Digital crisis: Motion pictures may fade to black

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

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In fact, a similar migration project was announced in 2006 by IBM for Fox Broadcasting Co. -- not specifically for movies, but for its high-definition broadcasts such as NASCAR races, football games and shows such as American Idol. The broadcasts are beamed through satellites to an IBM xSeries server running Linux and then archived on magnetic tape.

Contrast that with ESPN, which, according to the academy's report, also runs a huge server farm. In the past, after a week's collection of broadcasts came in from professional and college sports, somebody -- usually an intern -- would go in and erase much of the data to make room for the next week's broadcast content. The process is described in the report as "triage on the fly." "That's a microcosm of what is going to happen in the industry," says Shefter.

The digital archivist

The job of the studio archivist -- the individual who, among other duties, decides what analog records need to be kept and maintained -- will become the responsibility of someone who is "more IT trained," predicts Shefter. "They will be in charge of distribution. They will decide what records they need to keep." One aspect of the archivist's work that will be lost in that transition, he says, is the ability to handle restoration. "It's sad, but I think that's the way it's heading."

Not everybody predicts the demise of future masterpieces with the advent of digital processes. In fact, the movement may portend even greater numbers of potential classics. Tom Streich, head of GripToyz, a movie production support company in Utah, recalls when digital began to take hold 10 years ago. "It was like, 'Oh, everything is going to change. We won't need lights. We'll save so much money on not having to process film.'"

But, he says, the movie digitalization is not saving anybody money in production. What digital has done, Streich believes, is opened the industry to myriad new, low-budget film makers. "They can do it on their PCs and put out usable products for television. And once digital projection comes out big, then it's not bad for theaters either."

Doing the Math of Movies

120-minute film master 120-minute 4KB digital master
3 separations, cut negative, interpositive 120 minutes x 5 = 600 minutes of film; 3 copies of digital data files (4,096 pixels x 2,160 pixels x 6 bytes/pixel x 24 frames); 8.34TB x 3 = 25.02TB
Annual archival storage cost (43 cents/minute) $258/year; annual storage on data tape: $500/year/terabyte**
Production of archival masters $80,000
Production costs amortized over 100 years $800/year
Annual total $258 + $800 = $1,059*; annual total: 25.02 x $500 = $12,510
Source material for film production Source material for digital production
Shooting ratio 25:1 shooting ratio 25:1
120-minute movie 3,000 minutes of source material; 3,000 minutes of 4KB digital data; 208.5TB of data
Annual storage in "ambient" nonarchival conditions 16 cents/minute; annual storage on data tape: $500/year/terabyte
Number of copies stored: 2
Annual total $3,000 x 16 cents= $486**; annual total: $500 x 208.5 x 2= $208,500

* With rounding

** Estimate provided by San Diego Supercomputer Center

Source: The Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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