Best practices in film handling and distribution

Film-handling notes from AMIA 2017 media preservation panel

Film handling is truly a dying art

40,000 movie screens exist in the United States, yet only a tiny fraction still show 35mm or 70mm film; the vast majority long-ago converted to digital projection. They once received an actual print of the film; now they get a hard-drive containing a digital file that is, in essence, the “print” of the movie they will project.

Many repertory theaters continue to show actual film prints. As a provider of motion picture film preservation services, PRO-TEK constantly receives requests from various clients to pull prints from our vaults, inspect them to ensure they’re still viable and ship them to revival theaters or film festivals around the world. But once they get to the projection booth, we have no control over their handling.

It’s 10PM: Do you know who’s projecting your rare, valuable film print?

Thousands of highly-trained projectionists once worked in movie theaters. They would assemble films into larger rolls, clean, inspect, splice, repair and guide them through hundreds of showings, keeping the prints clean and sharp sometimes for weeks or months. If a film was successful and had a long run, a theater might have projected the same print for a year or more—some legendary film prints ran for years at the same theater. In the visitor’s center of Colonial Williamsburg, a film print was shown for a decade before replacing! That could be done when the print was handled carefully and the equipment was properly maintained.

But those days are over. Today’s projectionists are usually the same people selling tickets and making popcorn. “Projection” means running upstairs, turning on the projector and double-clicking a file on a drive. That’s it.

In some theaters that still show film, it’s often a well-meaning but under-trained projectionist. It could be a film student. Some repertory theaters still employ expert projectionists, but they are a dwindling lot.

AMIA, in partnership with Kodak, the Alamo Drafthouse Theater chain, the Film Foundation, the University of Texas and Boston Light and Sound, has been holding intensive film-projection training seminars to teach film-handling skills to a new generation. These seminars have been well-attended, but only a tiny fraction of film archivists and projectionists are training themselves in these “ancient” arts.

And studios know this—they are reluctant to loan out their remaining film prints anymore. It’s too costly to make a replacement. Once hundreds of film labs were operating in this country, but now only 8 or 9 can professionally process 35mm film, and only one, Fotokem, can process 70mm. If a repertory theater wants to borrow a film print from a studio/distributor, the request may be denied. Instead a digital file or worse, a Blu-Ray disc, will be substituted. Those discs are fine on home screens, but not projected on the big screen in a theater setting.

Stopping the decline of film-handling skills

At this year’s AMIA conference in New Orleans, one of the panels we attended was a great reminder of the need for best practices in film archiving and preservation. Especially as most archivists are graduating from programs with little actual training in physical film, preparing instead for careers that focus on digital assets.

The panel was led by New York Public Library Media Preservation Assistant Genevieve Havemeyer-King  and colleague Elena Rossi-Snook, Collection Manager for the circulating 16mm collection at the library. (You read that right: NYPL does have a circulating library of real film!)

In addition, Andrew Oran from Fotokem spoke, as well as Julian Antos, Technical Director of Chicago’s Music Box Theatre and Katie Trainor from MOMA.

Rossi-Snook maintains a collection at NYPL and loans out actual 16mm film prints, but these are usually educational films, not considered to have high value. One of her missions is to acquaint young people with actual film. While professional archivists handle film as little as possible, she encourages students to hold the film. It means wear and tear at a rate that would be unacceptable for a release print of a major motion picture. However, it allows these digital citizens to see that motion picture film is a series of still photographs in sequence, something they would never know by watching YouTube!

Giving motion picture film the respect it deserves

All this brings us back to PRO-TEK, where we not only inspect and ship out film prints all the time, but also inspect each one when it returns. We carefully inspect the cans they were shipped back in and examine the film for any signs of degradation. Most repertory theater companies do their best to handle the prints well, but it’s a struggle when they are understaffed. We often get reels of film in the wrong cans, mislabeled or hastily packed. We often must replace the head and tail leaders on the reel and clean the prints carefully. It’s easy to understand why distributors get frustrated by these extra costs and eventually give up, sticking the film in a vault and sending digital files instead.

At PRO-TEK, we believe we have an obligation to store and care for film properly, and to pass on and teach our techniques to a new generation. It’s why studios still trust us with their film—that and because we’re also a bunch of cinematography nerds who want to keep seeing original film prints projected on the big screen.

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Danny Kuchuck
Danny Kuchuck is Film Technician and Project Manager at LAC Group. His expertise in film ranges from old to new and celluloid to digital. He also specializes in nitrate film stock and antique movie production and presentation equipment and techniques.