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André Habib
, 
Michel Marie

Communities of Interest Unite to Save Films1

Howard Besser

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  • 1 Acknowledgements: former students Lucas Hilderbrand (bootleg aesthetics), Snowden Becker (Home Movi (...)

1Across the world, film archives have done a good job in saving their national patrimony. But historically, most film archives have focused their attention on saving feature-length narrative films. The types of films that have been less widely distributed (home movies, shorts, experimental films, documentaries, educational films, industrial films, etc.) have been a lower priority for most film archives, and some of these categories of film fall completely out of scope of the collecting policies of many archives.

2Around the end of the 20th century, we began to see communities of interest organize to preserve these neglected or “orphan” films. Studying the work of these communities as well as making contact and collaborating with them can be very useful for conventional film archives. These communities’ choice of neglected films points out areas of patrimony that film archives may have missed collecting ; their methods of publicity around the type of films they highlight offers examples for archives on how to bring audience attention to their own set of older films ; and their use of newer technologies for communications and distribution demonstrates ways in which archives can employ technologies to increase their impact by providing more access to the material in their collection, and by collaborating with other entities.

3In this paper, we will identify a number of these communities of interest, and show how they have come together to try to save a particular set of films and make them more widely available. In many ways, these are modern versions of the ciné-clubs of the 1960s. And, as happened in the earlier ciné-clubs, many in these communities eventually decided to make films themselves (though most have created assemblage-type films, primarily using editing skills rather than other types of cinematographic skills).

Home Movie Day

4Home Movie Day (HMD) is an annual event that celebrates home movies with public screenings and advice on reformatting and preservation. Envisioned by four young film archivists as a way to bring public attention to home movies in 2002, the first HMD was held simultaneously in several North American cities in August 2003. Since then it has grown exponentially, with simultaneous events each October in approximately sixty cities around the world.

5HMD has been extremely effective at centering public attention on the cultural value of home movies. Well-placed publicity brings people to HMD for a variety of reasons, ranging from people wanting to view their own home movies when they don’t have a projector, to people wanting advice on care and maintenance of their own home movies, to people interested in watching the home movies of others. Archivists and film lab technicians have become engaged, acting as volunteers inspecting and splicing the films that people bring in to view, and offering advice on preservation and lab work.

6Publicity for HMD is both local and international. The HMD website2 is used to promote HMD activities, and even links to a Google map that displays HMD locations (Fig. 1). In 2005, the HMD founders established the Center for Home Movies3 as a tax-exempt organization to promote home movie dissemination, preservation, and research. The Center (with office space at the Library of Congress National Audiovisual Conservation Center) has compiled selections of home movies to circulate in various forms, including a DVD released in 2007 entitled, Living Room Cinema: Films from Home Movie Day, Vol. 1 (Fig. 2), and a compilation of sixteen home and amateur films entitled, Amateur Night: Home Movies from American Archives, released in 2011. The Center has also worked to have two home movies named to the highly competitive US National Film Registry, and has worked with several organization to reconstitute and to strike preservation prints of a variety of home movies.

Figure 1. Home Movie Day Locations as they appear on Google Map.

Figure 1. Home Movie Day Locations as they appear on Google Map.

Figure 2. Room Cinema: Films from Home Movie Day, Vol. 1 (2007)

Figure 2. Room Cinema: Films from Home Movie Day, Vol. 1 (2007)

7HMD has partnered with conventional archives and other cultural institutions. At some HMD locations an archive will offer to reformat a person’s home movie onto a format that they can play at home (such as DVD) in exchange for the original material being given to the archive. HMD has also received endorsements from individuals associated with film preservation, such as Martin Scorsese:

