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As Film Labs Wind Down Prints Business, Job of Preservation Falling to Archivists

Some boutique labs serving the preservationists are thriving, but their niche is fragile

Traditionally, the 35mm print business was dominated by a few big companies. The major studios made the pictures, and the duopoly of Technicolor and Deluxe struck the prints. But with those whales headed for digital waters, the film print business has been swimming with smaller fish: archives, museums and the niche labs that have grown up to serve them.

(From the pages of the April 16 issue of Variety.)

“I think that it’s safe to say that certain studios have not been replacing prints of their library titles for many years now,” says Michael Pogorzelski, director of the film archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. “That burden has started to fall to the archives, to fill in the gaps on titles where they no longer have distribution prints.”

Among the boutique labs serving the preservationists are Cinetech in Hollywood, Calif.; NT Audio Video Film Labs in Los Angeles; and Alpha Cine in Seattle. Some of these labs are thriving, but their niche is fragile. “The people I talk to are not sure that their business is sustainable,” says Don Jensen, president of Alpha Cine.

Cinetech — a Deluxe company, ironically — does digital restoration and preservation, then prints the result back out to film. Its customers include the George Eastman House, the Museum of Modern Art and other archives.

Sean Coughlin, Cinetech’s senior vice president of preservation and restoration, explains, “Our business is strong. We made it through when a lot of small companies didn’t. But the reason we made it through was because we ended up with Deluxe and they had the digital infrastructure — the backbone so we could stand out and compete.”

The Academy Film Archive, seeing the end of prints coming, started its “Film to Film” project in June 2011, aiming to create new archival film masters from at-risk elements while economies of scale were still to be had at the labs. The project focused on acclaimed pics, especially Academy Award nominees, and is now winding down.

The Acad is committed to film prints because it wants to screen them at its new motion picture museum, once it opens.

“As an archivist, I’m always interested in giving a current audience an experience close to what the original audience had,” Pogorzelski says. “I do think there’s something about the medium of mechanical projection that is distinctly different from digital projection.”

Alpha Cine’s Jensen goes farther. “I’m worried (digital projection) will diminish the experience in the theater enough that we will lose audience,” he says. “The world’s changing and it’s too late to go back, but it is important for us to preserve our heritage.”

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