Digital crisis: Motion pictures may fade to black

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

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That potential for losing irreplaceable content is supposed to be reduced by digital moviemaking, right? Directors shoot their movies on digital cameras and perform post-production on computers; the studios distribute the films to theaters via hard drives, tape drives or satellite; and then cinemas show the films using digital projectors. The ones and zeros behind the process never degrade.

The -- gulp! -- cost of storing a movie

But those digital bits add up -- to 2PB of data for a single movie, according to the academy. When 35mm film is used, studios can easily save everything: the original negative, the original audio, the still photos taken on set, notated scripts and other material. One case study cited by the report states that a two-hour feature film would take up about 129 cartons or cans, which are normally stored in vaults often located in underground salt mines. "Nobody paid any attention to what the budget was because it wasn't significant," says Shefter. The report estimates an annual cost of $1,170 to store the original production footage of a particular movie.

Compare that to the expense associated with storing that production footage in a digital format on tape in a fully managed storage facility. The cost is about $1.6 million.

While a director using 35mm film might shoot 15 or 18 minutes of film for every minute used in the final movie, "that ratio goes up tremendously when you go to digital," says Shefter. "It encourages more use." For instance, because film doesn't need to be loaded into the camera, the cameras just keep shooting -- even as the director steps out from behind the camera to talk with the cast.

Adding to the amount of data created in the making of a typical movie are the files generated during the post-production process, when the footage is turned into a sellable product. Directors believe they have better control when the movie goes to digital. "You can do so much more in the post-production process in digital than [you] were ever able to do in film," says Shefter.

The bottom line is that movie studios are in a position of having to maintain hundreds of terabytes of data for the material associated with any single motion picture, content that's barely or rarely cataloged or indexed.

Choices in storage

According to Brian Babineau, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group Inc. (ESG), the two basic choices for digital movie archive media -- tape or disk -- differ in advantages and disadvantages. Tape, the less expensive media, is highly portable, but the backup is usually compressed in a proprietary format. Also, searching for data on tape involves looking for files within files -- akin to looking through Zip files. "Then if you want to read data back, you have to restore tape through backup software into its native format," says Babineau.

The pricier disk-based archives store the content in their native format. It's more flexible than tape, says Babineau. "With disk, you can search the index, and then through any software package typically recall it. If you need fast access, it's much more feasible to do with disk."

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Digital archiving forecast

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According to analysis by ESG, maximum tape and disk capacities are about the same in commercial and government sectors. This year, disk storage capacities are expected to pull ahead of tape. By 2012, the amount of data stored on external disk will surpass that of magnetic tape archive storage. According to ESG, disk storage will account for 34.3 exabytes of data in 2012 compared to 31.5 exabytes on tape storage media. Optical storage capacity, which is also tracked by ESG, makes a nominal showing, about 2.4 petabytes by 2012.

The 100-year goal

The significance of studio movie collections, which first surfaced with the showing of old movies during the introduction of TV in the 1950s, has only grown in value with the advent of videos, cable, DVDs and video-on-demand delivery services. According to data published by The Hollywood Reporter, only about 19% of total revenue for the six largest movie companies came from theater showings. The remaining 81% represents revenue generated through DVDs, TV, pay TV and VHS.

As a studio's revenue potential grows from post-theater releases of movies, the drive to digital platforms has sped up because of the need to be able to access content quickly. "We're seeing a lot of people pick and choose what types of content they keep on more accessible media, in order to generate incremental revenue," says Babineau.

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