Saving our film heritage should not be limited only to commercially produced films. Home movies do not just capture the important private moments of our family’s lives, but they are historical and cultural documents as well. Consider Abraham Zapruder’s 8 mm film that recorded the assassination of President Kennedy or Nickolas Muray’s famously vibrant color footage of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera shot with his 16 mm camera. Imagine how different our view of history would be without these precious films. Home Movie Day is a celebration of these films and the people who shot them. I urge anyone with an interest in learning more about how to care for and preserve their own personal memories to join in the festivities being offered in their community.4

8From the very beginning, HMD has relied upon the Internet as a tool for community building. The four HMD founders live in different parts of the US, and developed their vision through email exchange. Their website is a key tool for disseminating information and for getting the public more involved in HMD. In addition to indices that help an individual locate the nearest HMD event, their website includes a section of valuable information on reformatting for preservation and access and a webography of sites with important information on film preservation.5 The Center for Home Movies and related individuals have also created video public service announcements, trailers, and documentaries that they have posted on YouTube for broader circulation.6

Social Networking around “Quality” Films

  • 7 The Auteurs (http://theauteurs.com) was replaced by Mubi, online: <http://mubi.com in 2010 (accesse (...)

9The Auteurs7 is a social networking site built around common interest in quality films. Their website employs descriptive terms like “classic masterpieces,” “wonderful new cinema,” “visionary” films, etc. The website provides both streaming access to films and ways for its community of users to interact about these films. This includes forums where viewers engage in online discussions about the films, places where members can post their preferences (playlists), and other forms of sharing, networking, commenting, and viewing.

  • 8 Eric Kohn, “Saving the Cinema: The Auteurs as a Case Study for Digital Distribution,” course paper (...)

10Launched in November 2008, within a year it had 150,000 registered users, and 1.5 million unique visitors had reviewed 15,000 films and made 200,000 forum posts8. There were 500,000 visits just on the month of October 2009. By the end of 2009 the site made over 750 films available from several different collections. Some films streamed at $5 rentals, and some were provided for no cost at all.

  • 9 Eric Kohn, “Partners in Cinema,” Movie Maker, Vol. 16, No. 82, Summer 2009, p. 26.

11Film archivists may bristle at the low-bandwidth streaming versions of films that are seen by site members, but according to founder Efe Cakarel, a key goal of this site is to broaden demand for theatrical distribution of these films. “These films are meant to be watched on the big screen […] if there’s more awareness, there are more theatrical opportunities.”9 His rationale is that, if enough people show interest in these films, distributors will take note of the wide audience appeal and will then risk striking distribution prints and circulating them.

12In an effort to enhance distribution, The Auteurs struck partnerships with both distributors and film preservation entities. One of those entities that should be familiar to this audience is the World Cinema Foundation (WCF). According to founder Martin Scorsese,

The World Cinema Foundation is being created to help developing countries preserve their cinematic treasures. We want to help strengthen and support the work of international archives, and provide a resource for those countries lacking the archival and technical facilities to do the work themselves.10

13At a 2009 Cannes Film Festival press conference a cooperative agreement was announced between The Auteurs, the WCF, and distributors b-side and Criterion (Fig. 3). Under this agreement, films restored by the WCF would play at the Cannes Classics sidebar and simultaneously stream at The Auteurs. These films would then be distributed to Universities via B-Side. Then special edition DVDs of these would be distributed by Criterion. The day that this was announced, four WCF films were posted at The Auteurs (Hanyeo [The Housemaid, Kim Ki-Young, 1960], Touki Bouki [Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973], Susuz Yaz [Dry Summer, Metin Erksan, 1964], and El Hal [Transes, Ahmed El Maanouni, 1981]). Within two days, there were 1,000 viewings of at least ten minutes duration.

Figure 3. World Cinema Foundation Press Conference, 2009.

Figure 3. World Cinema Foundation Press Conference, 2009.

