The process of motion picture film preservation

More than mere storage for historical, artistic and monetary value

Preserving motion picture film is a process that involves more than warehousing in climate-controlled environments. Yet many filmmakers, owners and stewards of film collections have been focused on just that – humidity, temperature and other storage and inventory management considerations.

At PRO-TEK, we stress that the film preservation process is determined by the curation and assessment of the collection, a process that can be boiled down to three essential steps:

  1. Determining primary goals, such as monetization or historical access.
  2. Understanding the intrinsic and monetary value of your collection.
  3. Ingesting and storing the film in a proper manner.

The first two steps are often glossed over by collection owners and managers who believe they know and understand them instinctively. But it’s important to remember that proper preservation and archiving for future generations needs to address all the future circumstances that can be identified and considered. No matter who we’re working with – motion picture studios, independent filmmakers or private collectors – we help clarify and capture your thoughts and ideas and help you understand the preservation options and priorities.

Distinction between irreplaceables and iterations

Distinguishing masters from second-generation copies is important, because masters and other truly unique items are high-priority. Today “secondary” masters are often created to allow the original master to remain essentially untouched, handled as little as possible and stored under optimum conditions.

Assessing and cataloging your collection up front, will save you time and money over the life of your assets.  The condition of the assets, the content, and whether you have originals or copies are factors that will greatly improve your chances for future access and monetization. Identifying and managing duplicate or redundant film assets can also eliminate some excess costs over the life of the collection.

And of course, it’s important to consider the status of all the elements during the curation process and to keep them together for storage.  Obtaining expert assessment, repairing existing damage, and safeguarding against further degradation is your best insurance against permanent loss of content.

Orphan films

Much of the early work of the motion picture industry, particularly from the silent era, has been lost or ruined beyond repair. According to the Library of Congress, only 20% of feature films produced in the US during the 1910s and 1920s, and about half that were produced before 1950, have survived intact.

These figures apply to feature-length, commercial movies; they don’t include documentaries, shorts, newsreels, industrial films, and other independent productions. We refer to these neglected works as “orphan films” because they fall outside the scope of most archiving and preservation efforts. The orphan films that have survived are usually one-of-a-kind originals archived in places like museums, historical societies and universities.

We work with some of the largest film production studios in the world, but we also welcome small collections and high-value orphan films. I’ve seen our technicians work magic in situations that seemed hopeless, and we are one of the few remaining providers of restoration services for nitrate film. I can’t make promises, but I can offer a consultation and estimate. I’ll include a contact link at the bottom of this post.

Assessing film asset value

There is renewed interest in maximizing the value of motion picture film, and when we talk about value, it’s not solely financial, just as when we talk about the concept of long-term storage, it’s about more than warehousing – it’s about the entire curation process.

Historical and cultural value

The American motion picture industry is over a century old, telling the story of more than 100 years of culture and history. It’s a record of the entire 20th century of civilization. The historical record is very important, and not only to historians and anthropologists. It’s important to the commercial motion picture industry. Even though globalization is disrupting the film industry and many other countries in the world have strong film cultures, I think movies are distinctly American. The business was planted in Hollywood and remains strongly rooted here.

In addition, it’s also important to preserve other film types outside of the entertainment world, like industrial films and documentaries, to maintain and communicate the histories of commerce, education, government and other venues.

Creative value

Proper preservation for creative goals is important for two reasons. First, it ensures the work will be available for future reference and creative expression. Second and most importantly, it ensures the work will remain part of the filmmaker’s legacy. All content creators and owners who want to safeguard the creative value of their work must recognize that all film deteriorates over time if left unattended, and it happens more quickly than you think.

Financial value

Commercial movies used to be confined to one source of revenue: showings in movie theaters. With the advent of videotape, cable television, digital distribution, live-streaming over the internet and who knows what’s around the corner, creative works have more outlets than ever. Maintaining film for future monetization and commercial consideration has become big business, and has been one of the drivers behind film preservation initiatives and priorities, both in film and digital format.

Assessing film preservation costs

To maintain and maximize the historical, creative and monetary value of your moving film content, an investment in planning with experts who can work as partners will help you achieve your goals, and that includes budget goals.

We do this with film producers and collection owners large and small. Some storage vendors are experts at warehousing, but not much else. Our people are very knowledgeable about film, yet they are more than technicians – they are truly passionate about the motion picture industry.

They can maximize the value of any film collection and save money over time. These are not conflicting goals when preservation is undertaken as a complete process, optimizing your archive’s potential by preserving it properly for storage while lowering storage costs over time through careful curation.

Tim Knapp

Tim Knapp

Tim Knapp is the Vice President of Client Engagement for PRO-TEK Vaults at the Burbank and Thousand Oaks location. Tim brings more than thirty years of experience in motion and still imaging – first in film, and most recently in digital. Tim has an extensive and wide-ranging understanding of the capabilities and challenges of film and video, including the issues and opportunities it presents for archivists as they face aging media libraries and an increasingly digital future.
Tim Knapp