Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Night The Carousel Burnt Down

The Universal lot in Los Angeles caught fire last weekend, and a vault holding prints and video tapes burned to the ground. While no unique copies of any films were destroyed, it's become clear that apparently the entire collection of 35mm prints available for rental by theatres was destroyed.

(Story here:,0,5996006.story)

Of interest is the letter Universal sent to programmers Monday morning. "...yesterday's fire destroyed nearly 100% of the archive prints kept here on the lot. Due to this we will be unable to honor any film bookings of prints that were set to ship from here."

Over 40,000 items were destroyed (including video archives of television shows as well), and while all the negatives of the prints are safe elsewhere, for the forseeable future all showings of any films sourced from the Universal catalog (including ones they acquired over the years) are compromised, unless they were 1) out on rental at a theatre over the weekend, or 2) Universal replaces the 35mm print by going back to negative or other materials to strike a print.

And when do you think that will be? How vibrant do you think the business for rentals of 35mm films are lately, with the advent of home video, DVDs, Tivo, cable, and BitTorrent?

Striking a print costs about $5000, if the negative is in good shape, can be found easily, and is properly marked. Not to mention the time involved. If "The Mummy" with Boris Karloff only gets booked twice a year, and generates $300 each time, do you think they'll rush out to make a new 35mm print? Besides, it's available on DVD now, so anyone that wants it can get it.

The original 1933 "King Kong" was extensively remastered and scanned to DVD last year. Presumably there was a 35mm print struck for roadshow bookings, or for Peter Jackson's personal use. The King Kong attraction has been destroyed. Has that print been as well? The only print in existence of "King Kong Escapes" (no known negative) has been verified as having been lost.

These prints are the archival ones that go out to higher-end theatres that run them reel to reel (as opposed to building them up on platters, which is hard on the films and generally not done for valuable or archival copies). These are the good ones, the ones that museums and cinemateques run. Universal has no compelling financial reason to replace these 35m prints. The rental business of old archival prints has reached the point where it's a loss-leader.

We seem to be seeing the death of film faster than predicted.

Only a handful of prints, estimated to be between 40 and 60 currently out at theatres, have survived.

I hope you were able to see "Frankenstein" or "Jaws" or "Car Wash" or "The Dear Hunter" or "Charley Varrick" or "Slaughterhouse Five" or "American Graffiti" or "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" (all Universal titles) in a theatre if you wanted to.

You may never see these them live again.

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