PRINT October 2015

Nicola Mazzanti

Inspection of a 35-mm film at the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique, Brussels, 2010. Photo: Xavier Harcq.

FROM PHOTOGRAPHY to cinematography, electronic music to analog video, the list of last century’s “new” technologies adopted by artists in their creative practices is long. If the works of art made possible, and informed by, such technological advances have in turn helped shape the future of these technologies (and often shaped our lives), they are nonetheless indissolubly bound to the technologies they employ. The very existence of such works, and the possibility of their being experienced in the future in the manner in which they were intended to be experienced, depends on the permanence of their enabling technology. As particular technologies become obsolete, and eventually unavailable altogether, the works that took them as their medium suffer a similar fate: They become inaccessible—except, perhaps, in facsimile versions that simulate their original form—or they are simply lost.

Technologies and media based on reproduction and those in which the apparatus plays a defining role are, obviously, most at risk of obsolescence and disappearance. (Manufacturers could stop making paints and not a single painting would be at risk, but when there are no longer organs, there will no longer be organ music.) Unfortunately, over the past few decades, most (if not all) of the new technologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have either disappeared completely (e.g., analog video) or morphed into something dramatically different (e.g., electronic music). As a consequence, curators and archivists the world over are confronted on a daily basis with works that have become technological orphans.

The latest casualty to date: analog cinema, whose demise—little more than a century after its birth—is now being widely publicized, in part thanks to the concerned voices of many filmmakers. The “end of celluloid,” as the headlines would have it,1 may have come faster than expected, but it did not come as a surprise, rather as the culmination of a process long in motion. Film technology had been shifting from analog to digital for quite some time: Sound editing and mixing had been digital for decades. Image postproduction (editing, color correction, optical effects) for cinema had moved almost exclusively to digital, a process that accelerated in 1998, when, for the first time, the entire postproduction work on a feature film was undertaken digitally (in Denmark, of all places). Slowly but steadily, digital cameras replaced analog ones in the making of both TV series and movies.

While the whole industrial infrastructure supporting analog-film technology was thus being progressively eroded, the last stand for 35-mm cinema remained the theaters in which movies continued to be projected on film, which translated into millions and millions of feet of film stock to be manufactured, sold, printed, processed, and shipped each year. This, in turn, kept the whole machine going—and film alive. It is important to understand that in this transitional phase, although the carrier was in fact film, the images and sound of (most) cinematographic works were already being designed and created digitally.

At the same time, digital projection was advancing, first lurking in the shadows, then walking erect, and finally charging, with astonishing speed, to wipe out film projectors around the world. When this happened, when theatrical distribution and exhibition became almost exclusively digital, what was left of the already-disintegrating industrial support network for analog-film technology was simply swept away.

Digital projection did not kill film projection. It killed film.

THE JURY IS STILL OUT as to whether analog cinematography can survive in some sort of low-output, high-cost niche, but one thing is clear: From a systemic standpoint, the era of analog cinematography is over. Film stock is still produced, but for how long? Film manufacturing is a costly business and so hugely complex (the chemistry of color cinematography is as bewildering as the hallucinations of a mad scientist on acid) that it’s hard to imagine how it could survive on a boutique scale, although we can hope—and hope we do.

Agfa, which began manufacturing motion-picture film in 1903, had largely phased itself out of the business by 2013, so when Fuji announced that year that it would stop making motion-picture film—except for one stock dedicated to long-term conservation (they might be on to something there!)—Kodak was the last big player standing. Thus we must now place all our bets on one horse, and rumors about Kodak’s future have been unsettling. The company, which came out of bankruptcy in 2013, has discontinued a number of film stocks (some of which are dear to filmmakers and essential for the restoration of most underground and experimental works), but the catalogue of stocks is still long. In 2013, though, news that Kodak would stop in-house production of cellulose acetate (one of two plastic materials used as the film substrate on which light-sensitive emulsion is spread) sent shock waves through the film world. But earlier this year, just when it seemed Kodak might stop manufacturing film altogether, came the announcement of a deal between the company and the major Hollywood studios that would keep film production alive. Details of the agreement are sketchy and the ultimate effectiveness and longevity of the initiative remains unclear, but still, hopes have risen.

