Will McKinley, a New York film writer, is dying to get his hands on a copy of "Alias Nick Beal," a 1949 film noir starring Ray Milland as a satanic gangster. For classic film blogger Nora Fiore, the Grail might be "The Wild Party" (1929), the first talkie to star 1920's "It" girl Clara Bow, directed by the pioneering female director Dorothy Arzner. Film critic Leonard Maltin says he'd like to score a viewing of "Hotel Haywire," a 1937 screwball comedy written by the great comic director Preston Sturges.
Produced by Paramount Studios, these are all among 700 titles assumed to be nestled in the vaults of Universal Pictures, which inherited Paramount's 1930s and 1940s film archive from its forebear MCA, which acquired the collection in 1958. They're frustratingly near at hand but out of reach of film fans and cinephiles.
Like most of the other major studios, Universal is grappling with the challenging economics of making more of this hoard accessible to the public on DVD, video on demand or streaming video. Studios have come to realize that there's not only marketable value in the films, but publicity value in performing as responsible stewards of cultural assets.
No studio recognizes these values better than Warner Bros., whose Warner Archives division is the industry gold standard in the care and marketing of the past. The studio sells some 2,300 titles, including TV series, as made-to-order DVDs and offers its own archival video streaming service for a subscription fee of up to $9.99 a month.
The manufacturing-on-demand service, launched in March 2009 with 150 titles, has proved "far more successful than we even dreamed," says George Feltenstein, a veteran home video executive who heads the division. "I thought that all the studios would follow in our footsteps, but nobody has been as comprehensive as we've been."
Other major studios have dipped their toes into this market, if gingerly. Paramount last year stocked a free YouTube channel with 91 of its own titles, mostly post-1949. This month 20th Century Fox announced that as part of its 100th anniversary this year, it would release 100 remastered classic films, including silents, to buy or rent for high-definition streaming — "enough to make any classic film fan weep with joy," McKinley wrote on his blog. Sony last year introduced a free cable channel, get.tv, to screen films from its Columbia Pictures archive, though it's only spottily available and often preempted by cable operators.
Universal offers some manufacture-on-demand titles via Amazon as its Universal Vault Series and announced in May that it would restore 15 of its silent films as part of its 2012 centennial celebration. Curiously, Universal, owned by the cable giant Comcast, is one of the only majors without a dedicated cable channel or Internet streaming service for its archive. Universal spokesperson Cindy Gardner maintains that the studio is working on ways to improve: "Stay tuned."
Film buffs and historians have easier access to more classic films than ever before. But that only whets their appetite for important — but perhaps forgotten — films.
The 1932 Paramount World War I drama "Broken Lullaby," Fiore says, might provoke a reexamination of the career of its director, the master of graceful comedy Ernst Lubitsch. But a version that crept onto YouTube a few years ago was taken down at the insistence of Universal. "I would have to break the law to see that film," laments Fiore, who blogs on classic films in the guise of the Nitrate Diva.
"The studios seem to be sitting on a lot of films, but they're limited by budget and by their projected return on investment," says Alan Rode, a director of the Film Noir Foundation. "But it's not like you open a valve and films come gushing out. If they can't realize a profit on it, they're not going to do it."
Adding to the challenge is that some of the major studios have become subsidiaries of large corporations, and not consistently huge profit centers. For example, Paramount last year contributed about 26% of the $13.8 billion in revenue of its parent, Viacom, but its $205 million in operating profit paled next to the $2.4 billion net income recorded by the whole corporation.
Converting a film title for digital release can be costly, especially under the watchful eye of cinephiles who demand high quality. Some black-and-white titles can be digitized for $40,000 or less, says Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive — with 350,000 titles, the second-largest in the U.S. after only the Library of Congress.
But the price rises exponentially for color, especially for important restoration. UCLA spent about three years and $1.5 million in donated funds on its heroic restoration and digital transfer of the Technicolor classic "The Red Shoes," a 1948 backstage ballet drama revered for its beauty.
That means that when deciding which titles to prepare for digital release, archive managers must walk a tightrope between serving their audience and protecting the bottom line. Some classics are easy calls. "There always will be a place on the retail shelf for 'Casablanca,' 'King Kong' or 'Citizen Kane,'" says Warner's Feltenstein. But finer judgments are required for what Feltenstein calls "the deeper part of the library."
"My job is to monetize that content, make it available to the largest number of people possible and do so profitably," Feltenstein told me. To gauge demand, Feltenstein's staff keeps lines open with film enthusiasts and historians via Facebook, Twitter, a free weekly podcast and other outreach. "They literally ask us, 'What do you want to see?'" Fiore says.
That gives them a window into values that others might miss. Take B-movie westerns made in the 1940s and 1950s that landed in the Warners vault. To Allied Artists and Lorimar, their producers, "these films were worthless and they said it's OK to let them rot," Feltenstein says. Instead, Warner Archives packaged them into DVD collections, "and they've all been nicely profitable."
Feltenstein says Warners is releasing 30 more titles to its manufacturing-on-demand library every month. "It's growing precipitously and there's no end in sight." Universal's Gardner says there's "real momentum" at her studio behind "making our titles more available than ever before."
But there's always more beckoning over the horizon. "The good news is that every studio is actively engaged in taking care of its library," Maltin says. "That's a big improvement over 20 or 25 years ago. But access is the final frontier."
[UPDATE: Nell Minow, whose excellent blog on film can be found at Movie Mom and who is a fan of "Alias Nick Beal," reports that the title character, played by Ray Milland, is more than merely a "satanic gangster" as we describe him above--he's Satan.]
Michael Hiltzik's column appears every Sunday. His new book is "Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex." Read his blog every day at latimes.com/business/hiltzik, reach him at email@example.com, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @hiltzikm on Twitter.