On a recent trip to New York, I attended an IndieCollect fundraiser on the 12th floor of the DuArt building on West 55th Street and took a look at their dwindling but still massive vault. That’s where they store some 4-6000 master prints–many 16mm, fewer 35 mm–that are still separated from their owners. Some go back to the 70s. And only recently has IndieCollect managed to get them indexed and barcoded in a digital database.
Who owns them? The filmmakers who created the movies. Back in the pre-digital era, when DuArt was the go-to film laboratory for indie filmmakers, DuArt held onto the masters in case anyone wanted to strike a new print. Well, those days are gone. DuArt has gone digital like everyone else.
But the negatives remain, carefully stored. And DuArt owner Irwin Young, whose father founded the company in 1922, vows to protect them from the shredder. I talked to ex-DuArt VP and IndieCollect’s Steve Blakely, who –along with producer-preservationists Sandra Schulberg, Israel Ehrisman and Columbia University professor (and WNET’s Reel 13 host) Richard Pena– is on a mission to restore the films to their owners.
“Each negative is specific to the lab that created it, the timing of the answer print,” Blakely explained. “If you change laboratories you have to start the process all over again. It was up to the filmmaker to request it, so they didn’t expect the films would be left here for years. Now the filmmakers need to retrieve the prints.”
It’s been difficult to track down the filmmakers. “It’s easier to to find a filmmaker who is relatively famous,” said Blakely, “but not too famous, or unknown. That’s very hard. The high-end filmmaker is hard to reach, you’re going through gatekeepers.”
“I needed to help find homes for all these,” Blakely told me, “for a number of years. When I started this project the whole floor was full of them, with a little bit of air conditioning. I was trying to find the filmmakers. We’re not trying to store the films, we’re trying to find homes for them. And we are trying to find digital solutions. This could take years. The objective is not going to the trash.”
In fact IndieCollect saved the library of another company, MT Audio, which was going out of business in LA. and had to exit their building; IndieCollect paid to store the films in Hollywood before they could shred them. Some of Martin Scorsese’s audio elements are in there. Luckily, DuArt survives.
This is not about giving prints to anyone who wants them: “We don’t give them to collectors. We go back to the filmmaker or to a non-profit.” In fact archivists have unearthed some important finds that have gone to UCLA, the Academy, Harvard, Yale, the Anthology Film Archives
and the Library of Congress, said Blakely, who’s now working with archives around the country, from George Eastman House to the Museum of Modern Art.
Found at the DuArt vault was Gordon Park’s 1984 TV film “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey
,” the first movie adaptation of the former slave’s memoir “12 Years a Slave,” which along with another Parks film went to a new home at the Library of Congress.
“After years of trying to find people,” said Blakely, “the producer surfaced. He worked with us. They actually made a print of it and screened it!”