But then came digital. And suddenly the film industry is wrestling again with the possibility that its most precious assets, the pictures, aren’t as durable as they used to be.
The problem became public, but just barely, last month, when the science and technology council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the results of a yearlong study of digital archiving in the movie business. Titled “The Digital Dilemma,” the council’s report surfaced just as Hollywood’s writers began their walkout. Busy walking, or dodging, the picket lines, industry types largely missed the report’s startling bottom line: To store a digital master record of a movie costs about $12,514 a year, versus the $1,059 it costs to keep a conventional film master.
Much worse, to keep the enormous swarm of data produced when a picture is “born digital” — that is, produced using all-electronic processes, rather than relying wholly or partially on film — pushes the cost of preservation to $208,569 a year, vastly higher than the $486 it costs to toss the equivalent camera negatives, audio recordings, on-set photographs and annotated scripts of an all-film production into the cold-storage vault.
All of this may seem counterintuitive. After all, digital magic is supposed to make information of all kinds more available, not less. But ubiquity, it turns out, is not the same as permanence.
An argument for wider dissemination? After all, who but the digital collectors are going to be willing to undertake this archiving, and reframing into newer formats, over time?