Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fin de Cine

(Being an unofficial continuation of the discussion "Where Were You in '92?" about the disappearance of films - on film.)

In the '80s many t.v. stations stopped showing 16mm sources and converted to videotape technology. They sold off their massive 16mm film libraries, mostly to private collectors. The market was flooded with 16mm copies of almost every conceivable movie and t.v. show, and they were going - for a while - for about the cost of a VHS tape (e.g.: a 16mm print of "Demon With A Glass Hand" for $20.)

These 16mm prints had no perceived value in the marketplace, since VHS had become the de facto home-viewing option.

A few years after that the largest 16mm rental house, Film Inc. (which predominantly rented to schools and military bases) went out of business as well, holding a public auction. 25 years later, the original rights holders of these films can't supply museums, festivals, or theatre chains with film prints - 35mm or 16mm - of their films. Warner Brothers can't supply programmers with "A Clockwork Orange." They don't have them (I presume they are out there somewhere, in private hands).

Warners' advice - rent the DVD and project it that way.

Just because something has been on DVD doesn't mean it's been properly restored or archived. Many of the gray market/foreign prints of otherwise out-of-print titles that crop up online are actually from video elements - Secam or BetaSP tapes acquired from some fire-sale seller; sometimes even from a pan-and-scan VHS tape.

Perhaps the only film copies of many titles are in the hands of private collectors, on 4th-generation 16mm t.v. prints.

Film preservation has moved closer to being a computer expert recently than being a librarian. Rather than collecting and managing the original source materials, it's conceivable that a preservationist may never actually lay his hands on a piece of film; instead they scan and manipulate "digital assets," furthering a myopic digital groupthink.

In the old days (before, perhaps, 1980) film preservation meant being a hoarder. You would get your hands on any and all pieces of film you could lay your hands on, usually (and if extremely lucky) at critical historically advantageous periods. Like when sound came in in the early '30s, and all the silent films were discarded or recycled for the silver content.

Or during the late '60s, when all the videotapes of old made-for-television movies or old episodes of Johnny Carson were erased to make room for the tapes of new shows.

Natural hoarders thrived in this environment, but weren't turning around to exhibit the treasure - they lived a somewhat subterranean life for fear of being arrested for owning something that wasn't theirs (in spite of the fact it may have been found in the dumpsters behind the Sunset-Gower studio vaults). Hoarders can be stingy on allowing access - the stuff they covet is the most rare; in fact the more degraded and discounted the better. It took work and devotion to find it, and it may be unique; they fancy themselves collectors, not curators.

Henri Langlois, of the Cinémathèque Française, was famously indiscriminate and promiscuous in his acquisition procedures (yet failed miserably to record what - and how - he had what he had). Kevin Brownlow has spent his entire adult life tracking down the apparently endless outtakes and versions of Gance's 1927 "Napoleon" (to increasingly diminishing returns).

The studios have abandoned maintaining and managing their 35mm prints - that burdensome privilege goes (for now) to independent contractors like Technicolor Delivery (a subsidiary of the old color-processing company) and Theatre Transit, two truck-based delivery services that are becoming increasingly obsolete as digital delivery slowly, expensively, but exonerably gains a foothold in exhibition.

(The video and digital masters, meanwhile, often less carefully managed since they're not the "originals," often fall into the hands of grey-market entrepreneurs who sell them to foreign dvd and cable distributors, irregardless of where the rights might lie, over and over again. Vide the many conflicting releases of "Bloodsport.")

Meanwhile, the studios have a new challenge - to save and possibly archive all the miles of "digital" footage created by new productions, who think that since they're no longer yoked by the chemical burden of developing film, they can keep the camera(s) rolling far beyond normal or useful parameters.

As the new age of DVD restorations proves profitable, the methodology of resurrecting films - often to exploit commercially by adding value with outtakes or deleted scenes - has changed what's saved, and how. Will preservationists seek out these hoarders, with their neo-ludditian affection for celluloid (or polyester...or acetate)?

Will future restorers have access to the lost footage, alternate European or t.v. edits, discarded outtakes and other ephemera such as trailers which may have footage not in the film but which reveals clues to other deleted scenes?

Eventually there will be a tipping point, maybe as soon as 5 years in the future - maybe in 10. And the theatres, in full concert with the studios, will finally abandon film and go entirely to the "convenience" and "security" of digital delivery.

It will mean no more scratches. And it will mean no more new films projected from film. No more chemical-based (as opposed to "bit"-based) backups.

In 5 or 10 years, no more film.

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