Digital crisis: Motion pictures may fade to black

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

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Yet Hollywood's history of archiving has never been standardized. Many early titles, produced on flammable film, have simply been burned in warehouse fires or turned to vinegar in uncontrolled storage environments. Fewer than half of all feature films made before 1950 have survived.

Now acetate-based films and their related materials are more likely to be archived in climate-controlled facilities with fire suppression systems. The goal: a film master that lasts 100 years.

According to Shefter, digital tapes and disks that have replaced acid-free cartons and steel metal cans used for film "have not proved to be a significant successful method of preserving this information." Some users reported to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that the materials on the drives couldn't be accessed after only 18 months.

The question of the long-term reliability of disk storage was the topic of a study performed by a group of university and vendor researchers in 2006. Their conclusion: While manufacturers of CD-Rs claim media "lifetimes up to 100 years ... actual lifetimes may be only two to five years." Media degradation happens not only as a result of "bit rot," a gradual accumulation of irrecoverable bit errors, making the data inaccessible, but also because media become obsolete. The scientists pointed to the once-ubiquitous floppy as proof.

The need for new processes

The major challenge that Hollywood faces in moving to digital has less to do with the actual limitations of the technology than with the reconfiguration of its processes, according to Steve Canepa, vice president of global media entertainment at IBM. "I talk about the factory notion," he says. "Today, you have literally dozens of ways that a piece of content can be viewed, depending upon the licensing rules, from theater to mobile to broadband to any number of devices in different formats. The methods and processes by which they go from higher resolution to lower resolution have to become increasingly more efficient."

That points to a major topic of the academy's report: the lack of standards. Studios are increasingly squeezing the window in which to monetize their movies, which means they frequently rely on archival technologies that are relatively immature. As media come and go, studios are forced to migrate to ever-newer platforms to be able to access their movie content. But that can leave content on older formats inaccessible. For example, LTO4, the current standard for tape drives in the movie business, which became available in 2007, is unable to read the contents of tapes written in the LTO1 format, the standard in 2000.

"We're seeing a lot of zero-day projects," says Babineau. "Whatever [companies] have right now in one format, they just keep it. But going forward they use a net-new type." The problem with that, he points out, is that the older content becomes unfindable unless equipment is kept around and maintained to read the older formats or there's a blending of indexes among formats.

"If you're dealing with a technology where you have to make a decision about what to do with it somewhere within a four- or five-year period, you have to know you're going to migrate it [or] get rid of it," explains Shefter. The studios' solution: to generate the majority of the revenue in that period before they have to make migration decisions.

Making way for what's to come

Migration projects shouldn't be a big deal to the movie industry, says Babineau. Having multiple copies of digital assets is simply a form of insurance against the loss of any particular master. "If you have something important -- The Godfather series, for example -- why not have a copy on film, but also digitize it and save a gold copy on disk somewhere? You can always go from disk back to film. We do it every day."

Canepa says IBM has customers in the film and broadcast industry that it helps migrate film to digital formats. Most of the time data is quickly migrated onto magnetic tape, which he says, is much denser and costs less. With compression, up to 1.6TB of data can be stored on a single tape cartridge today.

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