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Program National Film Preservation Board

National Film Preservation Plan: An Implementation Strategy

As cinema enters its second century, thought properly turns to a thorough examination of film's glorious first 100 years--the many crowning achievements of this most popular of art forms, the growing importance of motion pictures in American cultural history and, more sadly, the large portion of our film heritage already lost. For all those who love film, the unquestionable duty becomes ensuring that surviving--and future--films will not suffer this tragic fate and will forever remain a living part of the American Memory, secure for the public's education and enjoyment.

Barely 10 short years ago, film preservation faced what appeared to be a hopeless crisis point. Motion picture studios, with a few exceptions, focused solely on current theatrical releases and saw little benefit in preserving their holdings, assessing their own film libraries as nothing more than "yesterday's films." Film archives, on the other hand, made valiant yet often futile efforts to fill the gap, but did not have sufficient funds to preserve their non-commercial holdings, much less their collection of studio product.

Today, prospects seem much brighter. The cable and videocassette revolutions with their economic vigor, demands and rewards have persuaded studios once more to preserve their own films, or face the prospect of extinction and commercial irrelevance in these expanding markets. To find and produce the best material for their own films, studios have often entered into collaborative ventures with archives, arrangements benefitting both parties.

Film preservation now stands on the verge of a new, more promising era. A once diffuse film community, plagued by duplication of effort, lack of communication, and occasional discord, has grown closer together. The collaborative process has been aided by the recent development through consensus of a national film preservation plan, as mandated by Public Law 102-307 ("The National Film Preservation Act of 1992"). This landmark legislation directed the Librarian of Congress, in consultation with members of his advisory National Film Preservation Board, to conduct a study on the current state of film preservation activities in the United States, and, subsequently, to design a national plan to improve these efforts and guarantee the survival of our film heritage.

As a first step, the Librarian submitted a study on the current state of film preservation (Film Preservation 1993) to Congress in June 1993. This document, the result of two public hearings and hundreds of interviews and written statements from individuals throughout the film community, listed among its major conclusions:

  • Fewer than 20% of feature films from the 1920s survive in complete form; for features of the 1910s, the survival rate falls to about 10%. Of films made before 1950, only about half survive.
  • Films made after 1950 (on supposedly "safe" acetate film stock) face major preservation catastrophes from "color fading," "vinegar syndrome" (an irreversible film base decay), dimensional stability and soundtrack deterioration.
  • Many "lost" American films can be found only in foreign archives.
  • Funding for film preservation programs has fallen to half its 1980 level, when adjusted for inflation.

The next phase involved development of a national plan to improve preservation efforts. After six months of negotiation and consensus building among archivists, educators, filmmakers, and film industry executives, the national plan (Redefining Film Preservation) was released to Congress and the public in August 1994; it contained 30 recommendations on how to ensure the long-term survival of the American film heritage. Since the film industry itself lives and copes with constant change and because we cannot predict the future, the plan is not rigidly set in stone, but rather is a flexible policy document designed to permit quick reaction to rapidly changing developments.

The next critical step is to begin implementing the recommendations found in Redefining Film Preservation. To point the way toward implementation, this paper outlines a framework on how the Librarian, advised by the National Film Preservation Board, plans to enact these suggestions. It begins by laying out the principles underpinning the national plan, and then analyzes major areas of emphasis and some principal recommendations within each area. A table summarizes all 30 recommendations and provides a timetable and brief plan of action for each.

What we propose is a covenant with the American film heritage. The film community and the federal government must assume primary responsibility for saving American film, work together to implement this plan, continually update it and make it relevant to changing circumstances.

Preservation of Small Gauge Film Roundtable Minutes (PDF, 93.5KB)

Guiding Principles

Crafting and implementing a national plan involves far more than issuing recommendations, setting up task forces, and designing a timetable for action. Any successful plan has behind it a set of principles and beliefs which guide the effort. The tenets of the national plan include:

