A movie needs saving as soon as it’s locked and in the can.

Hollywood has been grappling with that fact for ages, but the struggle is accelerating now that digital formats change every few years, forcing executives to focus on the future and often forget the past.

While Hollywood likes to tout its legacy at awards shows, it’s another matter to pony up the coin to protect its aging libraries of films, with some high-profile titles rotting away on shelves due to years of neglect.

Yet the situation isn’t as dire as it once was. Archivists give studios good grades for their film preservation efforts,

fueled by the heightened awareness of the need to protect their investments.

But as corporate parents put more pressure on film divisions to boost bottom lines, it’s still not a top priority to save a slate of older films that aren’t pumping out profits anymore.

That’s forced studios to turn to museums, universities and the Library of Congress for help.

The roster of saviors includes the National Film Preservation Foundation (which has helped preserve more than 1,650 films at archives, libraries, and museums across the country since 1997) and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation (which launched in 2007 to preserve global classics, augmenting the Film Foundation, which began preserving U.S. films 20 years ago).

Among the top repositories in the U.S. for storing preserved and restored films: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and UCLA, which recently built a new preservation facility in Valencia, Calif.

But the Library of Congress has accomplished the most. The world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of movies, TV programs, radio broadcasts and sound recordings has been acquired, preserved and made available to the public through the library’s Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Va. The campus requires $30 million each year to pay for overhead and supplies.

Although the library started collecting audiovisual materials in 1893, the campus didn’t open until 2007. It has since grown to encompass 90 miles of shelving that can store 1.1 million films, TV programs and other video items.

Packard Humanities Institute provided $160 million to build the facility.

“The library has stepped in to preserve and collect materials that otherwise would be destroyed,” says Patrick Loughney, who was tapped to oversee the facility in 2008. “Our interest is in keeping alive the theatrical (film) format. There is nothing quite like this in terms of a gift to the nation.”

In fact, Hollywood essentially relies on the Library of Congress to handle most of its preservation efforts.

The studios provide films to the library, such as the original camera negative of “The Maltese Falcon” and 17 Frank Capra films including “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Archivists also are working on silent-era short subjects and some Stan Laurel films, and are inspecting elements of “Casablanca.” Studio liaisons have felt more comfortable over the years in handing more of their notable titles to the library, given its extensive resources.

The Virginia facility is one of the few in the world that works with nitrate negatives, which were widely used from the early 1890s to 1951 before being replaced with safety film because of nitrate’s high combustibility. Despite its longevity, nitrate’s flammability, even under water, was considered so dangerous that even today some film labs refuse to store the format. Everything Hollywood has shot since the 1950s has been on safety film or shot digitally.

A collection of 75 mostly silent films produced in the 1910s and ’20s (with some dating back to 1898) was discovered in June by the National Film Preservation Foundation in New Zealand; all are being restored in the U.S. The films, thought to be lost, included John Ford’s 1927 oater “Upstream.”

MoMA has built a storage facility in Pennsylvania to house nitrate film, as part of its Film Stills Archive. The museum had already been storing nitrate negatives of Warner Bros.’ films to properly restore them when needed.

While UCLA and museum-backed archives store mostly films not owned by studios (because of rights issues), the majors store their own negatives and thus are the ones to decide whether a film needs to be restored. Universal Studios, in particular, had to rebuild a storage facility after a fire destroyed a large portion of its backlot in 2008.

Films must be constantly inspected because they can deteriorate, get torn, scratched or stepped on over the years, as the originals are transferred into new distribution formats or screened in theaters.

Independent films, particularly ones handled by small distribution companies, often get left out in the cold because their producers may not be able to afford the costs of proper storage. When companies go under, their films are left to contend with the elements without ongoing protection.

Roger Mayer — a fixture in the film biz for more than 50 years and currently chairman of the National Film Preservation Foundation and a member of the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress — has been impressed with the studios’ moves. “I think film preservation is in the best shape it’s ever been,” he says.

That’s mainly because the majors have been converting their nitrate libraries to safety film, with those prints used to create DVD and other digital versions.

“All have very good storage facilities now, which they didn’t have in the past, so that, if you store a film properly, then you don’t need to restore it later,” Mayer says. “The preservation is in the storage.”

If a film is well-stored and not mishandled, “it’s there for the indefinite future,” Mayer says. “And a well-restored or well-kept element of safety film will last at least 100 years.”

Loughney praises the studios and rights holders, but notes that the choice of films still typically comes down to moneymaking potential. The studios “tend to follow the latest home consumer market trend,” he says, adding that “it is the commercial forms of distribution that dictate their interest.”

That means DVD, Blu-ray and other digital formats — and, soon, digital lockers that enable a film to be accessed using any electronic device without need of a physical disc. In a sense, digital is being treated as the magic bullet to preserve filmed entertainment.

Studios continue to experiment with how to make more money from their older films. Warner Bros.’ film archive, for instance, has 6,800 titles. Around 1,200 have been released on DVD, and the studio started offering made-to-order DVDs for its older fare last year, to expand the roster of available titles.

With new formats being the focus, says Loughney, “there is less of an interest by the studios in keeping the 35mm format alive, because that is not their profit motive.”

What confuses the public is the notion that a movie is preserved simply by being available in digital formats.

“It is an illusion that (a movie) has been preserved when you see it on a DVD,” Loughney says. “The current forms of digital distribution are not preservation. Ultimately, a film on a disk is not a preserved image.”

And while studios are eager to provide the Library of Congress with deteriorating films, they’re not writing big checks to build facilities like the library’s National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.

The $160 million it took to launch the Library of Congress’ facility in the first place didn’t come from Hollywood but from David Packard, the son of the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard and former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense during the Nixon administration.

“I think it is highly ironic, but David Packard is a scholar of early Greek and Roman civilizations,” Loughney says
. “He recognized that much of American culture that he thought was important was going the same way as early Greek and Roman cultures. It was thrown away and lost.”

The facility does receive grants from the Film Foundation and the National Film Preservation Foundation, but that’s a small amount when compared with its overall budget, operators say.

“Every archive can always use more resources,” Loughney says. “But more and more, what is going on is the taxpayer is bearing more of the burden of preservation activities. We do get some support from studios, but not across the board. This is basically a taxpayer-funded activity.”

Studios typically pay facilities the cost to restore a film if they still own the rights. Those costs can vary widely, depending on the film gauge (16mm, 35mm or 70mm), running time, whether it’s in black and white or color, its soundtrack, and, of course, its condition. Black-and-white features can run $25,000 all the way up to $100,000 per print, color prints from $100,000 to $250,000. Larger 70mm prints can run about $1 million to restore.

In return for its restoration work, the archive may get a copy. But the studios keep the original.

Loughney underscores that the digital world is not, in fact, preserving everything — video, film, sound — and that showbiz must take an active hand in maintaining its legacy.

“There is a growing cultural amnesia where we lose the connection from one generation to the next,” he cautions. “Everything is not always being released and put out on the Internet.”

Ted Johnson and Rachel Abrams contributed to this report.