At the same time, one must acknowledge that analog-film technology is a complex environment that starts with a camera and ends with a projector, and though film is obviously the foundational element of this superstructure, it is hardly the only one. Disturbingly, the whole system has fallen apart. Film-screening facilities are now rare; film cameras and projectors are not produced anymore (in fact, projectors can be kept in functioning order only by our cannibalizing other projectors for spare parts); film-processing laboratories are falling out of operation faster than autumn leaves in a storm; and the whole know-how behind film technology is quickly disappearing.

Film undergoing digitization, Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique, Brussels, 2013. Photo: Marie-Françoise Plissart.

GIVEN THESE REALITIES, those who care (a growing coterie of archivists, curators, filmmakers, moviegoers, and industry visionaries) are faced with daunting new challenges with respect to displaying and preserving photochemical films in an environment that is almost completely digital. But an even greater crisis has precipitously emerged: the urgent task of preserving wholly digital (or “digital born”) works—which is to say, nearly 100 percent of current production—the life expectancy of which, if no action is taken, will be counted in years, not decades, and certainly not centuries.

The sheer scale of the problem is as overwhelming as it is underestimated or even unrecognized. In 2014, roughly five thousand feature-length fiction films were released by just the world’s five largest regional producers (Europe, the US, India, China, and Japan)—not to mention the countless shorts, documentaries, commercials, TV series, and TV movies made that year. No official comprehensive figures exist for analog collections held by archives around the world. Major studios in Europe and the US are responsible for collections that easily comprise thousands of titles each. Large national film archives’ holdings are counted in millions of cans. A medium-size European national film archive is responsible for some twenty to thirty thousand titles (fiction and nonfiction, of varying lengths). A study published in 2012 by the European Commission calculated that film collections in European institutions contain more than a million hours of footage.2 To put in perspective the magnitude of the task of digitizing this cultural heritage, the Association des Cinémathèques Européennes estimates that proper digital masters (i.e., full-fledged restorations or high-quality digital transfers) exist for only 2 percent of their member archives’ analog-film collections.

The European Commission study (on which I worked), with its statistics, projections of costs, and policy recommendations, remains one of the only efforts to analyze the systemic issues involved in conserving digital-born works and ensuring accessibility to analog films in the long term. (Another precious source of information on conservation issues is the pair of extensively researched documents produced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, commonly referred to as The Digital Dilemma 1 and 2 [2007 and 2012, respectively].3) The European Commission report, of course, concerned only European film production and archives, but the figures in the US are probably similar, while the situation in other parts of the world is no doubt worse, due to lack of funding, inadequate technical know-how, and the absence of public or private bodies responsible for the conservation of film works.

If the scale of the problem is overwhelming, the economics of facing the issues head-on are intimidating. On average, the cost of a full-fledged restoration of a feature film can easily reach $100,000, although with the mass-digitization procedures typically used for documentaries and newsreels, the cost can drop to one-fiftieth of that figure. Digital conservation, too, is costly: The above mentioned EC study states that archiving Europe’s annual film production plus conserving all the European films ever made (after they are digitized) would cost about $160 million per annum. This figure sounds huge, until one realizes that it is roughly equivalent to the yearly budget of just one major opera house in Europe. In its 2007 study, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences estimated that the cost per annum of preserving an archival film master (of an average-length feature film) was about $1,000, as opposed to $12,500 per year for a 4K digital master. To make matters worse, the preservation of a feature’s source material (camera originals, outtakes, B rolls, audiotapes and audio files, and so on) would add about $500 to the annual cost for an analog film, and a jaw-dropping $208,000 for a 4K digital work.4 (To put that exponentially increased expense in perspective, it would require up to half a million DVDs just to hold all of the data generated by the digital cameras involved in the shooting of one big-budget Hollywood feature.5)

