By Ron Merk
I recently saw some information posted on the A.M.I.A. listserv by one of the members, and I was flabbergasted to learn how much film might be out there just waiting to be saved… unless it has already been disposed of or lost. The general opinion is that 90% of all silent films and 50% of all sound films made before 1950 are gone, lost, never to be seen again.
In an age where people have shifted from film to digital for making and keeping home movies, many transfer the originals to DVD and then dispose of that precious 8mm, super 8 or 16mm film, assuming that DVD is “forever” and the original films are no longer “needed.” It’s a gigantic disaster and why we decided to do a film preservation initiative focused on home movies.
Wolfman Report Journals which have a wealth of information regarding the photographic industry circa 1950–1990.
From my US-centric based perspective and company data, it has been calculated:
- 13 billion ft 8mm film
- 18 billion ft super 8mm film
- 2.5 billion 16mm film<
The above are general ballpark figures and for US home movie consumption.
While this has not been confirmed, more than 100 hours of material are uploaded to YouTube every minute.
I think that this shows the immense job that preservationists and archivists are faced with, and which may be insurmountable due to the mountain of material, and the molehill of time and resources that can be thrown at it.
So, what can be done, if anything, to save the important material? Just as critical is the question as to what constitutes important material and who makes those decisions?
Have we truly reached in insurmountable problem? Is there an answer in sight? Is there technology on the horizon that can handle this volume of material? And most important, are their “guardians” or “librarians” whose job it will be to sift through the material and find those most precious nuggets of the historian of humankind that will make the final “cut?”
Yes, these are all rhetorical questions on many levels. There are no simple answers. But there are some answers.
There’s an accounting principle applied to inventory management called FIFO (first in first out). In some ways, this might apply to film and media archives. The oldest stuff (sometimes at most risk due to its age and deterioration) might be addressed first. This means nitrate film and any kind of film material that is in trouble physically.
There’s another accounting principle, LIFO. Last in first out. One might look at digital material and it’s likely shorter life than film, and deal with that first. More rhetorical questions?
So, here’s a little more about what one small archive is doing. Two years ago, The Metro Theatre Center Foundation began a film preservation initiative called Preservation Project Partnerships. It focused on historically or culturally significant home movies, and acquired more than 500 collections of 8mm, super 8mm and 16mm home movies from all over the world. After examination, documenting content, repairs and scanning of those films to digital files, we have deposited the films in The Academy Film Archives for long-term preservation and study. In the course of this initiative, which is a partnership between our foundation and different donors of films and my own production company, Premiere Pictures International, Inc., we have located amazing treasures that no one even knew existed, certainly no one still living.
Among the films are a home movie of MGM star Spencer Tracy, Kodacolor films of an airplane flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 1931, passing over Hearst Castle at one point, Ethel Merman on stage in Annie Get Your Gun in 1946, 38 minutes of President John F. Kennedy never before seen, Hollywood studios in the late 30s and early 40s –in color, and footage of most major U.S. cities and a few foreign cities, from the beginning of the available of 16mm film for home movie use until the late 90s. Yes, we had to weed through hundreds of hours of material, but just like a gold mine must go through tons of rock to find nuggets of precious metal, we struck gold.
Maybe the message is that we can only save a few tidbits of history and culture in this process, but we can save what’s important to us, and preserve it for future generations. But we have to get out our shovels and dig.
Someone once said, “just start at the beginning.” Let’s train more people in the art and science of archiving and preservation. Let’s find more partners amongst the public to help with donating their material to our archives and their money to support its preservation. Let’s dig in and see what can be saved. Let’s start today.
Here’s some recent press about our project:
Bay Area Reporter Article about the films of David Eugene Bell http://www.ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=69007
JFK Films on The Today Show http://www.today.com/news/new-footage-reveals-glimpses-jfk-campaign-funeral-2D11601956
San Francisco Chronicle article about our film preservation efforts: http://www.sfgate.com/movies/article/S-F-film-producer-Ron-Merk-preserves-reel-history-5166215.php