Now for the Sequels: Firm Goes After Film Recycling


Last May, Paramount Pictures ordered a whopping 4,500 prints of its Great Summer Hope, “Mission: Impossible,” in what was to be one of the widest theatrical openings ever. Months later, after a strong theatrical showing, the movie has moved into the video stores, but about 1,500 of those movie prints remain in warehouses across the country.

Weighing about 50 pounds apiece, the prints are made of triacetate film stock and emulsions containing chromium, barium and silver.

How to dispose of such film is a rising problem for the movie industry.


Thanks to the trend toward larger print orders, coupled with an increasing number of releases, there are more surplus prints to be destroyed than ever. In total, the industry generates about 15,500 tons of motion picture film annually, according to executives at Eastman Kodak, the industry’s dominant supplier.

Where do all those used film prints go?

For starters, surplus prints are sent to film exchanges, where they remain for up to a year, under high security to guard against piracy. A portion gets sent to rejuvenation facilities, where the prints are repaired and cleaned up for international distribution. Only when distributors determine there’s no more theatrical life left for an overseas or Academy Award run are prints destroyed.

In the past, many prints ended up in landfills. But these days, the lion’s share end up in Mountain City, Tenn., where Kodak subsidiary FPC runs a salvage operation. According to FPC Chief Executive Ken Knaus, the facility receives 5,000 to 6,000 tons of motion picture film annually. (Another facility in Italy processes much less film.)

At the plant, film is removed from reels, chopped and mutilated beyond any pirater’s recognition, with 25% reused as leader or recycled back into Kodak film. The rest is burned in Kodak’s waste-to-energy steam plant.

A fledgling company based in Los Angeles now wants to take on Kodak, contending that more of the film can be recycled. Called TransFilm, the venture is the result of a decade-plus alliance between Lenny Sarko, head of an Ohio-based engineering company dedicated to environmental solutions, and Larry Zide, president of FilmTreat West, a Sun Valley rejuvenation firm. Zide was looking for a way to reuse film discards; Sarko, an environmentally sound and economical recycling method.

“My main lot in life is to develop recycling systems,” Sarko says.

The company wants to change the way the industry disposes of unwanted prints.

“We are the little guys on the block. We know we are going to get resistance from the big guys,” Zide says. “It’s going to be war.”

Under TransFilm’s proposed system, distributors will have surplus prints sent directly from film exchanges to a Glendale facility operated by National Film Service, a shipping and transportation company with a network of 33 exchanges across the country.

“National’s involvement is more as a conduit,” says NFS President Terry Kierzek.

Recycling operations are to commence in January. According to Sarko, there are two key elements to his process. One is the method of removing the emulsions, which are the chemicals used to create the motion picture images and soundtrack.

“Turns out the main problem with film recycling is what they call emulsions, which is heavy metal,” Sarko says.

The other key is how the base film stock is recycled. Once the emulsions are removed, Sarko plans to reuse the stock to fashion film reels and cores.

“People in the past have tended to reapproach it as stock, which presents a lot of problems,” he says. “You need super high purity on stock film, and it’s really not cost-effective to get it. Cores and reels are a lot easier because they require less. You don’t need to get it to the last micron of purity.”

Harry Heuer, worldwide director of health, safety and environment for Kodak’s Professional Motion Imaging division, concedes that recycling film back to film is problematic, for a variety of technical and economic reasons.

“Unfortunately, at this point in time most of it is waste to energy. We’d very much like to get the numbers higher, but we just can’t do it right now,” says Heuer, who ran the FPC Tennessee plant for several years.

“Even with all the things that we are doing, there’s a lot more left than we have use for.”

Heuer says nascent recycling efforts have been hampered by an industrywide movement from triacetate to polyester stock, because demand, and recycling methods, vary depending on the type of stock.

“The challenge to FPC and of course to Kodak is to look at recycling as a ladder with the first rung alternative energy, the second rung leader and magnetic stripe, the third rung fiber manufacture, and the fourth rung of the ladder might be to reuse it to make more film--so there are different levels,” he says. “We’re trying our darndest to get as much material to the highest rung of the ladder. I think we’ve got a very nice program overall.”

Sarko contends that the emulsions used on motion picture film are hazardous, and burning them off in a waste-to-energy program does not fully eliminate the toxins.

“There’s still going to be a problem,” he says.

Kodak, however, flatly denies that motion picture film is hazardous. “Our films are in fact not toxic,” Heuer says. “It’s not considered a hazardous waste.”

A spokesperson for the EPA confirms that motion picture film is not considered hazardous.

That may be, Sarko responds, but the material has toxic characteristics and, according to his tests, exceeds EPA standards.

Whether or not the material is hazardous, emulsions do cause problems when it comes to disposal.

“We’ve been looking for recycling places that take polyester film,” says Howard Welinsky, senior vice president of administration for Warner Bros. Distribution, “and we’re having difficulty with recycling because of some of the chemicals on film.”

Warner Bros. was investigating alternatives as a way of cutting back on shipping charges to Mountain City. Even though disposal through FPC is free to studios, provided distributors use Kodak film, they must still pay shipping costs from the exchange. And at roughly 50 pounds per print and an average print run between 2,000 to 2,500, freight charges quickly add up.

“I figure we have 1 million pounds of film we’re sending in that direction, and probably a little less gets sent for international,” Welinsky says.

Here’s where the NFS alliance pays off, according to Kierzek. By sending prints in bulk from its 33 exchanges, shipping costs will decrease to pennies per pound.

“What it comes down to is transportation costs,” Kierzek says.

Though still hammering out fee structures, Zide estimates the recycling charge will run “somewhere between $10 to $12 per print.” He maintains that when the low shipping charge is added in, the costs will be significantly lower than sending prints to Tennessee for junking.

Some industry observers forecast decreasing demand for rejuvenation services--like those offered by FilmTreat--as more studios opt to create more initial prints for international distribution instead of rejuvenating existing ones.

“Let’s face it: We’re in business to make money,” Zide said. “If anyone tells you they’re doing something for the environment, they’re lying. If you can do one and make money at the same time, why not?”

Whatever the motivation, the idea is a good one, according to Welinsky.

“With the transportation costs and expenses, it is costly the way it is done now,” he says. “It’s like anything else--in concept it makes a lot of sense, but it’s subject to it working.”