Monday, July 22, 2013

It occurred to me that some of you reading this may not know who I am, or why I am qualified to say anything about documentaries. I am the Documentary Curator of the Academy of Motion Pictures Film Archive, where I've been for the past 19 1/2 years. Prior to that, I worked for 7 3/4 years at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and my first job out of NYU Cinema Studies at the Museum of Modern Art, was for about 5 years.

At the Academy, my job is, in a nutshell, to acquire, protect and make available documentaries. The Film Archive has a large collection of films of all types - features, shorts, animation, experimental, foreign, silent era, docs and home movies. We have several large climate-controlled vaults in the heart of Hollywood, located in the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study, where we moved in 2002. Our previous home was the Academy's Fairbanks Center on La Cienega in Beverly Hills. (I could write a substantial history of the Film Archive's expansion over the past 20 years, but that needs to wait for another post. Our staff numbered 4 when I began, and is now over 30. I can also write a history of the film archival work at the Academy during the past 65 years, but again, for later...) Academy Film Archive

My first priority is films that have been nominated for or won Academy Awards, and any films made by filmmakers so nominated or awarded. Otherwise my mandate is pretty broad, and I have brought in collections from all kinds of filmmakers, some whose films have not even screened much theatrically, such as those of Robert Drew. Bob's collection is the largest collection I've ever dealt with, and probably the largest one in the Film Archive's history (again, I need another post to detail the Archive's acquisition of Bob's collection). In addition to Bob's films, during my tenure we have also gotten the collections of Albert and David Maysles, Charles Guggenheim, Robert Snyder, Barbara Kopple, and many others.

A 2007 National Archives tribute to Robert and Anne Drew. Scholar Ron Sutton (left), Anne and Bob, and me.
 NARA Drew salute

Early in my Academy career, I attempted in most cases to acquire good prints of films not in our collection. Later on, and more especially recently, the focus has been the acquisition of the best surviving materials, and the original negative if possible. The transition away from film has meant that labs and film storage companies have been closing down, thus endangering the status of many, many film negatives.

When I started, for a variety of reasons (yet another post!!) the Academy did not have good copies of all the doc winners, to say nothing of the nominees (more posts on both of these!) Progress was slow, but the turning point came in 2005, with the creation of the "Oscar's Docs" screening series, the first complete retrospective of Oscar winning documentaries ever. This forced me and my Archive colleagues (especially Preservation Officer Joe Lindner) to find good quality film prints for all the screenings (over a 6 year period), which we were able to do for virtually all the films. In some cases, the original materials were still around and in good condition, so we just arranged to strike a new print. However, with many of the films, it was often a long and complicated process just to locate any decent surviving material, if it existed at all. In the most extreme case, for PROJECT HOPE (1961), the Academy held the only known surviving copy of any kind, a badly faded 16mm print, which we restored digitally. At this moment, all but a handful of Oscar winning documentaries have been properly preserved for the future.

A 2006 screening of the Oscar Winning doc THE ELEANOR ROOSEVELT STORY, with Jane Alexander (far left); the film's director, Richard Kaplan (next to her), me, and Franklin Roosevelt III (right)

Since the end of the "Oscar's Docs" series in 2010, I have turned my attention to the nominees. There are only about 150 winners, but over 500 nominees, so this is a much bigger task. There are many titles on which the Academy has no copies, only video, or inferior film copies. Finding the best surviving material (which could be the original or duplicate negative, but maybe a less-than-satisfactory 16mm print, as with PROJECT HOPE), can be quite a detective project, sometimes taking years to accomplish. Almost all these films are "orphans," meaning that they don't have a film studio or powerful and/or wealthy filmmaker taking care of them. There are so many kinds of "makers" or "owners" of the nominees - people who only made one film, people to whom film was a sideline, companies or institutions with little film expertise or interest. Often the filmmakers have died, or the organizations have ceased to exist or sold one or more times to larger entities. It's a sad fact, and I hope to be proven wrong, but I believe that a few nominated docs may be lost - NO surviving copies of any kind. And the documentary awards categories began in 1941, so we're not talking about lost films from the silent era; these are relatively "modern" titles. My research on some titles have turned up virtually no leads on the whereabouts of even a print, let alone negative. For two or three titles - I don't even know what the films are about!

That's a thumbnail sketch of my background and what I'm up to, with more details to follow.

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