to cut the budget for film preservation and restoration after a poor year. They’re being shortsighted: New media is constantly coming up with new delivery systems, and the majors could tap into their vast libraries for added income — but only if the films are in great condition.

Still, even if a studio wants to spiff up a film, it may not be able: When studios acquire libraries, they don’t necessarily own the original camera negative. So sometimes when they prepare for a DVD release, they can’t access the materials they need.

“Everyone assumes that studios are caring for their films because there is an economic incentive to do so, which means outside film preservation groups aren’t particularly worried about their films,” says Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, which focuses on saving American films that would be unlikely to survive without public support, such as shorts or newsreels.

Like an HMO that covers surgery but not preventative medicine, the studios sometimes wait until a film’s condition is critical. Most concede that a better solution seems to be an ounce of prevention. As Mayer explains, “If you preserve a film properly, you don’t have to restore it.” He estimates that a properly stored film will last 100 years before restoration work becomes necessary.

Since the advent of homevid in the early 1980s, studios have been more serious about caring for library assets. From 1988-1993, Paramount invested $35 million in the construction of a vault in Pennsylvania to store second master printing copies and an automated inventory system to track the studio’s then-750,000 prints worldwide.

But with an eye on the bottom line, studios are reluctant to preserve or restore films for which they have no foreseeable distribution plans.

But income opportunities sometimes crop up in unexpected places.

“A good example of that is when Ted Turner wanted to start TNT and Turner Classic Movies in South America, we at MGM had already restored the Spanish and Portuguese soundtracks, which were separate pieces of film,” Mayer recalls. “Therefore, (Turner) was able to do it very quickly, in three or four months rather than three or four years.”

Studios also have to decide whether to digitally preserve a film that has already been preserved on celluloid. “There are arguments both ways on that,” Mayer says. “The biggest argument against it is that it is extremely expensive, and since we’ve had no experience on its longevity, we’re not sure yet that it is as good as film.”

Directors like Scorsese have become adept at using their influence to further the preservation and restoration cause.

“As directors became more powerful, they were able to force studios into spending money that they might not otherwise have spent,” Mayer explains.

Steven Spielberg was one of the first directors to build a clause into his contract that called for preservation and restoration work on his own pictures. That phenomenon has ultimately benefited all studio films, because once the preservation technology and infrastructure are in place, they tend to be employed throughout a library.

One Par vet says the studio began to clean up its act when it started to make movies with Scorsese.

Meanwhile, Barry Allen, executive director of film preservation and archival resources at the studio, says he is unaware of the “Rosemary’s Baby” incident. ” ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is in very good condition,” he insists.

For the first half of the century, studios let their sprawling libraries fall into disarray. The result is half of all American films made before 1950 have been destroyed, while 80% of U.S.-produced pics dating before 1929 are lost. But film preservation and restoration efforts sprung up in the early 1960s. Mayer, a longtime MGM executive, launched the first large-scale effort to safeguard a studio library in 1965, when he oversaw MGM’s construction of refrigerated vaults to house its library, which included such titles as “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

“The studio wasn’t storing its films properly,” says Mayer, who received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Academy Award in 2005 for his work on behalf of film and TV preservation. “I discovered that it would get to 100 degrees on the lot, and films were stored in these concrete bunkhouses because they were trying to keep out thieves. But they were deteriorating because of heat and humidity.”

Meanwhile, Scorsese launched World Cinema Foundation this year at Cannes, recruiting Alfonso Cuaron, Walter Salles and Wong Kar-wai to help restore international films. And Scorsese’s Film Foundation has partnered with other orgs, such as the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., to save nearly 500 endangered films. These orgs also do extensive preservation and restoration work on their own.

Ultimately, the Hollywood majors are responsible for keeping the vast number of motion pictures in pristine condition. Unfortunately, history has proven that they are not always the best custodians.

(Anne Thompson contributed to this report.)

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