Old-Fashioned Film Storage Still Trumps Digital

Significant material has already been lost on digital, from outtakes to on-set interviews.

It’s a digital age. We download music digitally and watch TV shows and movies on our iPods. Almost 20 percent of all theaters now feature digital projection.

So when it comes to saving a movie like “Benjamin Button” or “Up” for the future, it only makes sense that the cheapest, safest and most space-efficient method of storage would be digital as well.

Wrong.

Surprisingly, entertainment technology industry leaders agree that film remains the only format on which one can guarantee safe long-term archive and access to motion-picture materials. In fact, film remains the standard in archiving — and that’s not expected to change anytime in the foreseeable future.

Not even for films projected digitally in theaters — these are actually converted from digital to film for old-fashioned storage. In a dark room in a cold temperature in secure spots scattered around the country.

The major studios currently store all movies on film. While they may store some ancillary material like on-set interviews and outtakes digitally, they have come to the conclusion that digital storage is not only less safe but, incredibly, far more expensive. 

It has, though, been a learning process of trial and error. “We have already lost a great amount of digital material,” said Milt Shefter, who led the Science and Technology Council of AMPAS’ influential 2007 report on archiving issues. “The Digital Dilemma.”

This lost digital material, Shefter told TheWrap, include a range of supplemental material. (Shefter would not name any titles or parts of titles that had developed problems, claiming the academy had to sign nondisclosure agreements in doing its research.)

And there have been some close calls that nearly resulted in the loss of complete Hollywood features, AMPAS’ SciTech Council director Andy Maltz. “Ultimately the data was recovered, but it was a real scramble to make that happen.” (NASA wasn’t so lucky with the original moon-landing tapes; see TheWrap’s story.)

It was losses like these that led to AMPAS’ “Digital Dilemma” investigation and report.

“The changes have tended to arise piecemeal and so rapidly that the industry has not had a chance to step back and consider long-term implications,” the report read. “Even some of the artists who have been the most evangelical about the new world of digital motion picture sometimes seem not to have thoroughly explored the question of what happens to a digital production once it leaves the theaters and begins its life as a long-term studio asset.”

The report warned that the industry was in danger of making decisions that “produce financial and cultural consequences.”

The studios paid attention. The majors all have agreed with the report’s conclusion, and their titles ARE archived on film — though it is not always as clear with independent films. In those cases, decisions are made by the individual content owners.

So why not digital?

Cost is one huge issue. “With film, you process it once, and you put it in a cold room,” Maltz said. “With digital, you have to copy it periodically to maintain its accessibility … and that costs money. For instance you have to copy it to an updated form of media, you have to verify that the copy happened correctly.”

Experts in the field recommend migrating digital motion picture elements every three to five years to a new version or format.

As a result, long-term storage for digital is a staggering 11 times higher than film, according to SciTech Council findings. Its report found the annual cost of preserving film archival master material is $1,059 per title, while the annual cost of preserving a 4K digital master is $12,514.  

That’s not including start-up costs. Studios generally save one film version of a theatrical feature, and the up-front process (including digital mastering and film out) can cost several hundred thousand dollars — “a level where many independent filmmakers could not think about,” Shefter told TheWrap.

And while, the new technologies might seem safer, the opposite is true. Consumer hard drives and discs have not proven infallible — and the same goes for storage discs used for archiving.

For one thing, bits actually have been found missing from digital files. Plus, because of the constantly changing technology, some films have been stored in formats whose players have worn out or been damaged and are no longer available. (Imagine having stored your only copy of “Citizen Kane” in Betamax.)

“A part of these issues is that we don’t know what the impact of digital will be,” Shefter told TheWrap. “Years ago, we didn’t know about ringtones or iPods,” Shefter said. “We don’t know what opportunities the future will bring. But if you have the content, you will be the driver’s seat.”

“You are on this treadmill that you can never get off,” Maltz said.

Another issue is image resolution.

Today’s digital masters are often made at a resolution that likely will end up far lower than where digital cinema projection is heading. “These digital masters will fall short of future display mediums, ” said Mike Inchalik, COO of Lowry Digital, a Burbank-based business under the Reliance umbrella that specializes in film restoration

Theaters are mostly projecting at what is called 2K digital, and masters similarly are typically done in 2K resolution. But several projectors now are being developed in 4K, which means four times as many pixels in the image.

Studios could save at 4K, preparing for the future. But it costs more, so they have to weight it: Do we need the extra; we already have a high resolution, and the difference will be barely noticeable to the human eye.

Warner Bros., actually, is already a step ahead in storing higher resolution. Preparing for the future, it archived the Judy Garland version of “A Star Is Born” in 6K, as well as storing a film master.

In the two years since the “Digital Dilemma” report was released, initiatives have started — both in and outside Hollywood — to address this far-reaching issue that extends to filmed history such as that which is found in the National Archives.

AMPAS is funding research on archiving in the digital age, as well as studying related topics including metadata and file formats. The major studios also are exploring the challenges. And the SciTech Council is working on a follow-up study, focused on independent films, as well as public archives.

“The good news is people took the call to action seriously,” AMPAS’ Maltz said. “But we have not seen any fundamental breakthroughs yet.”