The cost of inaction is perhaps even more frightening. Leaving aside the question of lost revenues (which stand to be significant, as there is a market for “old films”), the consequences of allowing our film heritage to disappear down a cultural black hole are unimaginable. Let’s not forget that “film heritage” is not a synonym for “feature-length fiction film” but includes any piece of film that has been or will ever be produced—everything from the actualités of the brothers Lumière to Warner Bros. musicals to the underground films of the Kuchar brothers, plus newsreels, industrial films, commercials, home movies, ethnographic documentation, and on and on.

UNLIKE DIGITAL FORMATS, analog film is a known entity to archivists, who, over the past century, have learned how to deal with it. Preserving photochemical film is a fairly simple affair: Keep temperature and relative humidity of the storage vaults very low, and film will last for centuries. (A film conserved at 23°F with no more than 30 percent relative humidity can be expected to last up to two thousand years—in theory, of course, and assuming that the film is in perfect condition, which is never the case. But I can live with five hundred years!) Simple, but not cheap. To keep thousands of square feet of storage space at 23°F with 30 percent relative humidity entails costly equipment and hefty energy bills. As a result, analog-film conservation is patchy at best: Large and wealthy institutions and movie studios in the richest nations are now reasonably well equipped (although one must note that in most cases facilities were upgraded fairly recently and the years of insufficient care afforded the works conserved therein will inevitably shorten their life expectancy). Slowly but steadily, public institutions and commercial entities around the world are following suit, and many countries that were ill- or unequipped are now building proper vaults (and, sometimes, establishing institutions charged with film preservation where they did not formerly exist). But if significant strides are being made in Asia, they are not in Africa, which, after having being deprived of all the images produced in colonial times (as they are held in European countries), risks losing everything its nations have produced since independence.

Largely born in the 1930s in response to the first mass extinction in cinema history, when most silent films were destroyed because sound technology had made them obsolete and seemingly worthless commercially (the US Library of Congress estimates that only 20 percent of American silent films have survived intact, and surely the figures are far more dire elsewhere), film archiving now faces another crisis, similar in scale: Today’s inaction ensures the loss of countless digital-born works and only further reduces our ability to show analog films in an environment that has become all but fully digital.

Like traditional analog-film preservation, long-term digital preservation is (if on an order of magnitude more greatly) dependent on regular, ever-increasing funding. If a major economic crisis should ever require budgets at an analog-film archive to plummet, spending reductions might be achieved by raising the average temperature in the vaults. (Energy costs are a substantial item in a traditional film archive’s budget.) Raising the average temperature from, say, 40°F to 50°F would have long-term effects on the life expectancy of the collection, perhaps reducing it by few decades, but at the end of the downturn, a collection would still be there. Unfortunately, the “freeze and forget” approach that has long governed analog-film preservation doesn’t work for digital preservation. On the contrary, digital preservation requires constant, regular migrations from one storage medium to another: Data tapes and hard disks are relatively short-lived, and the technologies that support them evolve constantly and obsolesce; operating systems and file formats change with predictable regularity—and the storage system must adapt. When a financial crisis leads to draconian budgetary cuts to a digital repository, migration, which should take place every five years, will be put off and hundreds or thousands of files will be lost, or air-conditioning in the server rooms will be turned off and disks holding precious archives fried.

Disquietingly, at precisely the moment the world’s film archives need increased funding to optimize the preservation of their analog collections, build from scratch digital-preservation systems, digitize their analog holdings, and develop digital formats to facilitate access to their collections, the combined effects of the financial crisis and reduced government budgets for culture—and reduced investment in the private sector in so-called long-tail assets—have colluded to create an environment in which funding for preservation is, to the contrary, decreasing.

