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The Indie Film Preservation Crisis: We Are Losing the Films That Defined the ’80s and ’90s

Many movies are costly to preserve. Others have disappeared. It's a problem no one saw coming.

Household Saints

“Household Saints”

New Line/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

When curating the recent retrospective “NY Indie Guy: Ira Deutchman and the Rise of Independent Film” – a Columbia University exhibit honoring the 40-year career of a leading American independent film producer, marketer, and distributor – programmers Rob King and Jack Lechner made an upsetting discovery: Many of the films they picked to screen were unavailable in any form.

This sent Deutchman into detective mode, to discover what happened to many of the films he helped introduce to the world. He walked away from his initial examination shocked by the situation and with a grim assessment: We are in danger of losing many of the films that defined recent movements in American independent film.

“During the height of in the independent boom back in the ’80s and into the 90s, it was always considered the holy grail for independent filmmakers that to be truly independent they would eventually get back the rights or control the rights, or control their copyrights,” Deutchman said in an interview. “All that type of stuff was bandied about as being really important. Here we are 20 years later and we’ve got this crisis developing where if somebody doesn’t do something about it, they may end up being lost.”

Deutchman holds up Nancy Savoca’s 1993 film “Household Saints” as a poster child for the problem. When he was at Fineline Features, Deutchman put together the film’s financing and distribution partners . One by one, he went to all the companies that inherited various rights – Warner Brothers now controls the Fineline library, Sony now controls what was the RCA-Columbia library, and the TV company Jones Entertainment is now defunct. Each company said its rights had expired.

“We have no idea who controls the rights at this point. We’re still trying to find out,” said Deutchman. “And worse yet, the film was never released on DVD. It was never released on any streaming format. The only copy of it we have been able to find is a 35mm print at the UCLA film archive, but it has a damaged reel, and I have VHS cassette of it, and that’s it.”

Part of the problem is storage and proper care of the materials costs money and for independent filmmakers, who are no longer making income on these movies — Netflix and the other profitable streamers aren’t interested, according to Deutchman – so the cost of preservation is a hardship.

Yet even when a film is well-preserved, restorations can still be expensive. For example, IndieCollect, a non-profit attempting to tackle the indie preservation crisis, recently restored the 1979 documentary “The War at Home,” for which directors Glenn Silber and Barry Brown remain the rights holders. Years ago, they made sure to properly archive all their original film and sound elements at the Wisconsin Historical Society. IndieCollect borrowed the elements from WHS and scanned the original negative using its in-house Kinetta Archival Scanner at 5K to produce a true 4K DCP.

“As is common with vintage film, the negative showed some warping and shrinkage, but was in quite good shape overall,” said Sandra Schulberg, President of IndieCollect. She sent it to Colorlab in Rockville, MD, where the audio was restored. “They created 24 fps WAV files for us and our editorial team uses those files to sync sound to raw film scans,” she said. “Then color correction and restoration could begin.”

In total, the process took 72 hours, while the color correction and restoration took 160 hours to date. The total cost was $18,000, which doesn’t include IndieCollect’s internal costs — including multiple scans and project supervision — that adds another $10,000, but the non-profit treats as its contribution to the restoration. And “The War at Home” was one of IndieCollect’s easier restorations.

“They are unusual in that respect,” said Schulberg. “Many of the filmmakers who come to us have lost or lost track of their film negatives and sound tracks. In that case, we have to work with best surviving print.”

Because of the interest in the film (which will screen at the New York Film Festival on October 9 and receive a weeklong run at The Metrograph on October 12), IndieCollect was able to raise most of the funds for the restoration in two weeks through its donor platform that it customizes for each film.

Deutchman sees money as the key problem. Without a profitable market for these restorations, nor the sort of government funding available in other countries, non-profits like IndieCollect have limited resources. He expressed concern that this problem could continue with the preservation challenges facing new movies in the digital age.

"The War at Home"

“The War at Home”

Courtesy Wisconsin Historical Societ, Richard Faverty – Capital Times

“In many cases, digitally-shot films present a potentially worse problem,” said Deutchman. “File formats change, hard drives disappear and break. Just look at video games that can’t be played anymore, now think of the first digital indies that we shot on DV tapes, which require operational decks. How to preserve digital cinema is a constantly moving target as technology evolves.”

Deutchman said the best practices for preserving digitally shot movies is currently to have a 4K scan — though he acknowledged that it’s often too expensive for low-budget films — and store it on multiple hard drives kept in different locations.

Deutchman’s recent discovery of the looming crisis has led him to try to build awareness, especially among filmmakers he said should lead the charge of finding and preserving their work. In the meantime, IndieCollects continues its mission of making restorations obtainable, allowing filmmakers to use its donor platform to raise tax deductible gifts to restore their films. The company has had several recent successes beyond “The War at Home,” including restored versions of “The Atomic Cafe” (the restoration distributed by Kino Lorber) and “In the Soup” that recently reentered distribution.

“Our mission is to bring down the cost of restoration,” Schulberg said, “so that more and more filmmakers can market their films in state-of-the-art digital formats.”

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