Sunday, October 10, 2010

Remembering and Forgetting in Hollywood

Having peeked inside various archives in Los Angeles for the last couple of years and doing time there instead of merely looking over the fences I've become aware of a trend overtaking the curation of films. In the minutia of deadline day-to-day decisions the philosophical dicotomy between digital and analog, invisible to the audience, is inexorably influencing the industry by stealth and infultrating practice; amid short-sighted budgetary edicts the tipping point's been reached where either something is committed to digital or it remains in analog format.

In effect, this assigns assets either to corporate balkanization or to cultural extinction. It has much to do with what is old and with what is new. It will be an irreversable decision as time goes foreward.

The vast majority of content is not only being produced on digital formats now but also being post-manipulated and delivered by digital means. TV shows and "films" - no longer films really; let's call them AV events - are captured and fed directly into computers to be put together virtually, configured for however and whereever the end product might need to be received. The more flexible the basic building blocks of any material are, from aspect ratios and frame-rate formats to language tracks and bit-rates, the easier it is for studios to shake and bake the right-sized product to however the buyer will want it - a digital satellite feed, a cable TV master, a phone-app or uncompressed HD digital cinema package (DCP).

Final analog 35mm prints occupy only one corner of the buffet table. They're increasingly less relevant to the larger mediasphere and no original negative elements are stored to be later referenced, free to be forgotten and one day re-discovered. The suggestion belabors the insult that the rights holders 1) intend to forget their content, and 2) shouldn't have, and have pre-planned for a future in which their own disregard is remade whole, their lack of foresight to (with with foresight can) be ridiculed.

It's either gonna be saved or it's not. The new digital versions arrive clean. They don't involve messy use-once-throw-away chemicals or manifest accidental scratches or unintentional grain, something more and more audience members express they have no tolerance for. Once digital masters are at the point in their lifecycle to be duplicated and delivered to theatre spaces (some of which are indeed still theatres), they're much cheaper to duplicate and deliver, living on proprietary hard drives that are wiped and reused rather than on 160 lb. celluloid prints that become boat anchors or landfill, once a title leaves its initial run.

Digital archival "prints" don't remain in the world to temp pirates. Proprietary drives work only in the intended venue and self-destruct once the run is over or even if it's plugged into the wrong keyed server. These copies aren't vaulted - they have no half-life.

Titles are rebuilt, on demand, at the studio level by digital means. There will be no going back to the negative or having to find masters after many years, which may not be close at hand.

The sense of objects lost and then found will disappear. There will be nothing to be discovered. If it's not there, it's not anywhere.

A whole new world of archiving is being created before our eyes in which IT experts, server management, copyright maintenance and metadata are more important than the old skills of rolling through reels, shot-by-shot comparision, chemistry and detective work. Searching through vaults, often in the side of a mountain somewhere, or digging through 100-year-old show business magazines for release info, deteriorating or off-limits or hidden in a library not sufficiently staffed to allow access, is labor intensive.

The search will become increasingly pointless. Numerous older titles released on VHS in the 1980s, when that format seemed to to revive entire back catalogs in the go-go days, have not made the transition to DVD. They never will now. Most of the classics and cult items that have been mined now comprise the new "cult" canon. There's no financial reason to re-release "The Devils" or "Sonny Boy" or "American Hot Wax" or "Kafka." The Warner Archives program, along with Sony's recent entry to reanimate some of Columbia's forgotten back catalog, are last ditch efforts to skim what remaining cream is left, at inflated prices although on DVD-rs (shelf life: less than 10 years). These feed on the last good will of jaded collectors who will still pay for films as the studios abandon the DVD business.

The 1000s of titles that did made it to DVD won't make the transition to streaming. The real problem is invisible without your long glasses on. So much new content is being readied to be served up online or on your iPad. Those digital masters are being shepharded and under the legal custodianship of the studios. The studios keep everything safe for as long as its apparent financial lifespan. And no longer. These new and future digital masters are digested and reabsorbed into the studios' virtual clouds of content out of sight, out of mind and out of the culture.

The older realm of films already on prints, almost everything made prior to 1999, will remain in the thousands of archives worldwide, unavailable except to those museum and theatre spaces that still show film from film.

They're kept in cool conditions, and with a minimum of fuss they will last another century. They will sit. These two schools, digital vs. analog, move farther apart as theatres, museums, film festivals, free tv, and all the other modes in which film continued to live are slowly replaced.

The "print" people, who work with objects and artifacts and do research in dusty basements, are already irrelevant to the "digital" people who sit in front of computers and scan and code metadata.

Our historical memories will become divided between the sexy shiny 3-D stuff that we look as it goes online (and no longer when it goes offline), and the plastic objects that still exist because they were able to be left behind.