In Hollywood, keeping Tinseltown's treasures safe forever

At the Academy Film Archive, more than 76,000 film titles are kept safe by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. CNET Road Trip 2012 dropped by to inspect the vaults.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
A look down one of the rows of the Academy Film Archive, in Hollywood. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

HOLLYWOOD, Calif.--Deep inside a series of very cold vaults, surrounded by thick concrete and protected from fire and water damage, more than 76,000 movies sit on shelves, preserved for future generations to enjoy.

Welcome to the Academy Film Archive, the storage arm of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. On your right is a stack of cans containing several reels of the 1962 classic "Lawrence of Arabia." On your left are several cans comprising a copy of "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Preserving Hollywood's most valuable treasures -- its films (pictures)

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Since opening its doors in 1927, the Academy -- the folks behind the Oscars -- has required that the producers of any film nominated for an Academy Award donate a copy of the work. Most have done so, though there are gaps in the collection. Now, the institution is doing whatever it can to fill those gaps, explained Academy Film Archive director Michael Pogorzelski.

But the primary goal here at the Academy's Pickford Center in Hollywood, a former TV studio that it has occupied for the last 10 years, is to ensure that Tinseltown's most valuable treasures, its films, endure for generations to come. And that means that on shelf after shelf on three floors inside three cold-storage vaults -- where I got a chance to visit recently as part of Road Trip 2012 -- there are more than 150,000 different items.

Of course, with only 76,000 different titles in the archive, that means there are multiple copies of some. For example, Pogorzelski explained, the collection includes several different versions of "Lawrence of Arabia:" one on 70mm film, one on 35mm, and a DVD.

The collection includes film on all kinds of stock -- 70mm and 35mm, of course, but also 16mm. And then there's the highly flammable nitrate stock -- which must be stored extra carefully and maintained scrupulously to make sure it neither catches fire or decomposes (see video below).

For the most part, the films stay in protective cans on the shelves, stashed away and unwatched. There are, of course, some uses: researchers can request a film, for example. And for someone like Pogorzelski, there is a constant temptation to pull a film off the shelves and throw it onto a projector for a couple hours of nostalgia. But even the archive's director can't indulge that impulse. "Everything is archival, and every time you use it, you have to take that seriously," Pogorzelski said. "It could get damaged or broken. The film lover in me would love to do that, but the archivist in me takes that seriously."

That's disappointing, though, for a true film buff like Pogorzelski. "I have a 6-year-old son," he said, "and I would love to show him a print of 'Pinocchio with color that doesn't fade. [But] we're trying to preserve the films for future generations, so it's not worth it."

'Film to Film'
In an increasingly digital age, it may sound positively quaint to think of keeping movies on film stock. After all, a data center could easily store every film in history. But to the people at the Academy, such thinking is sacrilege. That's partly because there is no guarantee that any digital format in existence today will be readable decades from now. And it's partly because old film is known to best maintain the filmmaker's true vision -- the movies' color, sound, and so on.

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That's why the Academy is undertaking a project called Film to Film, the goal of which is to buy as much film stock between now and 2013 as possible and transfer as many recent films as possible onto it.

The idea is to do the project quickly, while film stock is still cheap. But Pogorzelski worries the material will skyrocket in price in the future, so time is definitely of the essence. "That's why working in a film archive is never dull," he said. "Not only do we have to maintain history. But we also have to keep up with the technology being used today so we can take care of movies being made. And that technology is changing very quickly."

The fact that no one seems to know for sure that today's digital storage systems will be accessible in the distant future is striking to Pogorzelski, especially given the fidelity and resilience of film, a 100-year-old medium. "It's ironic," he said, "that the older films in the collection are in some ways more stable and safe than a 2-year-old film."

Indeed, the people at the Academy Film Archive think of the cloud computing rage as nothing short of scary. "You deliver everything from the cloud," Pogorzelski fretted. "From an archival point of view, that's putting a lot of eggs in one basket."

Video tape, home movies
The Academy Film Archive is also home to quite a bit more than just film stock containing decades of the greatest -- and worst -- films in Hollywood's history.

In addition, the collection includes thousands of titles on a wide variety of video tape formats. And it's not just movies. There's also TV shows, as well.

At the same time, there's also a great collection of a couple thousand home movies from some of Hollywood's royalty -- and some true unknowns. This part of the archive is a real treasure and allows visitors to check out anything from footage shot on the set of "Gone With The Wind" to some made during World War II featuring Joe DiMaggio playing in an Army baseball game.

According to special collections curator Lynne Kirste, the home movie section includes anything the Academy could get its hands on involving the film industry, or Southern California. "You get an idea of how people related to each other [on set]," Kirste said. "We [often] don't know who shot it. That's one of the mysteries that come with home movies."