THE CURRENT STATE OF FILM PRESERVATION

Martin Scorsese 09/22/1995

In this past decade we have witnessed a growing awareness of film preservation. However, the deterioration and eventual disappearance of films have not come to an end. We're still racing against the clock to save what we can.

There are two areas of film preservation that each have their own unique problems. The first is the film libraries owned by the studios, which represent the majority of American films. The second area is orphaned films — meaning films in the public domain or owned by small companies that have no money for restoration; this also includes documentaries, newsreels, independent features, shorts and avantgarde films. In both areas, many of these titles have to be transferred from nitrate to safety stock — 100 million feet to be exact.

Regarding the studio libraries, there has been substantial progress — to different extent.

Regarding orphan films, the problem is overwhelming. Just the cataloguing is a daunting task. This is the area where major losses have already occurred and continue to occur every day. Whereas it was relatively simple for The Film Foundation to help build a bridge between the studios and archives, with orphan films there is nothing to build a bridge to — when work happens at all, it happens at random, by chance or by luck.

The National Film Registry has been valuable in the recognition of film as a vital part of our cultural heritage. However, the challenge in our country is so large and so costly that it requires a unique partnership bringing together resources from many different areas — the private sector as well as public and government institutions. Each area has its contribution to make, but no one can get the job done alone.

It is important to emphasize that the best case of all for preservation is made when films are seen and appreciated by audiences. Screening preserved films serves as a reminder of a precious and vital part of our culture.

During these last few decades, technology has evolved in unforeseen ways. In the 1960s, film libraries were thought to have no value whatsoever — they were just a storage expense. Just consider how the situation has changed.

We foresee a future in which technologies will bring a new cinema, born out of those technologies. Perhaps cinema as we have known it in these past one hundred years will really become a part of the past. If so, that is one more reason to save what we have and, most of all, to preserve the negatives as an irreplaceable source.

The Film Foundation will continue to work with the studios and support joint projects studio-archives.  

It will also support a proposed mechanism called The National Plan, spearheaded by the Library of Congress, which would call for a dollar-for-dollar match of contributions from the government and private sectors to preserve orphan films.

Films of the past are alive as part of our own creative work in the present. As Peter Bogdanovich said recently, "There are no old movies, but movies I have seen and movies that I haven't seen."

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