Biz's fragile past holds keys to its future

This week, Variety offers our third theme issue, following December’s music and decade-wrap editions. With constant tech innovations and a crazy economy, showbiz these days is all about preparing for the future. So why devote an entire issue of Variety to the preservation of the past?

Because, financially and artistically, the past offers some answers for the future.

For decades, showbiz discarded its own creative contributions, as classic TV episodes were thrown out to make shelf space, costumes were sold off at auctions and theater posters and programs were relegated to the trash. But in the past few decades, diverse orgs like the Library of Congress, the Eastman House and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation have put a spotlight on the topic, as the DVD boom spurred revitalization of old fare through digitization. All of this fostered a sense that the problem is being addressed.

As the articles here prove, preservation is not an accomplishment, it’s an ongoing process.

The financial benefits are huge. Every time a new technology has

arrived — whether TV in the early ’50s, homevideo in the 1980s or DVDs in the ’90s — the new system has needed plenty of content. So studios and networks raided their libraries, but were often shocked to find many potentially lucrative works had been lost or damaged.

In 2010, Hollywood is waiting to see which technology will dominate next: VOD, streaming or something that’s still in the experimental stage and as yet unnamed. As soon as companies start making big bucks on the next delivery system (or systems), people are going to quickly realize they need content, so libraries will likely soar in value. And those libraries have to be ready for their closeup.

There is also importance beyond the bottom line: Restoration gives us, and future generations, a look at works that can inspire, inform and entertain — in other words, that can feed the soul, an importance that can’t be measured.

The stories in this issue chronicle work being done in diverse areas. TV networks and companies have too much material, too little time and money. Film preservationists in Hong Kong, Egypt and India are battling humidity, government apathy and inadequate storage facilities (one preservationist laments finding historic pics in a “nitrate film slaughterhouse”). In Europe, government funding helps preserve its TV treasure troves, such as France’s INA, which houses 2.5 million hours of shows.

And while theater and dance performances are considered transitory, Lincoln Center has been preserving such works for 40 years — but these invaluable recordings need to be maintained.

In general, much material has been lost or orphaned (i.e., of no immediate financial value to a person or company), and sometimes the machinery and tools for preservation are themselves beginning to crumble.

The admirable efforts of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to preserve key papers (posters, scripts, notes, memos) raises another question: Will our current world of emails and videos be preserved? Digital, once touted as the key to immortality, has a shelf life, just like everything else. How long will it last? It’s too soon to say.

Variety.com will unveil a digital version of the paper’s 105-year archives — Variety’s own move in the area of preservation.

Once the archives are up and running, each issue will be viewable in its original page-by-page format — and articles, ads, names, companies and titles will be searchable (the site’s search engine will also be upgraded to make it easier to find items).

This is not just a plug for the Variety archives (though it is also that, I suppose). It’s a reminder of heritage and continuity.

Whenever there are tough times (as now), people often find comfort in the past. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Variety’s back catalog, like the other works addressed in this issue, is not about nostalgia. The pleasure in looking back should not be a fake comfort in recalling “simpler times,” but an avenue for research, learning and inspiration.

For Variety as well as everyone else covered in this issue, preservation is about the future.

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