Bootleg Film Community

14The 1987 film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (Todd Haynes), was removed from distribution in 1989 due to the unauthorized use of The Carpenters’ music. Though director Todd Haynes has since become a well-known director, this early film of his cannot be legally shown. Yet a community has arisen to continue to circulate the film and keep it from disappearing. As Lucas Hilderbrand noted in his important study of the film,

  • 11 Lucas Hilderbrand, “Grainy Days and Mondays: Superstar and Bootleg Aesthetics,” in Inherent Vice: B (...)

For a film that has been removed from distribution and has been historically difficult to access, Superstar has had an astonishing, irrepressible afterlife. Although its primary mode of circulation since late 1989 has been through an informal underground network of shared bootleg videotapes, Superstar continues to be seen in large-audience (if not always exactly public) settings.11

15Yet, the copies that continue to illicitly circulate are very poor duplications. Most are grainy and have faded color, have gone through several generations of copying, and at one point were likely transferred from VHS video. Yet, as Hilderbrand observes, this poor quality gives it a special appeal that a pristine film print would not, an “appropriation aesthetic of image loss from duplication.” Hilderbrand situates this “bootleg aesthetics” within cinema and literary theory and the theory of spectatorship. And he also notes that this aesthetic situates these video “prints” in a particular time period—the era of VHS tapes.

  • 12 Catherine Grant, Tahani Nadim, “‘Working Things Out Together’: The Joys of Bootlegging, Bartering, (...)
  • 13 Lucas Hilderbrand, “Grainy Days and Mondays,” op. cit., p. 183.

16The kind of underground distribution appears to be a more democratic process than waiting for a distributor and exhibit space to show a particular film. Catherine Grant and Tahani Nadim have noted the social relations evident in bootlegging: “The network of bootlegging is a way of relating to collaborators, audiences and guests that is as constitutive of the participants as it is a means to distribute artwork.”12 Yet Hilderbrand points out that this democratization also carries a less democratic side, “Superstar’s unplanned bootleg circulation presents a democratization of distribution at the same time it makes access elitist; seeing or obtaining tapes, at least until they became available through eBay, depended upon insider connections or simply the luck of being in the right place at the right time.”13

Sponsored Films

  • 14 Rick Prelinger, Field Guide to Sponsored Films, San Francisco, National Film Preservation Foundatio (...)
  • 15 Rick Prelinger (producer), To New Horizons: Ephemeral Films 1931-1945 [VHS], New York, Voyager Comp (...)
  • 16 Rick Prelinger (producer), To New Horizons: Ephemeral Films 1931-1945 [CD-ROM], New York, Voyager C (...)

17Approximately 300,000 industrial and institutional films were commissioned by businesses, charities, educational institutions, and advocacy groups in the United States14. This type of film, originally created for a pragmatic purpose and designed to have a limited distribution lifetime, did not fall within the collecting policies of most major film archives, so little was done to preserve them over time. In the early 1980s these advertising films, educational films, industrial videos, police training films, social guidance films, and government-produced films began to generate interest outside each film’s original narrow intended audience. Documentaries such as Atomic Café (Loader, K. Rafferty, P. Rafferty, 1982) showed how excerpts from sponsored films could be used effectively as stock footage. Coinciding with this, Rick Prelinger began voraciously collecting this type of material. Around 1987, Prelinger curated selections from his collection and through the Voyager Company and released these first as VHS tapes and as laserdiscs15, and later as CD-ROMs.16

18For the next decade, Prelinger continued efforts to contextualize this material as offering keen insights into social history. While operating a stock footage house that also worked to preserve these films, he went on the lecture circuit showing gems from his collection. And in 1996, again through Voyager, he released a set of twelve thematically curated CD-ROMs. But though Prelinger’s efforts had demonstrated the scholarly value of sponsored films and had also generated enthusiasm for this type of work, the audience for these at the end of the millennium was still quite small.

  • 17 As this chapter is being written, there are more than 2,000 sponsored films being distributed throu (...)

