[reprinted courtesy The Hollywood Reporter]

The Vault/How the studios stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb factory

Brooks Boliek, National Correspondent, The Hollywood Reporter
June 13, 2000

This is a story about the Cold War and movies and how they became intertwined for all time. Like any story, it has a beginning and a middle, but the end is still to be told.

The tale begins at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, just outside Dayton, atop the highest point in Ohio's Montgomery County. It's just a few miles from where the Wright brothers tested their newfangled flying machines at the turn of the century, a time when Thomas Edison's motion picture patent was less than 5 years old.

From the hilltop you can see the runways where B-52s thundered into the air at the Cold War's beginning. An Air Force museum sits at the bottom of the hill. Proudly displayed inside its massive hangars are examples of America's most potent symbols of the Atomic Age: A B-52, a captured MiG, a B-1 and the B-29 Superfortress, which dropped the bomb that incinerated Nagasaki.

But that's down there. Up here, on opposite sides of the hill, in a huddle of nondescript buildings, rests the largest collection of films, TV shows and newsreels in the world, America's cultural equivalent of the atomic weapons.

The great and not-so-great films and television shows churned out by America's dream factories arguably had as much to do with the thawing of the Cold War as did the war machinery displayed in the museum. But those artifacts are at risk. In 1993, the Library of Congress issued a policy-setting report that declared film preservation "in crisis," with many film collections literally disintegrating as nitrate-based stock deteriorated because of indifference or outright neglect.

It seems fitting that "Casablanca," "Gone With the Wind," "Dr. Strangelove" and "Your Show of Shows" lie in the coolness of military surplus film vaults on an installation guarded by airmen packing 9mm pistols. It's a juxtaposition too delicious to ignore: The preservationists who toil inside the Library of Congress' massive film archive near Dayton find themselves in close proximity to the same research facilities for making a better bomb.

"We kind of feel like here you had all of this what was essentially paranoia about saving 'life as we know it' from the evil empire, and now we're saving movies, TV shows and recorded sound in the same facilities," says John Evans, planning officer for the Library of Congress.

Evans' new mission is to move the National Audiovisual Conservation Center at Wright-Patterson to a new home in Virginia. He's in charge of lining up the train cars that will transfer some 1.7 million motion picture and television reels in the library's collection into one central location.

Sunk into the side of Mount Pony near the sleepy hamlet of Culpeper, Va. lies a concrete reinforced bunker. It is surrounded by cyclone fencing topped with barbed wire. On top of the bunker sits a pillbox complete with ports for machine guns.

"When we took it over, it was like it was stopped in time," says David Francis, chief of the library's motion picture, broadcast and sound division. "It looked like everyone just got up and left."

The three-level, 140,000 square-foot building built inside Mount Pony was designed to withstand the worst thing the Soviet Union could throw at the United States. In theory, members of the Federal Reserve Board would be evacuated to the bunker when the missiles were launched. There they could hole up for at least a year without any outside support. Once the year was up, the survivors would poke their heads outside and start rebuilding America.

The Mount Pony facility contains a vault where money could be stored. The crypt, which was last used as a repository for the wildly unpopular $2 bill and Susan B. Anthony dollar, turns out to be a blessing in disguise for the nation's film preservation effort. Because the vault's ceiling had to be reinforced to keep the money safe, it's strong enough to hold the weight of a hundred years of film.

But it still takes some work to get the facility ready. The critical air-conditioning and heating system has to be tweaked and the dormitories, offices and computer rooms have to be converted into storage space for acetate motion picture and television film. Most critically, new vaults for the highly flammable nitrate film that was in use until the early 1950s have to be designed and built.

One of the great things about the facility at Wright-Patterson is that the film vaults were already there, having been built by the Air Force to store its training films. When the Air Force no longer needed the vaults and an accompanying film laboratory, they were donated to the library.

Along with the vaults, the library also got Ken Weissman.

Weissman, head of the motion picture conservation center in Dayton, was a film technician in the Air Force. When he mustered out in 1981, he went to work for the library. Weissman's cluttered office is adorned with horror film posters, while his assistant, George Willeman's cubby shows off his collection of old home movie cameras.

Like most of the people working in the library's film, television and recorded sound division, Weissman's vocation is his avocation. He takes pride in showing off the tools of his trade, whether it's a paper print deposited with the library from the earliest days of the film or one of the antiquated film printers the library still uses.

Before taking a visitor on a tour, Weissman likes to show a pair of films that graphically illustrate the dangers of nitrate film. After seeing rolls of film burn under water, foam and sand, a visitor begins to understand how dangerous it is.

"If it catches on fire, the only thing to do is run," Weissman says. "You hope to contain it. The best thing you can do is keep it from spreading to the other vaults."

The library has never had a nitrate fire and hopes to avoid the disaster when it moves to Mount Pony by designing new vaults.

"Ideally, the design would keep the fire contained in one cubby hole so that it wouldn't spread to the others," Weissman says. "That's never been done before. When there's a fire in a vault, it usually consumes everything in the vault."

That's what happened to the original fine-grain negatives of "Citizen Kane." They were destroyed in a fire. When film archivists fantasize, they dream about finding something like the outtakes of Orson Welles' masterpiece. In 1941, they were just trash on the cutting room floor.

When a movie basically had one life, it was difficult to justify the storage space and the cost to store it. With the advent of the VCR and cable television, that changed. Most of the major motion picture studios realized that they had valuable commercial properties that needed protecting.

That, in turn, caused the library to alter its philosophy. While it still maintains an extensive archive of commercial material, it has switched much of its efforts to the so-called orphans. These are movies that would not normally be preserved because of limited commercial value, such as the oldest-known commercial picture, "The Blacksmithing Scene," which was made at Edison's laboratory in 1893.

Most of the commercial films, TV shows and newsreels in the library's collection came in as studios deposited copies as a requirement to register their copyrights.

Some of the films are donated and others are restored and preserved under joint agreements with the studios. Disney, Sony and Warner Bros. all have deals with the library in which they fund preservation efforts.

The library spends about $1 million a year in public and private operating funds on the film lab. The center's staff has to be ingenious to keep solvent.

"We specialize in the orphans because if we don't care for them, no one will," Francis says. "As a matter of principal, we'll not spend federal funds on films where there is a copyright owner who can take care of them."

Through the National Film Registry, the library does attempt to guarantee that a large number of studio films are maintained somewhere, if not at the film archive then at another depository.

Library officials hope to have the archive moved by spring of 2003. The transfer couldn't have happened without David W. Packard, who has become the patron saint of the film preservation movement.

While Packard agreed to bankroll most of the move and renovations, it took an act of Congress to proceed. Under the act, taxpayers are obligated for about $16 million, but Packard, through the Packard Humanities Institute will pony up close to $80 million to complete the Audio-Visual Conservation Center.

Packard, a former professor specializing in ancient Greece who became hooked on the classic movies of the 1930s and 1940s, has made their preservation his life's work.

"My view is that what we're talking about is pretty important," he says. "It's the major repository of recorded sound, television and motion pictures of the last century. One doesn't want all that to go to waste."

While Packard rejects the notion that it took the Cold War to save the movies, it's not an idle metaphor with regard to Mount Pony.

"There's a link," Francis says. "The parallel I like to see is we're taking something that was of the Cold War era, and we're turning it into a cultural asset. It's getting a new life in a much more peaceful cause."