Digital records challenge archivists

The paper trail may be getting cold.

The workplace isn’t exactly paperless yet, but in film production offices everywhere, email and text messages have readily replaced typed memos and outmoded the exchange of physical letters. The photocopied memo, physically distributed by mailroom clerks, now seems as quaint as the quill pen. Plus, social networks have taken on an increasingly prominent role in business communications.

But what happens to Outlook emails after they’re deleted? Are Facebook pages forever? And what about scripts penned using outdated writing software and residing on obsolete floppies?

Compared with them, paper, for all its propensity to become yellow and brittle over time, seems positively eternal. Yet the migration away from paper continues, jeopardizing the preservation of scripts, notes, memos and the entire recorded chain of decision-making behind every film ever produced.

And while the industry is making efforts to protect the films themselves, which are assets of proven financial value, it’s doing little to preserve records of the creative thinking and business decisions behind them.

“People are now using electronic means to speed up production and provide feedback, and there’s no process to preserve that,” says Ray Feeney, co-chair of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Science and Technology Council.

Paper, on the other hand, has been kept not only with intent to preserve but also out of laziness and by accident — inadvertently yielding rich troves of printed discussion and decisions.

Throughout recorded history, Feeney says, the preservation of paper records was often “just a byproduct of benign neglect. You threw something in a shoebox in the back of a closet and the grandkids found it. Now that everything is done electronically, people 100 years from now will probably know less about the early 2000s then they did about the 1970s.”

“That’s a rather terrifying prospect,” says Linda Mehr, director of the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, which has a huge collection of movie-related material, including 10 million photos, 300,000 clipping files, 80,000 screenplays, 35,000 posters and 32,000 books.

The library has yet to receive many electronic records. “Most of the material we’re getting now is from people who worked 20 or 30 years ago, so it’s still all paper,” says Mehr, “but as we start to get records from more contemporary filmmakers we’re going to encounter problems.”

Electronic press kits (EPKs) are a leading indicator of issues to come.

“We used to get kits we could actually touch — paper, slides and so on,” says Mehr. “We still store those under temperature and humidity control, and they’ll be here for the foreseeable future.”

But they also created another problem: “After we started to get discs, we’d try to go back and look at them, but sometimes we couldn’t open them anymore. We realized that we had to do more than store them, so we transferred many of them onto a hard-drive-based digital asset management system.”

The constant evolution of formats presents perhaps the biggest challenge for digital storage. Content stored on paper is readable by the human eye no matter what. Content stored on a digital platform that was prevalent during its creation may not be readable by future generations of hardware and software.

For example, scripts written on and stored by early computers are no longer readily accessible. Steve Wilson, curator of the film collection at the U of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center, which preserves cultural material, says the collection of material written in the 1980s by the late scribe Warren Skaaren (“Batman,” “Beetlejuice”) — one of the first screenwriters to use a computer — includes several 5 1/4 – and 3.5-inch floppies, which are only readable by computers of that era.

“We couldn’t open any of the floppies, so we ended up having to get his actual computer from his estate,” says Wilson. “Then we found out he used specialized screenwriting software, so we ended up opening everything and printing it out on paper. We know paper will last for thousands of years.”

Paper is the medium that allows “people to go back go back and see how (Alfred) Hitchcock started out, the way he developed his style, acquired his vision, got his big breaks,” says Feeney. “In the future, those who want to study today’s filmmakers will be much more limited.”

Not that paper is immune to destruction. The studios themselves are guilty of allowing many of their paper records to perish. “These days, they’re doing a better job of keeping them, but there was a time when a lot of material disappeared,” says Jan-Christopher Horak, director of UCLA’s Film & TV Archive, the second-largest such collection in the U.S., after that of the Library of Congress.

Horak, former head of archives and collections at Universal, recalls that in the mid-1980s, the studio sold off the New Jersey warehouse that stored Irving Thalberg’s records from his days at Universal in the 1920s. “They told them to do whatever they wanted to do with the contents, which were lost,” he says.

Universal wasn’t the only studio that disregarded its heritage, Horak is quick to add. “The only one that had a more enlightened attitude — who knows why — was Warner Bros., which donated its production, publicity and other records to USC and Princeton. Which is why a lot that’s written about classical Hollywood centers on Warner Bros.”

“We can imagine a world in which paper becomes outmoded, and all records fall into a digital black hole,” says Andy Maltz, director of the Motion Picture Academy’s Science and Technology Council. Digital content, he explains, needs to migrate from platform to platform as older media become obsolete.

It’s also a matter of money, because preserving digital media is costly. “You can lose electronic records unless you have a preservation program in place with an ongoing funding commitment,” says Maltz. “People say storage is getting cheaper, but that’s not accurate. Storage media on a cost-per-bit basis is getting less expensive, but the cost to preserve it is increasing.”

“It’s an issue of staffing and revenue,” says Randal Luckow, who chairs the materials committee at the nonprofit Assn. of Moving Image Archivists. “Corporate archives usually don’t have a lot of support. Productions are their own little business within the business, and when a production office closes, the digital assets that are on servers or removable media get disposed of.”

One bright spot is that the impending demise of paper may be greatly exaggerated.

“It’s not like paper is going away,” says Luckow. “People want to have their own paper trail for what they’re doing, so they’re still printing out scripts, notes and revisions — saving what’s important to their workflow.”

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