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in Filmmaking
on Feb 3, 2012


If there is one industry report that you absolutely must read this year it is Digital Dilemma 2: Perspectives from Independent Filmmakers, Documentarians and Nonprofit Audiovisual Archives, from the Motion Picture Academy’s Science and Technology Council.

The study was conducted with the assistance of Filmmaker as well as the IFP, Film Independent, and many other organizations and individual makers. Its message is short and simple:

“Most of the filmmakers surveyed for this report have given little thought to what happens to their work once it is completed. …  [F]ew store their film masters in proper environmental conditions or manage their digital masters using appropriate preservation practices.”

Indies drive the film business. In 2010, 532 movies were commercially released and the six Hollywood studios (and their subsidiaries) accounted for roughly a third (174) with indie works made up the rest.  According to the Independent Film & Television Alliance, a trade association, indie makers produced more than 400 features in 2009.

However, stats from the 2011 and 2012 Sundance festival are more revealing: for 2011, Sundance received 10,279 submissions for all categories and screened only 194 works, less than 2 percent; this year, it received 4,042 feature submissions and selected nearly 3 percent (110). What happens to the rest?

The shift from analog film stock to digital media has revolutionized film production and distribution – and (for the long-term preservation of a maker’s work) storage. It has led to a proliferation of formats, often incompatible and not forwardly migratable. The study assessES 11 storage media: film, digital Betacam, 1” videotape, HDCAM, VHS take, D-5, ¾” U-matic, DVD, Betacam SP and others.

The report makes painfully clear that there is much confusion with regard to digital storage technologies. It asserts: “… digital data of any type is subject to invisible failure mechanisms at many levels – the actual recording media, the data reading and writing system in the digital storage device, the data interface that connects the storage device to a computer, the computer network that connects individual machines, and the many levels of software that control the overall system.” Further, it warns: “If preservation actions are not taken, the files become unreadable and are effectively lost.”

Indie makers should pay special attention to the report’s discussion of digital preservation. For makers who are not wonks, these sections will be invaluable tutorials. Most criticalLY, the report reframes a maker’s mindset as to the life of one’s work, whether “short term (20 years or less) or long term (more than 20 years).”

There is a well-meaning effort underway to preserve independent film works. The National Film Preservation Act of 1988 established the National Film Preservation Board, the National Film Registry and the National Film Preservation Foundation (a public/private partnership). The study points out that there are approximately 550 public moving-image archives in the U.S. and an additional 310 archives worldwide. It discusses the preservation efforts by the Sundance Institute, the Outfest and the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

There are two very helpful case study profiles that offer insight into how the preservation process works. One is an extensive interview with Peter Mavromates, a director of post-production for director David Fincher on Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, among other films. The other is a profile of Franklin Furnace, located in Brooklyn, NY, and how it is working to preserve indie and experimental film.

What is missing from this otherwise essential report is a candid interview with a long-time non-studio indie maker and the problems s/he has encountered through their career. In this way, the most obvious challenges confronting the maker – lack of money, confusion over formats, what do to with the reels and hard drives in closet — could be honestly addressed.  No one learns more than from the experience of others who have paid the price for their well-intentioned mistakes.

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David Rosen is a writer and business-development consultant.  He is author of the indie classic, Off-Hollywood: The Making & Marketing of Independent Films (Grove), originally commissioned by the Sundance Institute and the Independent Feature Project.  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.  For more information, check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com and www.DavidRosenConsultants.com.


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