Film canisters damaged due to improper storage, their contents awaiting restoration, Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique, Brussels, 2013. Photo: Jimmy Kets.

THE ATTENTIVE and intelligent reader might easily guess the current status of digital-cinema preservation around the world: No significant funding is available anywhere to support digital preservation or the digitization of analog collections, certainly none commensurate to the task at a systemic level (although a scattering of individual institutions and studios may be well equipped). There is almost a complete lack of research and development in the field (again, no funding). Institutions and the commercial sector struggle with the lack of skilled staff (no serious training is available virtually anywhere). Titanic-size national archives are notoriously slow at adapting to new environments, and, in most cases, plan a lot but do little.

In short, most players don’t have a plan in place yet, and among those who do, few have the resources to implement it. The public cultural sector and the cinema industry worldwide are rushing toward an extremely dangerous future in which digital-born works—be they movies, television shows, or artists’ videos—are doomed to disappear forever. Needless to say, the danger of loss is far from being equally distributed. Ten percent loss on the yearly output of developed production environments like the US and Europe is a reasonable guess, and this alone would amount to five hundred feature films (and probably ten times more shorts and documentaries) per year. When it comes to Africa, Asia, and South America, we have to assume the percentages will be significantly higher. I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers approached silent-era figures, meaning a loss of 80 percent both of new productions and of our recent digital-film heritage—a body count of several thousand titles per year. Furthermore, the losses, even within the borders of wealthy geopolitical regions, will not be evenly spread. Large studios’ productions, especially summer blockbusters and other popular releases will most likely survive, thanks to their profitability. But what else? I wouldn’t bet on anything independently produced or on shorts, documentaries, artists’ works, experimental films and videos—in fact, what is really worth watching is precisely what is most at risk. My advice? Rush to your local museums and repertory theaters and watch anything that’s worth a farthing: Most likely, this is your last chance!

Imagine if every single film produced before the turn of the millennium were in need of digitization or restoration (or both). Sadly, that is very close to the truth. Now is the time to sound the alarm. Lack of awareness leads to lack of funding, which in turn prevents institutions from successfully adapting and implementing a new set of priorities. The private sector, too, must be awakened to the steep costs of doing nothing, out of understandable but shortsighted concern for immediate rather than long-term returns.

The challenge that lies before us is threefold: We must simultaneously expand our (increasingly valuable) analog collections and do a better job of preserving their contents; we must digitize every analog film from the past; and we must provide for the long-term digital preservation of all works currently being produced. These are the challenges we face with the advent of digital cinema. It’s time we wake up to this reality and act—the faster the better.

The task is indeed herculean. But the alternative to bold action is a world in which we might not wish to live—a world in which we cannot show or watch any of the films we once loved, any of the moving-image works that we made, and that made us. Take your pick. A title. Any title. It’s gone.

Unless . . .

Nicola Mazzanti is the director of the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique in Brussels and president of the Association des Cinémathèques Européennes.


1. Celluloid (highly inflammable cellulose nitrate stock) was, in fact, replaced by acetate stock in the early 1950s, but the word has survived as a convenient metonym for “photochemical film.”

2. Nicola Mazzanti, ed., Challenges of the Digital Era for Film Heritage Institutions (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2012). A version is available at

3. The Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Digital Dilemma: Strategic Issues in Archiving and Accessing Digital Motion Picture Materials (Los Angeles: Academy Imprints, 2007), and The Digital Dilemma 2: Perspectives from Independent Filmmakers, Documentarians and Nonprofit Audiovisual Archives (Los Angeles: Academy Imprints, 2012). These invaluable documents are available at

4. The Digital Dilemma (2007), 44. It should be noted that the report’s past estimates for digital storage were controversial when they were published in 2007, and in the intervening years (eons in the world of information technology) digital-storage costs have decreased significantly, though the quantity of data generated per title is ever increasing.

5. Ibid., 1, 13.