Will U.S. Act to Preserve the Movies It Treasures? : NEWS ANALYSIS

Times Staff Writer

Despite its lofty name, despite all the proclamations to the contrary, the National Film Preservation Board that Congress created last year is not about film preservation. At least not yet.

The board’s greatest claim to fame is its role in choosing 25 films annually over the next three years to be designated as “national treasures.”

What does this mean? Not much.

The 25 films chosen Tuesday--ranging from “Citizen Kane” to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"--get to carry a seal designating them as national treasures.

And under the 1988 law establishing the board, the chosen films must be labeled if they are colorized, chopped up for TV airing, or otherwise “materially altered.” Even many supporters of the board acknowledge that these labeling requirements don’t mean much: Ted Turner, for example, already proudly labels the films he colorizes.

Members of the board, as well as Librarian of Congress James Billington, who has the final say over the list of national treasures, tend to justify the board’s existence by arguing that all the media attention lavished on the release of their list will spark renewed public interest in preserving and restoring America’s movies.


“One of the big reasons I’m so delighted by all this public relations is that it brings (the need for preservation) to the attention of the public,” said Fay Kanin, who represents the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on the film preservation board.

But preservation efforts in this country need more than public relations. They need money, something that the film board does not have much of. Turner’s preservation efforts on his library of 3,700 feature films, for example, dwarf any preservation work that the Film Preservation Board could ever accomplish with its $250,000 a year budget.

The only immediate preservation plan the board has is to persuade owners of 23 films named Tuesday to donate archival prints to the Library of Congress, said Kanin, who serves as the board’s chairman. The library currently owns prints of only two of the chosen films, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Casablanca.”

But the need to restore the nation’s other aging movies and newsreels is at a critical stage, said Robert Rosen, a member of the board and the director of UCLA’s film and TV archives, one of the nation’s major preservation houses.

“We are confronting a major crisis in the area of film preservation,” said Rosen. “All of the films made before 1950 were made on film stock that is chemically unstable and eventually will turn to dust.” More than half of those films, he added, don’t exist anymore.

Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, director of the National Center for Film and Video Preservation at the American Film Institute, said that more than 100 million feet of film will be lost over the next 20 years if they are not restored. That effort, said Haizlip, will cost $300 million. Her center is putting together a plan to raise $15 million a year over the next 20 years, two-thirds of which she hopes will come from Congress.

So far, the government’s involvement in film preservation has been minimal. The major source of public funding, a National Endowment of the Arts grant administered by the AFI center, has contributed only $4.4 million over the past 10 years. Most of those grants have gone to such major preservation centers as UCLA and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The Library of Congress received federal funding of $375,000 last year for preservation work.

But most of the remaining funding for these centers must be raised privately. “It is a hard fact,” said Rosen, “that no number of benefits and individual fund-raising will come close to what is needed.”

The studios also restore many of their own films. But they generally do not disclose the extent of their efforts, said Haizlip, except when a major work is restored and re-released--as Columbia’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and Turner’s “Gone With the Wind” were recently.

To restore the nation’s deteriorating film stock, most preservationists agree that congressional funding is essential. “Eventually there’s going to have to be some appeal to the public,” said Kanin.

Whether the National Film Preservation Board will ever become the vehicle for that funding remains to be seen. Kanin said the board has no immediate plans to seek funding for preservation efforts.

The creation of the board originally grew out of the emotional legislative battle over colorization, not concern for preserving aging film stocks. Hollywood’s creative community, led by the Directors Guild of America, had sought to protect films from what they claimed was “defacement"--colorization, editing for TV viewing and the like.

The film board, with its labeling requirements and a cap on the list of 25 films a year, was the watered-down proposal that the directors finally agreed to in their eagerness to demonstrate progress in their fight.

In fact, though, the board’s primary work--naming 25 films to the national registry each year--could prove a boon to the directors’ foes, the companies that colorize and edit their movies. Just picture Turner’s colorized “Casablanca” sitting on video store shelves, bearing a gold seal as a national treasure.

“To the extent that someone has respect for and thinks that something you own is quality, and they publicize that fact, it adds value to what you have,” said Roger L. Mayer, president of Turner Entertainment Co.

Turner owns seven of the films on Tuesday’s list, and has already colorized two of them--"Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon.” Compared to the value of being named owner of half a dozen national treasures, Mayer counts the labeling requirement as “a slight negative.”

The National Film Preservation Board won’t prevent companies like Turner from colorizing or severely editing films. And by itself it won’t mean that any more movies will be preserved and restored.

But if the board proves that it can do more than talk to TV cameras about preservation, it could spawn a whole new movement to save an endangered piece of this country’s culture.

“If, by this (list of 25) this panel can dramatize the need for preservation, by giving people a sense of the tragedy of what might of been lost, it’s worthwhile,” said Rosen. “If it’s just a lot of hype about great movies and a lot of nostalgia, then we’re wasting our time.”