by Richard W. Bann
Motion pictures represent the unique cultural art form of this century. They cross social, political and time barriers. They are also a record of our lives and dreams. They inspire, they entertain, they inform. They shape values, they reflect values. And they are big business.
In order to generate revenue, films must be marketed, licensed and delivered. Even more basically, in order to be delivered, they must be maintained and continue to exist - they must survive. If they survive, the commercial life of films in ancillary markets may well be perpetual: a living annuity.
The Library of Congress estimates, however, that due to deterioration and neglect, 90% of all films made through 1925 have turned to dust or ashes and are irretrievably lost - gone forever. More than 50% of films made through 1951 no longer exist on any format.
1951 was a watershed year in movie history. The fire hazard posed by nitrate film stock at last forced the industry to embrace non-flammable acetate base safety stock for new production. After the transition, little thought was given to the prospects for survival of all the chemically unstable nitrate film filling up studio vaults. Few executives knew about the slow but steady disintegration of nitrate, and besides, after theatrical exhibition, what commercial value did old film have, anyway?
Tragically, besides such neglect, there were vault fires, and many studios purposely destroyed by corporate inventory because they could not envision television and home video potential, or because film assets were fully depreciated on the books, or because they needed to free up storage space.
By the 1980's, however, with the proliferation of home entertainment media and concomitant demand for programming, the market place changed. Audiences sought an alternative to contemporary films and television. They discovered, or rediscovered, classic Hollywood films of the past.
Farsighted studios like MGM and Disney particularly understood the commercial potential of their backlogs. MGM set out to preserve every foot of nitrate film they still had - features, shorts, out-takes, alternate takes, trailers. Every frame had value. Ted Turner was the beneficiary of this wisdom. When he bought MGM, he made the shrewd decision to keep the old films, and dispose of the studio.
Today Turner spends millions annually on film preservation and their various cable networks and syndication efforts represent spectacular proof of the economic benefit of such a program.
Disney has always reissued its classic films every seven years - successfully introducing its library to each new generation at its most impressionable age, childhood. Such marketing assured that audiences would be loyal fans for life.
Observing these strategies, some - but not all - production companies and studios discovered their film libraries were valuable assets. Not only could they be mortgaged as a source of financing new production, but they could be licensed for such secondary markets as broadcast television, satellite transmission, cable, stock footage, theatrical revival, documentary excerpting, product endorsement, substandard film gauge non-theatrical exhibition, laser discs, CD-ROM, remake rights, merchandising tie-ins, and best of all so far, home video.
Today the video market of ten contributes more towards recouping negative cost than grosses from theatrical release. So the gold to be mined from classic film libraries is truly a king's treasure.
Still, film preservation was not universally fashionable around Hollywood until high profile filmmakers like Martin Scorcese, Woody Allen, George Lucas, Robert Redford, and Steven Spielberg discovered that not only were their boyhood favorites endangered, but their own work as well!
In 1990 they formed The Film Foundation, an organization of filmmakers with leverage who shared a passion for film history and were "dedicated to ensuring the survival of America's film heritage through preservation".
At their opening press conference, Martin Scorcese said, "Movies of the past are still alive for us as inspiration for the work we do. Fifty, 500, or 5.000 years from now, people will look back to the 20th century as the first 100 years, the most creative period in the birth of a new medium, and they'll point a finger and say, 'Why did they allow so much of it to be lost?'"
In the past dozen years, Scorcese (with whom The KirchGroup has worked previously, on distribution for Jean Renoir's THE GOLDEN COACH) has also helped the cause of film preservation on a personal level. As part of his contracts to direct films for studios, he had them strike at least one fully-timed 35mm print of certain favorites which were in danger of deterioration. This forced the studios to do what stockholders should demand: invest in the protection of corporate assets. To give Scorcese his sparkling archival quality print, the studios had to scour vaults, assess all the deteriorating nitrate elements, rejuvenate and combine the best sound and image components, reinstate missing footage and transfer everything onto safety film stock (not video, which is an unstable storage medium). Cost is about $1-3 per foot. A feature film could run up to 12.000 feet.
