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Jane Fonda, Thierry Fremaux, Alexander Payne Advocate to Save Classic Films at HFPA Restoration Summit

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association rallied a roster of film world heavy-hitters Saturday at the Ace Hotel’s United Artists theater in downtown Los Angeles for the organization’s first Film Restoration Summit devoted to celebrating classic films and the urgent need to put more resources into saving them.

Naturally, the importance of preserving the big-screen experience was a major theme, but the event was mainly dedicated to celebrating films that have been brought back to life through the efforts of organizations such as Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and the UCLA Film Archive.

The HFPA has donated $6.5 million to such efforts since 1996, going toward 125 restoration projects.

Panelists Jane Fonda, Thierry Fremaux, Alexander Payne, Sony’s Grover Crisp and UCLA’s Jan-Christopher Horak came together to discuss the necessity of stepping up preservation efforts, particularly for silent, independent and international films. A restored print of “A Fistful of Dollars”  screened after the presentation.

HFPA president Meher Tatna pointed out that as many as half of all films made before 1950 have been lost, and recalled that the organization has supported restorations such as Ida Lupino’s “The Bigamist” and Satjayit Ray’s “Apu” trilogy. The panel was moderated by Sandra Schulberg, whose IndieCollect organization works to preserve independent films.

Fremaux took the stage saying it felt bizarre for him to talk about the history of cinema at this moment because he’s in the middle of selecting films for Cannes. “I hope I won’t get confused and give you the Cannes opening night film,” he joked, “which by the way we don’t have, which is a problem.” The Cannes director also heads Lyon’s Institut Lumiere, devoted to preserving and screening historic films.

He gave audiences a quick refresher on the beginnings of cinema, throwing a bit of shade at Thomas Edison, whose early works were viewed on the small Kinetoscope viewer, as opposed to Louis Lumiere, who was the first to champion projection on a big screen.

“It’s still what we love, being together to watch images on a big screen. Maybe the revenge of Thomas Edison is called Netflix,” he quipped. Fremaux screened a number of fascinating location-shot films from the Lumiere brothers, shot in the late 1800s and early 1900s, some restored with help from the HFPA.

Fonda, who was honored at the Lumiere film festival last year, admitted that she’s no expert on the issue of preservation. She joked that being asked to be on the panel might be “to punish me because my favorite ex-husband colorized much of MGM’s film library.” Ted Turner was a pariah for the colorization debacle, she recalled, yet she pointed out that he actually preserved the MGM library, which led to the creation of Turner Classic Movies.

“We can’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been,” she proclaimed. “Perhaps we ought to put as much into saving film as we do into making it.” Later, as panelists called out the need for her Oscar-winning “Coming Home” to be restored, she almost looked like she was on the verge of pulling out her checkbook.

Crisp, who is executive VP of asset management, film restoration and digital mastery at Sony, explained how the advent of increasingly sophisticated digital techniques means that some films are restored repeatedly — “Easy Rider,” for example, is on its third restoration. Fonda quipped that the filmmakers may have been “too stoned” to properly care for the original film elements.

To provide a visual example of the huge difference restoration can make, Horak screened faded, murky scenes from Westerns that were brought back to vibrant color in the restoration process.

Payne described himself as a “Bologna geek,” not because he’s fond of processed meats but because he’s a regular at the Italian preservation-oriented fest, which he encouraged everyone to attend. The HFPA asked Payne to select a film he wanted to see restored, and he recalled a mentor’s words, “Always save the silents.” So he chose the 1926 Douglas Fairbanks movie “The Black Pirate” as the organization’s next restoration project.

“There aren’t a lot of contemporary directors who are film buffs, who go out to see old films,” Payne said.

Payne later reflected on the small screen vs. big screen debate. “I think if there’s no theatrical experience at all, then it’s TV. I’m kind of with Thierry Fremaux on that. But the flipside is, Netflix has opened up such an ocean of creativity to filmmakers.”

Fremaux said it’s also important to save cinemas, not just films, and gave a shout-out to Quentin Tarantino and his New Beverly Cinema. “We are here in this wonderful theater,” he said, gesturing at the gilded detail of the 1927 auditorium. “Cinemas are in danger — in Rome, there are no theaters in the city anymore.” He recalled Tarantino’s insistence that “Pulp Fiction” be shown at the festival’s anniversary screening with a 35mm print.

Fremaux said later that it’s his generation’s responsibility to preserve the culture, and then teach it to younger people, the way filmmakers like Scorsese and Tarantino are doing. “Then it will be their role to pay attention.”

“You have to be sure that the great classic films can be seen anytime, anywhere,” Fremaux said. “With DVD, but also in a movie theater.”

Even people who are great chefs at home love to go to restaurants, and sports fans flock to stadiums even though they watch sports on TV, he pointed out.

“The next great adventure,” Fremaux said, “is silent cinema. It’s full of treasures, all over the world.”

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