As Kenneth Turan writes in The Los Angeles Times, “if you care even a little about the art and history of American motion pictures, about being able to see classic films now and forever, you owe a debt of gratitude to David W. Packard.
Packard, the son of Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard, has never seen a Steven Spielberg movie and takes pleasure in reading Homer in the original Greek. But he cares deeply about film history, and his Packard Humanities Institute has become one of the leading philanthropic organizations funding film preservation.
Now a landmark moment in that cause is nearing completion on 65 acres in the hills of Santa Clarita: a $180-million facility that houses vintage movies in the UCLA Film & Television Archive, including The Maltese Falcon, the Flash Gordon serials, Laurel & Hardy’s Way Out West, Cecil B. DeMille’s personal collection and producer Hal Wallis’ own print of Casablanca.
“UCLA was looking for a modest little place to move to, and I got involved and turned it into something monumental,” Packard, 75, said during an extended tour of the facility. “It’s a labor of love and a labor of craziness. I could have just built an adequate facility, but it didn’t cost that much more for it to be something wonderful.”
The campus is designed primarily for storage, research and work related to film preservation, although there may be occasional semi-public events in one of the three screening rooms. The facility is known as the PHI Stoa, for the Packard Humanities Institute and because the exterior resembles a type of classical Greek building known as a stoa, an outdoor colonnade structure supported by an impressive row of marble columns.
The interior is patterned after the 15th century Convent of Saint Marco in Florence, with offices resembling the cells of a monastery. Packard, who rarely grants interviews, acknowledges that the design fits his style. ‘I’m more like a monk; I like to do my work,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to be a person who goes around boasting about doing things. What’s the point of that?’
For moviegoers who want the classic films they love to be seen on the big screen by their children in the best condition possible, the stakes are enormous. It may seem films are forever, but history tells us this is not the case. Nitrate-based negatives, Hollywood’s choice until about 1951, are notoriously unstable and over time often deteriorated to chemical goo, taking their one-of-a-kind images with them.
Before efforts like Packard’s, so many films were routinely lost or destroyed that it’s estimated that approximately half the films made before 1951, not to mention that more than eight of 10 features made between 1912 and 1930, no longer exist, according to film historians. Talk to anyone in the film preservation world and you hear echoes of the words of James H. Billington, the recently retired librarian of Congress, who says: ‘If you want an analogy to David in American history, Andrew Carnegie would be the best.’
Packard’s institute financed a similar facility dedicated to film preservation outside of Washington, D.C., in Culpeper, Va. Built inside a disused Federal Reserve bunker that once held billions of dollars of shrink-wrapped currency, it includes nearly 90 miles of shelving, plus storage for highly flammable nitrate materials. It was donated to the Library of Congress in 2008 [. . .]
‘Frankly, I can think of no one and no institution which has done more for the cause of film preservation, specifically the preservation of classic American films,’ than David Packard, said Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. ‘There are a lot of wealthy people in the film industry, but no one has stepped up to the plate the way David has. The amount of funding he has provided is staggering.’
About 90% of the films at PHI Stoa belong to the UCLA collection. They are stored in 120 nitrate vaults, built at a cost of $48 million. Looking like cells in a 1930s big house movie, these structures are a chilly 38 degrees inside, with contents protected by an elaborate complex of anti-fire technologies, including exhaust ducts and a system called VESDA for ‘Very Early Smoke Detection Apparatus.’
‘They’re the most modern nitrate vaults in existence,’ Packard said. ‘This is not just buying five more years; they’re supposed to last centuries [. . .] It broke up my friendship with Steve Jobs when I told him movies were not meant to be seen on 21/2 -inch screens’ [said Packard],” and of course, they aren’t. And, as the saying goes, “nitrate won’t wait”- this is work that has to be done now.