It’s one of the most spectacular dance sequences ever captured on film: the Nicholas Brothers cutting loose on a double staircase in the classic musical Stormy Weather (1943).
“It would be terrible if a film like this was not around,” says Donald Bogle, the pioneering film historian of African American cinema and the recipient of this year’s Robert Osborne Award at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. (TCM and CNN are both subsidiaries of Warner Bros. Discovery.)
Unfortunately, many films from Stormy Weather’s era have not survived. Federal estimates suggest half of films made before 1950 and most before 1929 have deteriorated beyond repair or disappeared entirely.
“These movies, we don’t want to lose them,” Bogle says, “so preservation becomes very important. It’s part of our cultural history.”
This direct line to history underscores the power of cinema, says TCM General Manager Pola Chagnon. “I think the more that we as a culture can be connected not only to films of today but films of the past, we only gain empathy and understanding of what came before.”
Film restoration is expensive and time-consuming. According to The Film Foundation, digitally restoring a color feature with sound can cost up to several hundred thousand dollars. Even with multiple teams working simultaneously, restoration can take months, says Daphne Dentz, Senior Vice President of Emerging Formats, Mastering & Content Acquisition at Warner Bros.
Working with original camera negatives and audio, Dentz adds, “the aim of the restoration is to stay true to the content creator’s original creative intent.”
While the content stays the same, technology does not. That means once a film has been restored, the work is never really over.
“As the ways that people access these films change, films need preservation, and restoration is kind of an ongoing process,” says Margaret Bodde, The Film Foundation’s Executive Director. “The difference between something mastered for VHS and something mastered for Blu-ray is like night and day.”
“Since I’ve been here, The Wizard of Oz has been restored at least three times,” notes Dentz, who has worked at the studio 17 years. “This is something that is going to be a constant.”
With so many films in need of help, collaboration is vital. The Film Foundation, one of the leading organizations in film preservation, restoration, and education, works with studios, archives, and exhibitors. Board members from the non-profit also identify and suggest titles for prioritization, taking into account the film’s physical condition, historic, cultural, and artistic value, and whether it is the only surviving version.
In honor of Warner Bros.’ 100th anniversary, the foundation teamed up with the studio and TCM to restore Rio Bravo (1959), East of Eden (1955), One Way Passage (1932), and The Strawberry Blonde (1941) for the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival. Board members like Steven Spielberg will appear at the event and on TCM air to talk about the importance of the restoration effort, and every film shown on TCM in April will be from the Warner Bros. library.
“It’s a terrific collaboration,” says Dentz, “because we all have the same ideas about how important it is to preserve these films culturally and to preserve these stories. These are stories that we want to be able to share with the world forever, if possible.”
How to support the cause
Whether you’re a casual moviegoer or a die-hard film buff, anyone can support film preservation and restoration.
“The main thing is to watch these movies,” says TCM General Manager Chagnon. “Try it. Give yourself license to be curious about other films.”
Bodde recommends seeing films in theaters and watching TCM. “It’s such a great way to celebrate and learn more about different filmmakers from the past and different films from around the world.”
Another way to support the cause: donating to non-profits committed to finding, restoring, and sharing classic films before it’s too late. Some of the major players in this space include:
With roots in the Johnson White House, the American Film Institute was founded in 1967 as the first group recognized by the federal government dedicated to cinematic art and history. The AFI Catalog of Feature Films was the first comprehensive scholarly index of American motion pictures dating back to the late 1800’s. The non-profit began restoring films in 1973, and today the Library of Congress houses more than 60,000 films in its AFI Collection. The institute has grown to include the AFI Conservatory graduate program, the AFI Life Achievement Award, the AFI FEST film festival, and curated film rankings like AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list.
The Academy Foundation is the educational and cultural wing of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the historic Hollywood organization behind the Academy Awards. Established in 1927 – the same year that saw (and heard) the first feature-length film with sound – the Academy began acquiring material for its archives in 1929, later launching the foundation in 1944 with sponsors such as Cary Grant and Howard Hawks. Today, the organization is home to the Academy Film Archive, one of the most extensive motion picture collections in the world; the Margaret Herrick Library, a research center focused on film history, craft, and industry; fellowships and educational programs; and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a 300,000 square-foot facility devoted to film history and education that opened in 2021.
In 1990, a team of powerhouse filmmakers – Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford, and Steven Spielberg – launched The Film Foundation to protect and preserve motion picture history for future generations. Scorsese still chairs the Directors Guild of America-affiliated organization, and since its founding, the non-profit has helped restore more than 950 films across every genre and era. The foundation has expanded its impact internationally with its World Cinema Project, and offers free virtual screenings every month through the Restoration Screening Room. The Film Foundation’s free educational initiative, The Story of Movies, has been featured in 45,000 schools across the U.S. and taught more than 10 million students.
Created by writer, film historian, and TCM host Eddie Muller in 2005, the Film Noir Foundation was born out of NOIR CITY, the annual Bay Area film festival devoted to the genre. The non-profit hosts screenings across the country and publishes a magazine to promote the “cultural, historical, and artistic significance of film noir as an international cinematic movement.” Proceeds are used to locate and restore genre films. The foundation has saved more than three dozen titles and offers a $5,000 grant for students focused on film restoration, preservation, or archiving.
After a federal report found fragile but historically significant motion pictures decaying faster than they could be saved, the film community teamed up with the Library of Congress in the 1990s to help Congress create the National Film Preservation Foundation. The NFPF began operating in 1997, issuing grants to archives, libraries, museums, and other organizations to help save the most at-risk material not included in commercial restoration projects, such as documentaries, silent-era films, home movies, and newsreels. The foundation has helped preserve more than 2,700 films across the country, with many available to view online, and partnered with international archives to restore American silent films discovered in their collections. NFPF’s federal funding goes directly to its preservation work so the organization relies on private donations and grants to keep it running.
With more than 520,000 films, television shows, newsreels, and radio recordings, the University of California, Los Angeles’ Film & Television Archive houses one of the largest media collections in the country – second only to the Library of Congress. Founded in 1965, the archive collects, preserves and restores, screens, loans, and licenses archival moving images. A part of the university library system, the archive also operates the Archive Research and Study Center for the campus community and public.
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