VAULTING ACROSS SUNDANCES By Scott Macaulay
Independent filmmakers like to think that they are creating works of art that contribute to an enduring American culture. There’s just one problem: these works of art are disintegrating. Literally. More concerned with life rights than half-life, filmmakers are allowing their films to crumble and dissolve into analog blurs and forests of digital glitches as formats change, materials are uncared for, and elements are left forgotten on lab floors.
Enter the Sundance Collection, a collaborative program with the UCLA Film and Television Archive. It is the first archive to be devoted exclusively to the preservation of independent cinema. This year, the Sundance Collection is dipping into the Archive’s vaults to screen two seminal festival award-winning films – Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape, and Wendell B. Harris’s Chameleon Street – in a program that will both revisit these great films but will also call attention to the Collection’s mission of preserving cinema in general.
Says Sundance programmer John Nein, who heads up the Sundance Collection, “Our goal is to bring visibility to the problems independent filmmakers have in terms of the longevity of their work and the preservation of film prints and digital masters. There are the problems we know, like the fact that film prints disintegrate over time, but there are also the lesser-known troubles of digital work, like issues regarding format.”
The functioning of the Sundance Collection is simple. Nein reaches out to Sundance filmmaker alumni and urges them to donate a print of their film. Then, he explains, “The UCLA Film and Television Archive will put the print in preservation.They prepare it properly to be stored in plastic bags that are stored in breathing canisters in state-of-the-art temperature regulated vaults. Occasionally these prints are used for retrospectives with the permission of the copyright holder, but they really shouldn’t be [removed].”
Nein says if a filmmaker wants to give the Archive a better restoration element, like an interpositive, it will gladly accept it, although he admits that convincing a producer or production company to spend an additional $10,000 on an archival film element is a tough sell.
What about digital? Isn’t that where everything is headed anyway? “For a lot of films that originally existed as prints, the filmmakers will go back and do restoration ending in a digital format, such an HD cam master,” says Nein. “Wendell Harris went back to his 35mm source material for Chameleon Street and restored part of it, but the ultimate product is HD. The real issue, though, is that the archive world is still coming up with the best [digital] standards for filmmakers. Right now you have to be aware that you should be constantly migrating your source material. There may not be machines anymore than can play what used to be shown on SVHS or early forms of DVCAM.”
“Who knows what the next format will be?” muses Nein. “Probably hard drive will be what the archive world will recommend – uncompressed media files that are easily migrated to new tape sources, whatever those sources may be.”
If the Sundance Collection has a current limitation, it’s that it must rely on the good sense and forward thinking of filmmakers for its materials. Nein points out that much of the good work from Sundance’s past is sitting in closets or in the bankrupt vaults of now-shuttered distributors. “People assume that if a film was released by a major specialty distributor that there is at least one good print somewhere in the world, but sometimes there isn’t. We assumed there was a good print of Paris, Texas somewhere, but there’s not.” That’s why Nein distributes to filmmakers a brochure about the program and why he regularly follows up with filmmakers and producers like… ahem, one we know about who decided to allow a festival print get “rerouted” to the Archive instead of the distributor’s vault.
Nein admits that, in the future, money targeted for acquisitions and restoration would be great, but the Sundance Collection is not there yet. “It’s hard to find people to give you money,” he sighs. “That’s my goal for the collection, but that’s a little ways down the line. It doesn’t cost any money to give a film to the collection, though, to make a master and put it in our collection.”
This year’s “From the Collection” screenings will be accompanied by a gallery exhibit at the Sundance House consisting of posters, publicity materials, hats, hoodies and other memorabilia and photography representing the 25 years of the festival. Says Nein, “We have the letter Todd Haynes wrote when he submitted Superstar to the festival. We have a set of monitors and displays showing archival footage from the mid ’80s of the labs, fantastic 35mm footage. We have the paraphernalia filmmakers used to promote their films, the posters they brought to the festival. We have the storyboards from The American Astronaut. And we have the entire history of the festival told through its filmmaker badges, tickets and bus routes.”
To learn more about the Sundance Collection at UCLA visit its website.
(Photo credits, top, Sundance Opening Night, 1989; Steven Soderbergh at the Yarrow, 1990; Wendell B. Harris accepting his Grand Jury Prize, 1989. Photos by Sandria Miller. Bottom: the Sundance poster for The Full Monty.)