Digital conversion pains indies

Film libraries are often in bad shape and lack upgrade funds

Many libraries of classic indie and arthouse films aren’t in a fit state to exploit the digital future, and library holders lack the resources to invest in the necessary technical upgrade, according to industry experts.

The Hollywood studios have deep enough pockets to bear the considerable cost of converting their back catalogs and the accompanying materials into the required digital formats. But indie library owners face tough decisions about how to fund their transition into the digital world.

“Digitizing content is not for the faint-hearted,” warned Clare Enders of Enders Analysis at the British Screen Advisory Council’s film conference in March.

Peter Watson, chairman of HanWay Films, explains the dilemma: “In the marketplace for second-cycle product, there are really no significant players yet generating enough online revenues to make it economically viable to invest in digitizing libraries. Yet we all instinctively feel it’s something we will have to do. So the question is, how do you finance it, and where do you get the revenues to do it?”

HanWay manages a library of about 300 titles, including films from its own sister outfit the Recorded Picture Co., as well as the Wim Wenders and Merchant Ivory catalogs. Many of these are arthouse classics from the past 30 years, yet Watson says less than a tenth of them are actually ready for online sale.

“It’s not just the cost of digital remastering,” he explains. “It’s also creating the metadata that needs to go with it — assembling all the foreign-language soundtracks and the campaign material from each country. What nobody tells you is the cost of going to Japan, finding the old distributors, getting the materials, negotiating the soundtrack rights. That physical work is incredibly labor-intensive, but you have to do it, because you have to deliver to the online platform what it needs to attract customers.”

John Rodden runs the home entertainment division of Optimum Releasing and also oversees the ongoing process of restoring and digitizing the vast 1,400-title library of classic British films owned by Optimum’s parent StudioCanal. “For a film to have a future, it must be the best possible format,” he says. “Our early experience with iTunes is that niche and classic product does well, but the iTunes spec is very exacting.”

It’s not just about preparing films for online sale, but also for high-definition TV and Blu-ray. “A TV buyer will want high-definition versions now,” Roddan says. “A lot of films would have been restored in the ’80s for analog video, or in the ’90s for TV before HD, but the quality is not as good as the modern audience expects.”

Optimum also regularly picks up titles from other libraries for DVD release.

“It’s very true that a lot of libraries out there are of a level of quality that’s not acceptable for the future,” Roddan says. “It’s often shocking when you get the deliverables and there are only a few stills, all of which are terrible. If you want to create a really beautiful-looking package that celebrates this great film, or makes a previously uncommercial film commercial, then you’re struggling.”

Watson argues that the European Commission’s Media program has missed a trick by concentrating its subsidy on consumer VOD platforms, many of which have gone bust, rather than helping cash-strapped library owners with the cost of their digital upgrades.

“The Media program has spent tens of millions of euros to support dozens of startup VOD platforms, but they are withering on the vine, because they don’t have enough product to sell,” says Watson. “Instead, Media should support aggregators of independent product, so that we can enter into significant output arrangements with the big platforms like iTunes or Amazon, on the same terms at the studios. You have to invest now to preserve the long-term film culture.”

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