If I posed the question: what might get Martin Scorsese, Amazon.com, and Hewlett Packard seeing in black and white and talking in excited hyperbole? How would people answer? Would they think I was kidding if I told them the answer involved a refrigerator, a vault and a computer? Would it help if they knew Scorsese was a noted film preservationist, that he filmed Raging Bull in black in white partly because he questioned the durability of color film stock at the time?
From Los Angeles to Sacramento to Seattle, the answer to my question lies in old celluloid, lost masters, and digital future. The answer is hope vested in the pairing of film preservation with Print-on-Demand DVD. It’s a quiet renaissance, something of a Hollywood 2.0; an ambitious plan being pursued by a number of industry giants.
The Preservation Paradox:
Watching a classic movie is like seeing a moment frozen in time; slivers of history. Like a photograph, old movies have a richness, a romanticism in their black and white footage. Absent the kind of special effects wizardry that can fill the screen today, they also had to tell a good story, and a good story is timeless. Unfortunately, film is not so enduring. Old film requires costly temperature controlled storage, and to be re-aired, requires meticulous, and equally expensive, cleaning and restoration.
Every time a new distribution technology is developed, footage needs to be cleaned and copied to the new format. When VHS came out, the stock had to be recorded on tape. When DVDs became available, old films had to be made digital. Now, high definition DVD technologies are requiring another upgrade. Each time, dirt and scratches have to be painstakingly removed. And the higher the resolution, the greater the visibility of small imperfections, meaning each upgrade requires an even more thorough restoration than the one prior.
Disney’s restoration of Bambi is an illustration. Paperwork and refrigerated trucks carted old film stock around the country from different libraries. Once in the same place, to bring Bambi back to life it took 14 months and the equivalent of more than ten thousand man hours of restoration work. That translates to millions of dollars for a single title. Similarly, in 2000, Warner Brothers, with the help of Hewlett Packard, dedicated 4 people to spend more than 300 hours just cleaning the dirt and dust from original negatives during the restoration of King Kong.
In addition to the painstaking process, cleaning up old films also requires enormous digital resources. A two hour long movie has more than 170,000 frames on average. Even with algorithmic computer filters doing the work (instead of a painstaking hand restoration) it can still take two to ten minutes per frame. That translates to a single dedicated computer running for more than two years. Clustering together computers into a grid and running them like mini supercomputers reduces that time, but the burden is still extreme on the servers and time and expense are still large.
The economics of these processes mean that only the most commercially viable of titles make it to retail. As consumers, we know Rick’s Café in Casablanca, or the sleigh in Citizen Kane, we know Hitchcock’s nail biters from Rear Window to the 39 Steps…. But so many of those films contemporaries, a vast volume of titles churned out by the old studio system are not commercially available. At the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study, for example, thousands of titles sit in cans in a cold, neon-lit room. At UCLA’s archives, there are more than 147,000 movies and 200,000 television programs – most largely forgotten by all but the librarians and archivists who supervise their storage.
On Demand Solutions:
Print on Demand is a concept where stores keep little to no inventory. Using digital tools, they create a product only once it’s been ordered and paid for. As a service, it’s been around for a while, primarily in publishing and for novelties (t-shirts, photos etc). Now as technologies improve, the concept is expanding to other products,notably DVD movies.
Hewlett Packard, and others, are hoping applying on-demand printing to movie purchases is a method that will improve the economics of film restoration and bring a host of long lost titles back to the retail marketplaces.
In a warehouse outside Sacramento, HP has been ambitiously moving ahead toward that goal. Serving archivists on one side, and retailers on the other, HP wants to automate the process of digitally archiving films and then through partnership with retailers, empower a print-on-demand solution that lets titles be published and printed when desired. There’s no warehousing, no inventory costs.
A consumer who goes to Wal-Mart.com can order a title, that order can be routed to HP and from their digital fulfillment center, created and shipped. Banks of DVD burners will churn out titles on one side of the warehouse. On the other side, printers crank out covers and packing materials. Order a movie and it could be ready and at your door in 48 hours.
With this kind of service, a consumer can get a title not before in stores and Wal-Mart won’t lose valuable warehouse space keeping inventory of low-demand titles. It’s a model similar to what HP runs with its Snapfish photo channel. They sit behind the scenes enabling private labels to offer their own branded service. HP handles the administration and production, another company is the face to the customer. They share revenue and all are happy.
Will Print on Demand Catch on?:
Hollywood is notoriously slow for embracing change and new technology so one of the big challenges for HP’s plan is getting the studios to sign up and allow access to their vaults; getting the rights to build the digital library. Thus far, HP has had some success. Sony and Paramount have signed to use HPs archiving services. Warner Brothers is working with HP to customize a solution of their own. It’s unclear, however, whether HP will get rights to resell any of the titles involved through their on-demand initiative. Without a library of titles, the HP program will be dead in its tracks and only valuable as a tool for selling hardware. With it, there’s promise.
Competition is a potential stumbling block too. Even with a library, HP isn’t likely to get any kind of exclusivity for the titles it has available. HP will compete with other forms of distribution (include digital downloads and potential video on demand offerings). In direct competition, retailer Amazon also is working at its own solution with subsidiary CustomFlix Labs which announced in mid July that they would sell on demand videos from ABC News archive (300 titles are available). Additionally, challenging HP for hardware, Cinergy, Sun, IBM and Siemens all recognize the vast opportunity to sell hardware and services for film archiving and upgrade, even if approaching it from different perspectives. The different forms of competition may prove limiting on the volume of titles made available.
Whether Hollywood will buy into HP’s dream remains to be seen. HP’s solution is unique in that they’re offering help on both digitalizations and with sales. It’s a novel approach and the beauty of the HP model is that studios can digitize their films on their own time, anywhere… but once digitalized the titles can be added to HP’s library in digital form and resold. It’s very much in the spirit of the long-tail model of sales.
I wouldn’t want to handicap the odds of success. There’s so much happening at the crossroads of the film industry and technology that anything seems possible. Regardless, whatever the outcome, it’s an interesting development; one happening relatively quietly but with promise for movie fans around the globe.