  • A belief that responsibility for preserving the American film heritage is a sacred trust shared by the motion picture industry, the public and nonprofit film archives, and the American public.
  • The comprehension, earned through community failures in the past, that successful implementation of a national plan and the survival of film require active participation from all in the film community. Much as the making of a successful film requires complete devotion and effort from hundreds of individuals, guaranteeing the survival of film will require a cooperative effort from all film institutions and organizations. The success of the planning process thus far owes greatly to the collaborative manner used, and in this spirit the plan's implementation will proceed.
  • The appreciation that studios and archives are doing a far better job the past few years in preserving their film assets. Much, however, remains to be done; the work can improve; and progress must continue.
  • An understanding that studios bear primary responsibility for preserving their own films, i.e. taking care of their own family. It cannot be stressed strongly enough that, if studios fail in this effort, public archives do not possess sufficient resources to do the job themselves, particularly for the vast number of color films produced after 1950. For the American film heritage to survive, recent film industry initiatives must continue and expand, both as part of independent efforts by each company and through studio-archive partnerships combining the strengths of both parties.
  • An awareness that, in addition to their ongoing work in helping preserve Hollywood films, film archives must meet the preservation needs for those films falling outside the commercial mainstream--documentaries, independent films, newsreels, silent films, avant-garde works, and significant amateur footage--as well as other works whose copyright owners prove unable or unwilling to guarantee their preservation.
  • The firm conviction that saving the usable original nitrate or safety film element, even after duplication, remains pivotal in ensuring the long-term survival of motion pictures. New formats and approaching transmission technologies--digital, movies-on-demand, and what will follow--offer great promise for increasing access and limited preservation applications, but do not replace the value of the original film element. By offering the best possible image and sound qualities, original elements prove indispensable as the best source for copies in each new emerging format. Thus, the concept of saving film on film will remain valid for decades to come as a means to prepare for whatever new technologies will emerge.
  • The knowledge that the most effective way to ensure the survival of film (both in terms of cost and long-term durability) is through cold-and-dry storage facilities. By providing a longer window during which deteriorating film can be copied, archival storage removes the need to duplicate film immediately, allowing archives to concentrate on films showing signs of deterioration and those needing research access, and provides a guarantee that original elements and master copies, once produced, will last for centuries.
  • A recognition that the American public through its purchasing power has made possible both the phenomenal growth of the motion picture industry and the survival of film at studios and film archives. While the legal rights of copyright holders must be strictly observed, the ultimate goal of any preservation plan must be public access to all film, whether through theatrical exhibition, videocassette/videodisc, cable transmission, or more non-commercial avenues such as archival circulating libraries.

The National Plan: Areas of Emphasis

The recommendations found in Redefining Film Preservation can be grouped into three broad areas: 1) Saving the Film Element, 2) Increasing Funding and Fostering Partnerships, and 3) Expanding Public Access and Outreach. Such groupings offer the best structure for understanding what the plan hopes to accomplish. Following is a brief description of these three areas, along with some major recommendations.

A. Conserving the Film Element:

Key to guaranteeing that future generations can enjoy film is the essential concept that film must be preserved as film, ideally by retaining the original nitrate or acetate film element. Many groundbreaking studies have been done the past few years examining optimal storage conditions, longevity of certain film stocks, and effectiveness of film transfer processes. What is missing, however, in all these worthy efforts is a way for archives and studios to share preservation information, and, more fundamentally, reach some sort of broad agreement on what constitutes adequate preservation standards or guidelines, as well as a forum to assess the quality of current and future preservation efforts. These issues are contentious, hence their longstanding non-resolution. One of the first implementation steps will be formation (done in conjunction with the Association of Moving Image Archivists, AMIA) of an informal group to review examples of preserved films, discuss how certain problems were tackled, and trade ideas. Hopefully, such off-the-record screenings should develop the trust necessary before discussions on technical guidelines can begin. Groups will also be set up to investigate a structure allowing archives and studios to share preservation information, reduce duplication of effort, and make possible better and more efficient restoration efforts.

As noted in Redefining Film Preservation, serious preservation problems also afflict the American television heritage and videotape. The Library of Congress is appointing a consultant to conduct a comprehensive study of and prepare a national plan for TV, radio and video preservation. Completion of this study and plan is expected by the end of 1996. The project will address critical funding issues and will be conducted in a consultative and open manner similar to that done for the film preservation endeavor. The Library hopes that affected archives and organizations will offer cooperation equal to that extended by groups during the film study and planning process.

B. Increasing Funding and Fostering Partnerships:

Many factors will ultimately determine the success of the national plan. None, however, is more critical than Congressional enactment of the proposed national film preservation foundation legislation. This foundation will provide the logical vehicle to undertake many of the national plan's recommendations. More importantly, the foundation, through its ability to match private donations with federal funds, can provide critical capital to aid the storage, cataloging, copying, access and exhibition of films held at archives throughout the United States. For even with the additional cooperation we envision the plan will produce, film archives cannot survive without increased funding, but indeed will only fail a bit more gracefully and slowly. Recognizing the importance of this recommendation and the urgency added by NEA's reduction of preservation grants, Library officials are working with Congressional staff on legislation to establish the national film preservation foundation. Such legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 1734), and introduction is expected shortly in the United States Senate.

