Film losses a fear after studio fire

As the smoke cleared from Sunday’s Universal studios fire, movie lovers were breathing a sigh of relief at the news that nothing irreplaceable was lost in the destruction of U’s video vault.

But by Wednesday, Universal execs realized that the losses could be far more serious than originally thought though not even the studio itself is sure where things stand.

Early indications from Universal, though, are that it intends to rebuild its print library, no matter what was lost.

“It’s too early for me to be able to tell you what was lost; we’re still assessing,” said Mike Daruty, U’s senior VP for technical operations.

Daruty spoke on a day when insurers and anxious producers were deluging the lot with phone calls, trying to determine exactly what had happened.

Some of that concern was deepened by an email from Paul Ginsburg, a VP at the studio, warning repertory theaters that the fire “destroyed nearly 100% of the archive prints kept here on the lot.”

Daruty confirmed that the destroyed facility was “vault services, shipping and receiving and mainly our tape vault. The majority were tape assets, a small percentage being film assets.”

Inventory in the vault was closely tracked, but since some assets were rescued from the fire, U staffers are still determining exactly what was saved and what they’ve lost.

No negatives or film masters were kept in the vault, so all the prints are replaceable — in theory.

Furthermore, if U is following industry best practices, it would not have been keeping all of its prints of any title in one location. The company has a storage facility in Philadelphia, so there may be prints of some affected titles there.

But some prints are enormously valuable in their own right. So-called EK prints, struck from the original negatives when the negatives were new and thus irreplaceable, would be among the most valuable prints on Earth, according to one expert on film and printing who asked not to be named.

George Eastman House curator of Motion Pictures Patrick Loughney told Daily Variety, “Older films are not easily replaced. There might be issues with the negative fading, or it could have shriveled. Making new prints is not a straightforward matter.”

Even if a negative is immaculate, a new print might not match the old, said David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.

“If it was a film printed in Technicolor, that process isn’t used anymore. You’re not going to get a print of the same quality,” Schwartz said.

Daruty confirmed that there is no way to make a new Technicolor IB print today. “We work very hard when we are doing prints to try to get as close to the look of the original as possible. But there’s no way to match a Technicolor print that’s 30 or 40 years old.”

Even black-and-white classics might not be fully reproducible. “Today’s black-and-white film has less silver in the film stock,” said Schwartz. “The quality of a vintage black-and-white print might be higher than a new black-and-white print.”

The biggest issue today, though, is that while these archival prints can be replaced, that doesn’t mean they will be.

“That’s the biggest fear,” said Loughney. “That the only real revenue from these films is from cable TV and DVD, and they won’t have new prints made. Then these important films won’t be available in the form in which they were meant to be seen.”

Universal has a reputation for being particularly supportive of programmers and repertory houses; Ginsburg is a favorite in that community.

Of fears that films would go unprinted, Daruty said, “I understand the concern; I don’t think it’s a valid concern. We take this pretty seriously. We’ve been a leader in film preservation and restoration of materials.”

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