Saturday, February 19, 2011

Estimates in the Mid '80s

Scanning the shelves in a video store (in the old days, meaning about 16 months ago), or browsing through Netflix's seemingly bottomless catalog both emphasize a sense that there is an inconquerable amount of movies to watch. No one could get to it all in a lifetime. Movies you never even heard of starring people you'd never recognize, produced by studios long since bulldozed.

Hundreds of television series are lost to the sands of time, except someone had the master tapes and they've been re-mastered and released to DVD. For those nostalgic fans who still remember, wherever they may be now, when they first saw the show during its short run. And to generate new fans and maybe drum up interest in the Hollywood remake next summer.

Those film masters were stored somewhere and its likely at one point someone wanted to throw them away. They took up valuable space in a vault that was already too full of negatives, dupes, episodes of programs that someone actually were requesting. and as institutions move, are sold or consolidate, the heavy and dusty remnants of its past, embodied in papers, legal files, boxes, media and master tapes, are all expensive afterthoughts. There are stories of Hollywood studios dumping their old negatives into landfills and into Santa Monica Bay rather than pay to store them any longer.

Things sit around in corners and get rediscovered years later, only because they were forgotten and didn't have a chance to meet with misfortune.

Films go through a messy and rather reverse-exponential process of birth. Multiple camera negatives, dupe negatives and interpositives, work prints, optical and magnetic soundtracks, including stereo and foreign-language separations, M&E tracks and other manners of layers are created, duplicated and laid upon one another in the process of ending up with the "master final." All those building blocks are kept in case the producers or creative talent want to go back and redo some iteration.

This process doesn't just occur for union Hollywood productions - every independent short, television program, pilot, news program and industrial creates in its wake the detritus of at best 5 or 10 times the amount of content actually needed for final distribution. By the time they're not useful anymore the people involved have separated and are working on 10 other projects and proper and measured disposal is put off until the final custodian whose garage it ended up in because his name was on the cardboard boxes passed away and the grandkids want it cleared out so they can resell the house in a falling real estate market.

These elements may end up in an archive somewhere, and barring the unlikely event that someone has to reconstruct a film or program from its constituent elements they remain untouched until they deteriorate, asserting their physical uselessness beyond the until then merely philosophical.

Archives are challenged daily when a donation comes in from a family that has prints or elements that haven't been run through a projector in 30 years (and are likely in better shape than the ones in the archive). Inevitably these donations come with boxes of outtakes and unfinished copies no one (including the producing studio) wants, but in order to get the good they accept the whole motley pallet.

The other challenge is that no one can predict what will be valuable or useful in the future. As filmmakers, genres, actors, and modes of representation fall into and out of fashion, those titles that no one seemed interested in in 1990 suddenly gain a new cultural currency in 2010. The public and researchers see something on YouTube in degraded video quality and go searching for the high-quality masters in a curated archive to reclaim it for the greater good.

So libraries and archival institutions whether official or de facto tend to err in the direction of taking in more than they think they want or need, in the interest of expediency and in the interest of being complete. It delays the decision-making process ("What do we actually want in our collection?") from input to some later era ("What are we gonna do with all this stuff?"). You can't predict what will be used in the future anyway, what will turn out to be unique and therefore more valuable, and besides, funding may increase and you can build that new wing.

Very little is ultimately used. In any archive or library, less than 5% of the items generate 90% of the use, and it's estimated that 80% of the items never get requested or viewed at all.

So it sits forgotten, in a curated and protective environment instead of a garage or the bottom of the bay.

Someone's gotta keep it.

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