Digitization of the film biz gives old masters a makeover

LONDON — The restoration of classic films is both a labor of love and a commercial enterprise.

Ellen Schafer, who is in charge of the film library at SNC, part of Gallic media conglom M6, points out that one byproduct of the digitization of the film biz is that many old masters are getting a makeover and enjoying a new lease on life commercially.

During the Lumiere Film Festival in Lyon, France, which ran Oct. 3-9, fest head Thierry Fremaux paid tribute to the work of the Jerome Seydoux-Pathe Foundation, which had just restored Marcel Carne’s “Les Enfants du paradis,” which was screened at the fest. The foundation also is working on Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai,” Roman Polanski’s “Tess” and Raymond Bernard’s “Les Miserables.”

The restored version of “Les Enfants,” carried out by the Eclair and L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratories on a budget of €300,000 ($410,000), will be released theatrically by Pathe in France in December, and will get theatrical dates in other territories. Reissues on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD will follow.

Although distribs are unlikely to get rich quick through the restoration and re-release of classic films, it is possible to at least cover the cost of restoration. Jane Giles, the British Film Institute’s head of content, oversaw the release in Blighty of “The Great White Silence” earlier this year. The nonfiction silent film from 1924, which documents Captain Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole, cost around $126,000 to restore, including the cost of a new score by Simon Fisher Turner. The theatrical release netted $95,000 from 40 screens, and sold 4,000 units of the dual format edition (DVD and Blu-ray), which retails for $32. The film was also sold to the Discovery Channel, although Giles declined to reveal the price. The pic has also been picked up in Germany, and the BFI is in negotiations with distribs for Australian and New Zealand rights.

The cost of restoring a Technicolor pic, typical of the work undertaken by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation on “The Red Shoes,” is more expensive. Efforts such as this can cost just south of $1 million.

Scorsese and his Film Foundation are one of the most high-profile orgs devoted to this work. Clearly, restoration work can be profitable, though in the conglomerate age that focuses on quarterly bottom lines, it’s an uphill struggle to get executives to realize the importance of the work — not only paydays, but the opportunity to expose new audiences to classics. (Variety on Aug. 2-8, 2010, themed the entire issue to the advantages and challenges in this field.)

In order to put the pics on video-on-demand platforms, film companies first have to create a digital master, and since many old 35mm prints are in a poor condition, the films have to be restored first.

But the market for classic films is limited. Schafer says only half of SNC’s library of around 1,200 films are exploited commercially. A small number, like Jean Cocteau’s “La Belle et la bete,” are evergreens, and sell worldwide, while others only sell in certain markets, like the “Gendarme” comedy franchise, which has little market value in English-language territories, but is popular across continental Europe.

Still, specialized markets are popping up in the U.S. and Germany, says Schaefer, giving lesser-known titles that are now available on an HD master new life. Many restored classics have long legs at the box office in re-release.

Last year, Rialto took $357,000 from the 50th anni reissue of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” after it played for more than seven months at U.S. theaters, while Kino Intl. nabbed $529,000 from a re-release of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” whose new print including lost footage, over a similar period.

Pathe says the restoration of Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard” was conceived as a project in its own right, starting with its screening in the Cannes Classic section in 2010, followed by a re-release in French theaters and finally its release on DVD and VOD. Sales on DVD were excellent, with some 50,000 units sold.

The typical classic film customer tends to be older than the average filmgoer, and has a better knowledge of cinema and its history, says Steve Lewis, head of home entertainment at U.K. distrib Artificial Eye, which has a sizable collection of classic titles. The company is just about to re-release Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy on Blu-ray, which has been among the company’s best-sellers, alongside the works of Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson.

Like their counterparts in the fanboy world, classic movie fans will spend the money for a complete collection of their favorite auteurs, so restored prints drive sales — which means VOD sales are slower.

During the Lumiere festival, Europa Distribution, a body that reps indie distribs in Europe, held its annual confab, where delegates agreed that the market for classic films was small, and the customers were aging.

Tilman Scheel, managing director of Reelport, which runs Europe’s Finest, a service that supplies digital prints of classic European films to theaters, said both these facts will remain true unless the study of film and its history is added to school curriculums, and the audience is taught to appreciate cinema in the same way it does other art forms.

“Tell people that it’s an old film, and they won’t go to the cinema; tell them it’s an exhibition of old paintings, and they go to the museum. Everybody knows who Leonardo Da Vinci is, but I’m not so sure they know who the Lumiere brothers are,” he says.

— Boyd van Hoeij in Paris contributed to this report.

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