19At the turn of the millennium Prelinger got together with Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle and hatched plans to put an initial 500 sponsored films online as part of the Internet Archive.17 The easy online accessibility of streamed films generated widespread interest in them. And Prelinger and Kahle increased the interest by not only providing high resolution downloads for those who wanted to view high quality, but also by sponsoring contests for films created using downloaded clips from these sponsored films. And with functions for user commentaries, a community began to develop around this material. This newer distribution mechanism was being leveraged to greatly increase access, interest, and use of this type of material, as well as to begin creating a community.

20The attention brought to these neglected films both through the Internet Archive project and by the fervent community that had emerged from Dan Streible’s efforts since 1999 with the Orphans Film Symposium18 made it difficult for the conventional film archiving and preservation community to continue ignoring this type of work. Meetings of archivists increasingly dealt with orphan works, and individual archives began to alter their priorities to encompass sponsored films. In 2002, the Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Sound Division acquired the 60,000 physical films of the Prelinger collection, while digital versions of many of these continued to be distributed by the Internet Archive.

21The US National Film Preservation Foundation became aware of the plight of this type of film and commissioned Rick Prelinger to recruit a crew to help him create a scholarly Field Guide to Sponsored Films. Over 100 volunteers collaborated over the Internet to create this study of 452 sponsored films. This work showed a highly effective use of Internet technology to coordinate the efforts of a large number of geographically dispersed individuals.

What Can Archives Learn from Communities of Interest?

22Conventional archives are embedded in institutions that have some degree of stability: they have buildings, storage, employees, a source of ongoing funding, etc. The public recognizes that these institutions have a mission to preserve material over long periods of time. These organizations never have enough resources to fulfill their mission, and so they constantly have to set priorities that leave many objects not-cared-for. Often, such prioritization favours feature films over more marginal works (such as sponsored films or other orphan works). Conservation concerns over the condition of material in their collections often inhibits these organizations from providing robust access to their works.

23Communities of interest are very different from these. Collectors and hobbyists showed interest in educational, industrial, amateur, and home movies decades before film archives did. They are responsible for saving tens of thousands of works that would have disappeared. These communities of interest are good at generating interest and excitement over niche types of works. They are also great at finding new ways of providing access to these works (streaming and download, engaging the public in social networks and online discussions, etc.). And they have shown the ability to engage the public to become active creators instead of merely passive viewers, which is very appropriate for our contemporary do-it-yourself (DIY) era.

24But these communities of interest are generally more focused on access than preservation, and though the two are linked, they are not the same thing. Preservation requires long-term sustainability (not only of the films, but also of the custodians--organizational stability). Access is an important component of preservation, and a community of support really helps make preservation efforts succeed.

  • 19 Eyes on the Screen (August 28th 2010), Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, online: Retrieved August 3 (...)

25Communities are great for generating interest. But we can’t rely upon them, particularly for long-term preservation. These communities often don’t have the shared ethics to stand up to bullying from copyright holders (though, as activists, they do sometimes engage in Civil Disobedience, as a community did to focus attention on why the important civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize [Henry Hampton, 1987] could no longer be shown because of copyright issues19). These communities have no continuous long-term funding, and often they must rely upon a single personal benefactor. And membership in these communities ebbs and flows, and can disappear over time. Additionally, because they are so very interested in access, sometimes their short-term goals imperil long-term preservation.

26But conventional archives need to listen to communities of interest, and to partner and collaborate with them. They need to encourage the energy of these communities in similar ways to how Henri Langlois encouraged the ciné-clubs of his time. And most conventional archives can learn something from these communities about access, as well as about building social networks dedicated towards particular collections.

Notes

1 Acknowledgements: former students Lucas Hilderbrand (bootleg aesthetics), Snowden Becker (Home Movie Day), and Eric Kohn (The Auteurs) helped launch key ideas in this paper. Former student Walter Forsberg contributed editorial assistance.

