As Verrier writes, “Inside a 260,000-square-foot warehouse just over the Grapevine off Interstate 5, an archivist from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences clambered up a ladder to inspect a stack of dusty 35-millimeter film cans . . . The man on the ladder pulled several silver-colored canisters off the shelf and plunked them on a pallet that would later be shrink-wrapped and loaded onto a truck for delivery to the academy’s film archive. By the end of the day, some 5,000 cans of film would find a new home at the academy.
That left just 40,000 cans to go in the mission to rescue Hollywood’s ‘orphan films’ — movies abandoned by producers or the companies that financed them. Patiently watching over the operation was Greg Lea, a cheerful native of west London and fervent film historian. He and his colleagues at Deluxe Entertainment Services Group have spent the last two years trying to return the forgotten films, some dating back half a century, to their rightful owners. Most are art house or independent films that never made it to the big leagues.
‘This is 20th century American history, so you don’t want it to be lost,’ Lea said. ‘It may be someone’s dream that didn’t get abandoned, but they couldn’t afford to move the project any further. When you’ve got someone’s dreams, you don’t want to end up throwing them in the trash can.’ The end of film is a dramatic story in Hollywood. Paramount made headlines last year when it told exhibitors it would release virtually all future movies digitally. Most theaters around the country have invested millions to ditch their film projectors and install digital systems.
Slackening demand for film prints prompted Deluxe and Technicolor to close their film labs, laying off hundreds of workers. Fujifilm Corp. has exited the movie film business, leaving Eastman Kodak as the sole remaining major supplier of film stock. Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012, though several studios have banded together to keep the company’s film business alive.
Although digital technology enables studios to distribute movies much more cheaply than film, not everyone is happy about film’s pending demise. Prominent directors, including Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, have opposed the relentless march to digital formats, contending the medium is inferior to 35-millimeter film. But there is a more fundamental question: When Hollywood goes all digital, what happens to the film legacy left behind?
It’s not an idle question. The original negatives of some 90% of the films made between 1901 and 1929 no longer exist. The same nearly happened in the 1970s when studios decided to divest themselves of nitrate film, which was used before 1950 and was highly flammable. For the last two years, Deluxe has worked closely with the major studios and others to ensure that tens of thousands of film negatives were rightfully claimed.
But many more are orphans — produced by companies that either forgot about them, went out of business or no long wanted to pay to keep them in storage facilities . . . ‘Some companies make a decision that they don’t really want it anymore,’ Lea said. ‘It’s somebody else’s problem. You can understand it. But for those of us who want to preserve the film history, it’s the wrong decision.’”