Digital crisis: Motion pictures may fade to black

Fewer than half of all feature films made before 1950 have survived

Current storage technologies may have a reputation for being plentiful and cheap, but not necessarily in Hollywood, where a recent study warns that the annual cost of archiving a digital film is 11 times that of storing celluloid film.

According to "The Digital Dilemma," a report recently released by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, digital film storage costs $12,510 per year, compared with $1,059 for celluloid. More dramatically, source materials -- those outtakes and audio recordings that often make up bonus content for special edition products -- cost 429 times as much to store, a whopping $208,500 per year for digital materials vs. $486 for film.

The report's authors state the data explosion could turn into digital movie extinction, unless the studios push the development of storage standards and data management practices that will guarantee long-term access of their content.

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The annual costs to store movies

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As the report points out, even if a 100-year black box were invented that "read data reliably without introducing any errors, required no maintenance and offered sufficient bit density at an affordable price," there would be nobody alive capable of repairing it if that box were to fail at 99 years. In the real world of data management, digital assets are stored on media with longevities much less than 100 years, vulnerable to temperature changes, humidity and static electricity. It can be misidentified, inadequately indexed and difficult to track.

Also, whereas a well-preserved 35mm negative has traditionally contained enough information to fulfill any requirement for ancillary markets, there's a question in the minds of some industry observers about whether the quality of masters archived in digital formats will be sufficient for quality duplication. In an age when home movie systems can often provide a better experience than some commercial theaters, that's not an unimportant concern.

"This is a clarion call to our people," says Milt Shefter, lead on the academy's Digital Motion Picture Archival Project and president of Miljoy Enterprises Inc., a media asset protection and preservation consultancy. "While there are great benefits to this technology, if you embrace it today, you are giving up guaranteed long-term access which you have with analog film."

According to Shefter, the price tag is of secondary concern to the studios. "The real cost is in not being able to guarantee that you'll have the material."

In digital we trust ...

When Paramount Pictures, under president Sherry Lansing, decided to create a 50th anniversary edition of Sunset Boulevard, one of the studio's numerous movie classics, it faced a dilemma. As described on the Paramount Film Preservation site, the original movie was shot on cellulose nitrate film. The studio had been making prints off of reprinted movies for years.

The problem was, movie duplicates had deteriorated. The prints had become grainy, and contrast had built up to the point where the darker scenes were almost black and indiscernible. The copy that had survived in the best condition actually included "small but very visible digs" in every frame. On top of that, through 50 years of studio history, every original piece of the film footage by director Billy Wilder had gone missing, including the original negative of Sunset Boulevard.

So rather than releasing yet another degraded version of the film with added material that would allow the studio to call the resulting DVD a "special collector's edition," Paramount called on its archivists to remove the scratches and dirt and restore the movie to as close to its former glory as possible.

In 2002, the preservation team hired the services of Lowry Digital (now named DTS), which applied a proprietary process to the movie, in which all visible damage was removed from a digitally scanned version of the negative. That high-resolution digital file was scanned back to film to create a new negative and output to a master tape from which a DVD was created. The collector's edition of the classic was finally released six months later in that same year.

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