The KirchGroup understands this process well, and is doing its part to preserve part of the American film heritage and pass it on to the world for the future. One example: the Hal Roach Studios film library. Extensive preservation work has been done as part of an ongoing program to insure the survival of these and other classic motion pictures.
From 1914 to 1960, Hal Roach produced comedies and family entertainment for theaters and television. As a result of bankruptcy, the company's assets and film elements were scattered to the winds. The film library should consist of 1.200 subjects. One-third of this universe, however, probably no longer exists on any film gauge anywhere.
About 1970, most of the surviving original nitrate film negatives and prints, covering about 350 subjects, were deposited at the Library of Congress. Subsequently the KirchGroup acquired many rights to the Roach library for the Eastern Hemisphere. Due to circumstances beyond our control, we were not able to gain access and printing rights to this collection at the LOC until 1988.
Since then, however, the KirchGroup has spent in excess of $1 million at one of the finest archival laboratories in the world restoring and preserving with loving care the comedies of Laurel & Hardy, The Little Rascals, Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly, Zasu Pitts, Will Rogers, Harry Langdon, The Taxi Boys, The Boy Friends, The Dippy Doo-Dads, the TOPPER series of feature films, ONE MILLION B.C., CAPTAIN FURY, THERE GOES MY HEART, KING OF WILD HORSES, etc.
In converting the nitrate, our principal source is the collection formerly housed at the LOC, now transported to Los Angeles. Supplemental material is regularly called upon from storage depots of past and present licensees, institutional archives, and private trailers, even some films previously believed "lost". As we complete this phase of our preservation efforts, work will continue for years to come in an attempt to upgrade our holdings and reconstitute this celebrated library to the greatest extent possible.
Most all the Hal Roach films need to be preserved, but not all need to be restored. Restoration and preservation of decaying nitrate film are two different things. Restoration is where we first replace damaged sequences or reinstate missing sequences on the best surviving lowest generation nitrate negative or master positive we can find. Preservation is the act of carefully feeding this patched, repaired and rejuvenated nitrate assembly through a step-printer one last time in order to custom copy it frame by frame onto more stable and long lasting acetate or mylar safety (non-flammable) film stock, thereby preserving it.
This is made-to-order work, performed with meticulous care. Nitrate film is both fragile and dangerous; there is no margin for error. The image on nitrate film is also irreplaceable.
If we start with a nitrate negative, we manufacture a safety fine grain master positive. We use this material to generate a safety duplicate negative. Both archival elements are then shipped to Munich for underground state of the art FICA-Method vacuum pack cold storage.
RHI Entertainment Inc., which enjoys corresponding rights in the Roach library for the Western Hemisphere, then avails itself of this same ambitious laboratory conversion. Thus each film subject is doubly protected and the four archival elements brought back to vibrant new life are stored in two different hemispheres.
Reissues in various media are then meant to create the same kind of excitement audiences felt when first they saw these films in a movie palace, on a large screen, in a darkened room - looking brand new, dense and razor sharp, complete and uncut, with original main and production credit title card sections intact. All just the way these films were meant to be seen by the people who made them in the first place. Cable's American Movie Classics network uses an ad line summing up an objective which could be our own: "We bring back the feeling."
To illustrate the kind of commercial potential there is for this kind of timeless entertainment when the original product is restored faithfully and marketed correctly, consider one example. RHI's distributor, Cabin Fever Entertainment, has just released about half of The Little Rascals sound short subjects on video in the Western Hemisphere. In five weeks, 12 of 21 volumes have been issued, and greater than one million units have already been shipped.
One million units. In five weeks.
LITTLE RASCALS COLLECTION VOLUME 1 was number eight on BILLBOARD'S Top Video Sales chart for the week ending September 3.
Such success reinforces the commitment of the KirchGroup towards film restoration and preservation. We recognize the commercial and cultural value of film. This ensures the survival of Hal Roach as well as other classics of the past far into the future. These comedies are certain to delight many generations yet to come.
What other film companies - in the U.S. or abroad - have made such a long term commitment to film restoration and preservation?
Though they were made many years ago, these films - which cut across age and cultural barriers - are brand new to anyone who has not seen them before. The KirchGroup wants them to look brand new, too.
All photos copyright CCA