It was a bit of a risk four years ago when American Movie Classics decided to launch an annual movie festival to raise funds for film preservation.
AMC president Kate McEnroe recalls that the general consensus at the cable network was: "This is going to be some education process. I don't think people are really aware of how difficult the restoration process is and how costly it is."
During the first festival, AMC received some hate mail from viewers who were annoyed with the pleas and video spots asking for money. "People became more accessible and more concerned by the second one," McEnroe reports. "By the third one and then last year's, there was an outcry [of support]."
Over the last four years, AMC has raised $1.3 million. The Film Foundation, an organization of filmmakers founded by director Martin Scorsese in 1990, works with the studios and distributes the moneys raised to its six-member archives: the George Eastman House, the Museum of Modern Art Film Department, National Center for Film and Video Preservation at the American Film Institute, UCLA Film and Television Archive, the Library of Congress Motion Picture Division and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Film Archive.
AMC hopes to raise $500,000 with its fifth annual festival, which kicks off tonight at 9 with the 1946 Burt Lancaster classic "The Killers." The festival, which continues through Sunday, highlights the film noir genre and the works of Alfred Hitchcock. Also featured is a special taped at a film noir themed gala last week in Los Angeles, spotlighting Carly Simon singing selections from her new "Film Noir" album.
AMC plans its festivals with Scorsese, whose landmark 1976 drama, "Taxi Driver," was recently restored. The director will introduce several of the films he chose for the event.
Scorsese says he's noticed a change in the public's awareness of the need of preservation since the festivals began. "There is not only a greater awareness, but there's more of an expectation now to see restored films, whether they are restored with missing sequences placed back or cleaned up with new negatives and new sound tracks created, so you can get the best possible image.
"Sometimes, when you look at these old restored films from the early '30s, depending on the condition of the elements, they look as if they were shot yesterday," Scorsese adds.
"It's fascinating. It's a matter of understanding that they are seeing the original film, which is very different from the copies you saw on TV."
Scorsese recalls watching movies on TV as far back as 1948 in less than ideal conditions: "[I saw] poor copies, probably dupes, and yet somehow over the years, some of the power of those films stayed with me. Can you imagine if we reacted to such extraordinary bad presentations the impact it might be having on people who see possibly some of the better and best presentations of films over the years?"
Still, thousands and thousands of films have been lost. More than half of the 21,000 shorts and full-length features made on the highly flammable and corrosive nitrate stock before 1950 are gone. Only about 10% of the movies produced in the U.S. before 1929 still survive. Even films made between 1950 and 1975 on Eastmancolor stock are fading away.
The Library of Congress estimates that it costs between $10,000 and $50,000 to preserve and restore a black-and-white film and $30,000 to $300,000 for a color one.
This year's AMC festival features several restored classics, including the 1947 film noir "Out of the Past" and the Hitchcock greats "Rebecca," "Notorious," "Suspicion," "Spellbound," "The Paradine Case" and "Vertigo."
Scorsese singles out the 1947 film noir "I Walk Alone," with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster as one of the festival's highlights.
"I think it's underrated," he says. "What I like about the film is that it was one of the first pictures to show the transition between the underworld, prewar to postwar, which became high profile respectable like big business. It reflects society at that time.'
Scorsese screens "Out of the Past," which made Robert Mitchum a star, at least twice a year. "If you asked me what the plot is now, I can't tell you," he acknowledges. "But I watch it every four or five months and it's like I'm watching a new film every time."
Both "Out of the Past" and "Suspicion" were restored by the Library of Congress. Though the Library has the original negative for the 1941 "Suspicion," 60 feet of sound was lost.
"It was a much bigger job than we thought originally," says David Francis, chief of motion picture broadcast and sound division of the Library of Congress.
Thanks to AMC and the Film Foundation, the Library of Congress has received between $25,000 and $40,000 a year, "which doesn't sound like a lot of money, but I'm afraid with the present resources available for film preservation, it's really a significant sum."
With AMC money, the Library of Congress restored the 1930 Oscar-winner "All Quiet on the Western Front," which took three years and cost nearly $80,000.
"We had to work from four or five different copies," Francis says. "What we try to do when we restore is not try to get back to the version the director would have liked, we're trying to get back to the version that was first seen by the public."
More importantly, Francis adds, "is that we're the only archive who has their own restoration lab. We have used some of the money to pay the salary of someone to do restoration because our staff had gotten so small. We had lost so many people from downsizing. It's grants like the one we have received from AMC which have enabled us to keep on people we would have otherwise have lost. It's been incredibly valuable."
Francis says he notices the shift in the public's awareness of film preservation because "the industry itself is actually talking about restoration and using restoration [as a tool] for selling classic films like 'Lawrence of Arabia.' Once I feel the industry takes the work of the film archivist into the commercial arena, it shows that everyone is getting aware of the importance of film preservation."
The majority of the studios now have preservation policies in place. Still, Scorsese acknowledges, "if we start now to try to restore everything, we won't get it. So we will just have to continue going as much as possible title by title in the vaults with the archives and the studios to have a concentrated effort to save everything they can."