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To Preserve and (Self-) Protect?

Some of the nation's foremost archivists say that the AFI is more interested in hyping itself than in rescuing works on decaying celluloid.

October 04, 1998|Robert W. Welkos | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

For more than three decades, the American Film Institute has been a cultural landmark in Hollywood, an organization that its founding chairman, Academy Award-winning actor Gregory Peck, once described as "a caretaker of our nation's film heritage."

On television, at gala fund-raisers and in its literature, the institute has championed the cause of "advancing and preserving the art of the moving image"--images recorded on film and tape that make up the collective memory of the 20th century.

But today, the AFI is striving to overcome severe cutbacks in federal funding while defending itself from critics in the archival community who question the institute's ongoing commitment to film preservation.

While the institute currently spends about $1.7 million on preservation, 87% of its $13-million overall budget goes to fulfill its other film-related missions, such as running a conservatory for filmmakers, hosting the AFI's annual Life Achievement Awards and convening an international film festival in Los Angeles.

And, while the AFI has succeeded in drawing the public's attention to the plight of film preservation, its critics in the archival community say that what the institute is most skilled at is drawing attention to itself.

"My line has always been that AFI does less [film] preservation than self-preservation," said Jan-Christopher Horak, director of archives and collections at Universal Studios. "It's become ever more true now [because of federal cutbacks]."

Retired Library of Congress archivist Paul Spehr said that the AFI embraces preservation because "it's like motherhood," but adds, "what we've seen very often is money going elsewhere."

"They certainly say preservation is one of their major priorities," said Edward Richmond, curator of UCLA's film archive. "The question a lot of people ask is, 'Are they doing enough?' When people give money to AFI to support preservation, to help save America's moving image heritage, are they really getting value for their donations?"

AFI executives defend their record, saying that they should not be compared to a film archive since their mandate is much broader than preserving films. Still, they note that many vintage films would have never have been saved without the AFI's efforts.

"When AFI started, it sent out a call--and it was a first call--and that resulted in a dramatic response," said AFI Director Jean Picker Firstenberg. "People started looking for films that they had kept . . . and they were sent to AFI by the truckload. People looked for them and they found them in their basements, their attics and garages. That, I think, may be AFI's greatest contribution in the long run, because if that cry and call had not gone out, we would have lost much more."

Film preservation always inspires passionate debate because funding is scarce and much of America's cinematic past is vanishing. Of more than 21,000 feature-length films produced in the United States before 1951, only half exist today.

In the earliest days of Hollywood, film was made of cellulose nitrate, which gave black-and-white movies their vivid lights and shadows. But nitrate film steadily decomposes in the can and is extremely flammable.

Movies that are presumed lost include Lillian Gish's "Angel of Contention" (1919), silent vamp Theda Bara's "Cleopatra" (1917), Rudolph Valentino's "The Young Rajah" (1922) and Gloria Swanson's "Madame Sans-Gene" (1925), according to Tom McGreevey and Joanne L. Yeck in their 1997 book "Our Movie Heritage."

To save what's left, archives around the country have undertaken the expensive and painstaking process that involves transferring deteriorating or unprotected film to modern film stock, making new preservation masters and storing the films properly.

But duplication does not come cheap. A black-and-white feature film, for example, costs about $1,000 a reel to restore, experts say; there are 10 to 15 reels in a normal feature. Restoring color films is even more expensive. Archivists estimate that a color feature-length film from the 1940s, for example, can cost between $250,000 and $300,000 to restore.

Over the past three decades, the AFI has assisted the archives by collecting and cataloging films and then sending them on to the archives for restoration and storage.

"It was the first organization that sent out a sort of roving film detective and he found the most extraordinary things in the most extraordinary places," said London-based film historian Kevin Brownlow.

One of the AFI's key roles was channeling money from the taxpayer-supported National Endowment for the Arts to the archives. In all, the AFI received $16.3 million from the NEA, of which $9.7 million was sent out as sub-grants to various archives for nitrate film conversion.

But the NEA's support has fallen drastically since Republicans won control of Congress in 1994--dropping from $2.3 million four years ago to a mere $40,000 today.

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