Along with the potential benefits offered by the foundation, studio-archival partnerships offer promise in many areas, particularly in sharing storage costs and film repatriation.

1. Storage Costs:

As pointed out in Film Preservation 1993, studios receive a significant economic benefit from having public archives store and care for nitrate film elements donated or deposited with them by the rights holders. In 1993 at average commercial rates, these storage costs would have amounted to well over $275,000.

When pressed for compensation by the archives, studios understandably respond that they should not be expected to pay commercial storage rates to archives without receiving the same services (quick retrievals, periodic inspections and reports) offered by commercial storage facilities. Promisingly, two industry storage agreements recently concluded with the Library of Congress offer possible models for cooperative partnerships beneficial to both archives and studios. The Walt Disney Company and Sony Pictures Entertainment each have large amounts of nitrate pre-print elements for titles they control stored at the Library of Congress facilities in Ohio, and have made financial contributions to help LC with staff inspection and servicing of the material. The Library and Board will promote dialogue to create other similar models between archives and individual studios, and, if necessary, establish a broader working group to propose other solutions.

2. Repatriation:

Foreign archives, as demonstrated in Film Preservation 1993, hold many silent and early sound films produced in the United States, including titles presently considered "lost." Further, these archives possess many more recent American films with foreign tracks, a potentially valuable resource for American copyright holders. Foreign archives have for decades conserved these priceless parts of the American film heritage without financial compensation, despite their own woefully inadequate budgets. The national plan calls for development of a financing mechanism to encourage repatriation of American films from foreign archives. Ideally, such a program would (1) build the trust of foreign archives by having studios waive any legal claims to the actual film copies held by these archives, (2) develop an inventory of American films held in foreign archives, (3) compensate foreign archives for their valuable preservation efforts, (4) return these films to the United States and provide for archival preservation, preferably in joint partnership efforts between American archives and studios, and (5) make these films available to the public through theatrical exhibition and other distribution mechanisms. Initial discussions between copyright holders and American archives on a repatriation program will begin later in 1995, building on the extensive experience American archives have in such endeavors.

The plan also contains additional suggestions concerning archive-studio coordination and communication. To continue the progress made during the film preservation task forces, the Library and Board will establish various working groups to discuss problems and possible solutions in areas such as fee-sharing for archival film loans and donor/deposit agreements.

C. Expanding Public Access and Outreach

The American public has made possible the overwhelming commercial and artistic success of American film. But despite much progress in recent years, too many films, especially those from the silent era, remain unavailable to the public. As pointed out in public comments received from the Committee for Film Preservation and Public Access, much more emphasis should now be placed on film availability, particularly during a time when industry-archival partnerships are expanding, videocassette, cable and other post- theatrical industries are booming, and the United States Congress is considering the extension of copyright by a length of 20 years. Several policy initiatives during the upcoming implementation process will seek ways to expand public access to film, while, at the same time, safeguarding the rights of copyright owners and distributors. Working groups will explore issues including copyright law and how it affects public access and archival funding, print banks to distribute 35mm and 16mm films, and ways to streamline rights clearances for studio films.

The National Film Registry Tour

For any national film preservation plan to succeed, the American public must be convinced of the need for such a program and realize the benefits potentially offered. Beginning in Fall 1995, the Library of Congress will mount a tour of selected National Film Registry titles as the centerpiece of a public awareness campaign on film preservation, seeking to make the American public aware of the vibrant diversity of the American film heritage, as well as the need to preserve film and the theatrical experience. With initial visits to a diverse group of 11 cities spread throughout the U.S., the tour will, we hope, eventually reach each of the 50 states. More than simple film screenings, the tour will include a series of high-profile special events, featuring screenings of sparkling new prints, appearances by prominent individuals from the film community, and involvement of national and local political, business and artistic dignitaries. The Library has spent the past several months planning the many details necessary to make the tour a triumphant success, and expresses appreciation to the many copyright holders who have already agreed to strike new prints and waive theatrical rental fees.

Note: The full version of this document was released to the public in June 1995. This "Internet" version contains the document's text but not its tables.

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National Film Preservation Board
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