AMPAS: Archive Before it's Too Late

"How many of you have favorite movies or music on 8-track, VHS or Betamax tapes but no longer have a player for these formats? How many of the VHS tapes that contain precious family memories still will be accessible after another 20 or 30 years? How many of your digital photographs are a hard-drive crash away from being lost forever?

The Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences asked similar questions about our film history as an increasing number of features are being photographed, posted and mastered in new and varying digital formats.

Having conducted an extensive study of the topic, the committee has released a 74-page report titled "The Digital Dilemma: Strategic Issues in Archiving and Accessing Digital Motion Picture Materials."

"We are already heading down this digital road ... and there is no long-term guaranteed access to what is being created," said Milt Shefter, who is the project leader on the AMPAS Science and Technology Council's digital motion picture archival project. "We need to understand what the consequences are and start planning now while we still have an analog backup system available." In fact, the council already has identified instances where digital content could not be accessed after only 18 months.

If this issue is not addressed, Shefter said: "From a studio standpoint, if you don't have guaranteed access, you lose the potential future revenue (from a library). From a culture standpoint, you lose the ability to look back at what was being done in a period of time."

Shefter noted that a requirement for any preservation system is that it must meet or exceed the performance characteristic benefits of the current analog photochemical film system. According to the report, these benefits include a worldwide standard; guaranteed long-terms access (100-year minimum) with no loss in quality; the ability to create duplicate masters to fulfill future (and unknown) distribution needs and opportunities; and immunity from escalating financial investment.

"There's nothing in the digital world that comes close to this at this point," he said. "The problem is uniform. Everybody has it across the business spectrum, and there is no solution."

Economics also is outlined in the report, which suggests that the annual cost of preserving film archival master material is $1,059 per title, and the cost of preserving a 4K digital master is $12,514. The report states, "The annual preservation costs for a complete set of digital motion picture source materials also are substantially higher than those for film, and all digital asset storage requires significant and perpetual spending to maintain accessibility."

Said Andy Maltz, director of the Science and Technology Council: "This is one of the most important issues the Technology Council is looking at. It's defining a lot of our work for the next two to three years, or longer."

By Carolyn Giardina, The Hollywood Reporter