2 Home Movie Day, online: <http://www.homemovieday.com> (accessed February 1st 2011).

3 Center for Home Movies, online: <http://www.centerforhomemovies.org> (accessed February 1st 2011).

4 Martin Scorsese quoted on the Home Movie Day website, online: <http://www.homemovieday.com> (accessed February 1st 2011).

5 Home Movie Transfers: Options and Issues, online: <http://www.homemovieday.com/transfer.html> (accessed February 1st 2011); Film Preservation Links, online: <http://www.homemovieday.com/preservation.html> (accessed February 1st 2011).

6 2008 Home Movie Day PSA, online: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RAXZrOaI_w> (accessed February 1st 2011); Retro Thing TV – it’s Home Movie Day, online: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyMf8OsiVxA> (accessed February 1st 2011) ; Home Movie Day Amsterdam, online: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xy-j5Y52MTA> (accessed February 1st 2011).

7 The Auteurs (http://theauteurs.com) was replaced by Mubi, online: <http://mubi.com> in 2010 (accessed February 1st 2011).

8 Eric Kohn, “Saving the Cinema: The Auteurs as a Case Study for Digital Distribution,” course paper for NYU Introduction to Moving Image Archiving & Preservation, 2009. Unless otherwise noted, all figures and quotations in this section are taken from this paper.

9 Eric Kohn, “Partners in Cinema,” Movie Maker, Vol. 16, No. 82, Summer 2009, p. 26.

10 From the World Cinema Foundation website, online: <http://worldcinemafoundation.net/> (accessed February 1st 2011).

11 Lucas Hilderbrand, “Grainy Days and Mondays: Superstar and Bootleg Aesthetics,” in Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2009, p. 161-190.

12 Catherine Grant, Tahani Nadim, “‘Working Things Out Together’: The Joys of Bootlegging, Bartering, and Collectivity,” Parachute, Vol. 11, No. 1, July-September 2003, p. 53.

13 Lucas Hilderbrand, “Grainy Days and Mondays,” op. cit., p. 183.

14 Rick Prelinger, Field Guide to Sponsored Films, San Francisco, National Film Preservation Foundation, 2006, online : <http://www.filmpreservation.org/dvds-and-books/the-field-guide-to-sponsored-film> (accessed February 1st 2011).

15 Rick Prelinger (producer), To New Horizons: Ephemeral Films 1931-1945 [VHS], New York, Voyager Company, 1987; Rick Prelinger (producer), To New Horizons: Ephemeral Films 1931-1945 [LaserDisc], New York, Voyager Company, 1988; Rick Prelinger, You Can’t Get There From Here: Ephemeral Films 1946-1960 [VHS], New York, Voyager Company, 1987.

16 Rick Prelinger (producer), To New Horizons: Ephemeral Films 1931-1945 [CD-ROM], New York, Voyager Company, 1992; Rick Prelinger (producer), You Can’t Get There From Here: Ephemeral Films 1946-1960 [CD-ROM], New York, Voyager Company, 1992; Rick Prelinger, (producer), Our Secret Century: Archival Films From the Darker Side of the American Dream [CD-ROM], New York, Voyager Company, 1992.

17 As this chapter is being written, there are more than 2,000 sponsored films being distributed through this online collection. See The Internet Archive, online : <http://www.archive.org/details/prelinger> (accessed February 1st 2011).

18 Orphans Film Symposium, online: <http://www.nyu.edu/orphanfilm/> (accessed February 1st 2011).

19 Eyes on the Screen (August 28th 2010), Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, online: Retrieved August 30th 2010, from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eyes_on_the_Screen>.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Home Movie Day Locations as they appear on Google Map.
URL http://books.openedition.org/septentrion/docannexe/image/2277/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 35k
Titre Figure 2. Room Cinema: Films from Home Movie Day, Vol. 1 (2007)
URL http://books.openedition.org/septentrion/docannexe/image/2277/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 54k
Titre Figure 3. World Cinema Foundation Press Conference, 2009.
URL http://books.openedition.org/septentrion/docannexe/image/2277/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 38k

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