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The Current Film Preservation Crisis and What Needs to Be Done

The Current Film Preservation Crisis and What Needs to Be Done

“To Save and Project: The 13th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation” runs from November 4-25, 2015 and features 74 newly restored masterworks and rediscovers including films by Chantal Ackerman, Dario Argento, Samuel Fuller, Orson Welles and many more.

READ MORE: Guy Maddin on His Obsession with Lost Films and Why We Need to Preserve Them

The festival was organized by Joshua Siegel, Curator, and Dave Kehr, Adjunct Curator, Department of Film, MoMA. Indiewire recently chatted with Kehr about the state of film preservation.

What are some of the most pressing issues in the world of film preservation at the moment?

I think the big change is that everything is moving to digital very quickly. It’s getting hard to even get analog work done. The laboratories are closing, the film stock is disappearing. Most of that work ends up being done inside of computers and what we’re showing are DCPs instead of film prints.

I’m guessing MoMA is committed to screening film prints whenever they are feasibly possible.

It’s not such a clear choice anymore. DCPs, when they’re done well, are actually very, very good and when they’re done badly they can be horrible. You’ll see color on something from Sony that is just magnificent color, beautiful contrast. I doubt if there is a 35mm print in existence that is that good. In a case like that, I would rather show the DCP than the film. You get registration, it’s this kind of negative shrink in rates, so when you have a three-strip negative and each of those color strips is shrinking at a different rate, it becomes almost impossible to line them up anymore without using a computer to flatten things out and stabilize the image. You get a much sharper copy printing digitally than you would from those old negatives on film. In a case like that, the DCP would be better because of the brand new tint because it’s impossible to make prints from those negatives now.
How would you describe the state of film preservation right now? Would you say it’s flourishing? Just based on the series alone it seems to be flourishing. 

I think a lot of really great work is being done now. The crisis, and it is a crisis, is that we’re caught between two worlds at the moment. Apart from this kind of a program, finding prints of older films is becoming impossible and DCPs have not yet been created for a lot of older movies. I’m working on a series of films for next summer, and it becomes difficult to find even well known movies because the old 35 prints are worn out and they haven’t been made into digital copies yet.

I wonder how many of those films are going to be able to make that jump just because economically it doesn’t make sense for the studios to digitize every film in their collections because that can cost a minimum of $40,000 dollars and up and up and up and up. The danger right now is just losing access to a lot of things that fall between those two schools.

Even in the time period since this series began, say 13 years ago to now, things have changed so dramatically in that studios are not releasing as many videos or DVDs of their back catalogues. It’s even harder to find them on TV.

Yeah, I don’t know where you would go with a young cinephile to see things in the quantity that I was able to when I was a kid, just because so many of those outlets don’t exist anymore. Hopefully, our screenings will make those things available again. There are so few old movies on Netflix and so few old movies on iTunes. It’s difficult these days even to see some of the best known movies. It takes some effort.

READ MORE: Martin Scorsese on Fighting For Film Preservation and Not Believing in ‘Old Movies’

Would you say that this series has taken on increased relevance since it started?

Yeah, I think it’s paradoxical situation that this really amazing work is being done now but in a way, it’s harder to see. We opened a year ago with a German film called “Variety” and it’s a magnificent restoration, the color is great, they put together a bunch of different prints to reassemble the movie pretty much as it existed on its first release in 1925.

In years past, that was a film you could get in the 16mm to show at your college class or it would pop up on public television, but now those outlets have just vanished because there is no more 16mm. The film might get released on DVD in the U.S., it’s out in Germany so you can get it there, but that’s the kind of effort you have to go through to get the kind of things that used to be fairly common. MoMA would distribute it in 16mm and we might still have prints available, but nobody’s able to show them. It’s more a question of access these days than anything else and becoming harder and harder to run things down and find them.

What are you personally most excited about in the series? I know it’s hard to pick just one film, but do you have one that you’re particularly proud of or excited about?

Of course, the [Orson] Welles’ stuff is unique, it’s been seen in bits and pieces before but never all together and in the updated versions. There will never be definitive versions of these movies because they were never finished, but they keep evolving and we have the latest incarnation of these movies which are very, very interesting unfinished work. I think it’s a something for everybody kind of approach. This evening we have some very experimental work, over the weekend we had some classic film noir, we’ll have some Italian stuff coming up later this week, an Iranian film from the ’60s that’s very interesting. I’d say there’s a very wide range for very different kinds of tastes.

What would you say to filmmakers of today in terms of archiving work for the future?

A lot of filmmakers now are going to have to take responsibility for doing that themselves since there is so much independent production, a lot of smaller distributors are just not going to be around to take care of things in the long term. Right now, there is no ideal long-term storage. It’s based on magnetic tape which is a very unstable medium. There are various companies that offer different types of solutions. When we preserve a film digitally here at the museum, we store it on three different servers in three different locations, which is still the recommendation of the National Federation of Film Archives, but it’s not inconceivable to think that all of those servers could go out at some point because again, these things are so fragile. It’s a problem. I suspect that technology will exist in a few years, but it’s not here quite yet.

It is a little bit of a crisis on various fronts in terms of film preservation. As soon as one of the studios loses a big title, which will happen eventually, there will be a lot of interest in getting the technology up to speed.

To Save and Project runs November 4-25 at MoMA. Visit the event website for more details, including ticketing and scheduling information.

READ MORE: 5 Key Takeaways from the Documentary Film Preservation Summit

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