Thursday, April 8, 2010

Halls of Montezuma

In the half a dozen laboratories I've visited in the last year, not only are there hallways of clean tiles and closed-off pneumatic doors between you and the chemicals, there are boxes and boxes of films lining the halls.

Cardboard boxes and metal Goldberg cans. Carefully poly-ed and sieved reels and also rusted-shut boat anchors. Film is everywhere. The backlog is overwhelming. While new film is dead (everything new is being produced on digital and tape-less formats - you can't get film if you wanted it (for example)) there are still linear feet of old film; boxes and Martian tons of film cans, negatives and magnetic masters that haven't gone away.

They're stacked in corners and behind water fountains. Unfinished or abandoned projects, clean and marked, others dusty, crushed and forgotten. Many have to be transferred to a more portable medium, that is, a digital file that can be manipulated in the DaVinci. Optical negative tracks must be married to picture elements.

In the go-go era of 3-D and flip-of-a-switch turnaround, these physical smelly and embarrassing objects clutter up the place. The labels are coming off, they're misspelled, they are incomplete. The archives are full.

Prints of films that have already been transferred to VHS and now (or soon) to DVD are as good as orphans. The studios dumped every possible title onto VHS in the '80s, but many of them didn't sell well, except to fill out the inventories of Blockbusters. They were telecine'd at full-screen and with bitched-up timing. No matter, who wants to see "Crimewave" with Paul Smith? Who wrote or directed it anyway? And "White of the Eye" has... who in it exactly?

Each iteration of technology leaves a percentage of titles behind. Of the 10,000s of films produced in the the last 50 years, a mere half of them made it to video, a format in which you could take home rather than waiting for the broadcast on network t.v. or local cable, late at night, before that real estate was taken over by info-mercials and reality. Once DVDs took over, only the cream of that crop was remastered and released.

They stopped showing up on TV too. After years (decades) of giving old film away all night on late-night UHF stations, the studios began to take them back. That Saturday morning, late Tuesday night film school that afforded me the entire back catalog of Hollywood was taken away from future generations in the '90s. "The Wizard of Oz" will no longer be shown yearly at Thanksgiving. The unexpected and unknown joys of "The Brinks Job" or "Crashing Hollywood" can no longer be stumbled upon accidentally.

Someone's holding on to those, wanting to monetize them somehow, although no one has a business model anymore to do so.

So as DVD sales stall the Corman Poe films go out of print. The masters will be in the vault, waiting for a future format that may require going back to the originals to digitally scan. Blu-ray reveals flaws in the camera negatives that can't be hidden - and perhaps shouldn't be. We'll have to send money on that. One of these days. That's why "Taxi Driver" hasn't been released to blu-ray. It's too gritty - all that grain would be rejected by the "cinephiles" who want their demo-discs clean without the hi-res evidence.

Hi-def 3-D TV will make it worse.

But every 7 years there will be a new release of "Snow White." "Casablanca" and "Gone With the Wind" and "Blade Runner" sell perennially and will be remastered perennially. The rest of the catalog isn't worth the shelf space it's printed on right there, and there's those other copies out there. Why are we keeping them?

Studio archives aren't in the business of keeping their unwanted objects. But how to make room for the new films, the 3-D files from the horror remakes last year?

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