Archiving Motion Pictures: Reconsidering Motion Picture Preservation In the Evolving Digital Age

I recognize the importance of preserving motion pictures for a wide range of purposes.

But the capture of preservation-worthy motion pictures is a complex task. The time, money and staff required to preserve (including maintaining the content on a stable media and creating metadata so that it can be accessed) are already overwhelming tasks for all but a few institutions. In part, this is because the properties and characteristics of motion pictures are complex and significantly different from other resources.

In short, we know that centralized film preservation is already a daunting task.

And here's the bad news, the current strategies for archiving motion pictures are about to be overwhelmed by a flood of new content.

According to the 2011 Visual Networking Index Forecast from Cisco, by 2016 more than 3 trillion minutes (or around 5 million years) of video media will cross the internet each month.

No institution has the resources to curate and preserve the amounts of audiovisual material that have been unleashed by the democratization of access to the tools of motion picture production in the 21st century.

I realize that not every clip on YouTube will one day deserve a spot in a museum. But who is to decide what content gets preserved?

Archivists today are still arguing the relative merits of preservation on film versus preservation as digital information. But with millions of hours of new films being produced and shared online - such arguments are rapidly becoming all-but irrelevant.

Motion pictures that are preserved on film are certainly precious artifacts - but how will they be accessible to the public?

Is it necessary to read Shakespeare from the original folio - or is a copy good enough?

While the original artifact has great value - isn't access (even if the copy is only a version of the original) where the culture benefits?

To me, the most pressing questions seem to be: How will future users learn about and gain access to prior content?

Even if one percent of all the films created each day in the 21st century could be stored in traditional archives, technological obsolescence (what format and how would the meta-data be encoded and searched?) would remain a huge impediment.

With all the motion picture content being produced today, conversations about how to maintain operationally and economically sustainable methods for long-term access to motion pictures (e.g., digitally reformatting films that were shot on film, how to select films for inclusion in an archive, how to search for films online, how to monetize motion picture data retrieval, etc.) must be reframed.

Motion picture preservation in the evolving digital infrastructure requires new strategies.

While a very small percentage of our motion picture history can be maintained on physical strips of film, the future of motion picture preservation cannot be on film.

And - while I appreciate the aesthetic experience of watching a 35mm projected image - that experience will soon be something that is shared only in a museum, as a special event at a theater that has retained historical equipment, or in a very rich collector's house.

More importantly, motion picture preservation cannot be left to a few experts. With the volume of content that is being produced today, only a diverse and widely dispersed network of individuals and organizations will be capable of preserving the cultural heritage of motion pictures.

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Randy Finch's Film Blog:

Thoughts from a film producer about making and distributing films.