Saving Films and the Importance of Archiving

Saving Films and the Importance of Archiving

Figure i. Gaumont/Odeon, Jordan Well 1931-1999 (Smith 2014)

I used to have a vague awareness that there were such things as lost films, but I had assumed that this was generally due to mismanagement or accidents. I was not aware of the issues around old film stock decay (Allen et al. 1987), and the implications for the urgency of archival work. Even with films that are considered to be safe, with the evolution of digital media distribution, I assumed that the majority of films were available to view legally. With advances in technology, the future of archiving is perhaps unclear. For archivists, the question is how we save the films of the past while ensuring the film of the present is preserved for the future.

The archival of film is an essential part of maintaining our cultural history and ensuring it is accessible for future generations. Film is a visual, auditory cultural record we can use to evaluate moments in history. It can inform us about the values, culture, and even fashion of a particular time. The power of film goes beyond the information, as it connects with our emotions, with film also being shown on transatlantic immigration ships to America, to prepare those immigrating for their new home (Jones 2012).

As well as why, how we select the films that we archive is important. Means of production have a huge impact here; the major studios are ultimately best placed to archive films they produce, as they are a lot more likely to have the means to fund the archival process which can be difficult and expensive due to the volatile nature of old film stock. This focus on archiving wasn’t always the case; at one time studios saw little value in archiving due to the expense and room needed to store archived films (Jones 2012), but today, many studios maintain their own archives. However, with the increasing prevalence of digital storage, we have become aware of challenges with this medium. Although they are accessed digitally, films are ultimately stored on physical hard drives, leading to some of the same problems in that they are objects which can be lost or damaged (Jennifer 2016). We cannot be complacent; we have to use the best format available to us to store archived film, but we need to put effort into maintaining it, and reviewing new forms of storage as they become available. 

Due to these challenges, the films that are archived can skew towards those distributed by major studios, leading us to have a skewed perspective of the history of cinema. Studio films do have merit as a cultural object to be archived, in that they can provide us with information about means of production, social trends, and the history of the studios themselves. However, due to their position outside the confines of the studio system, independent films can often inform us about the boundaries filmmakers are trying to push, be they narrative, technological, or social, meaning that it is crucial for us to archive both.

While much importance is placed on the physical archiving and restoration of film, exhibiting, distributing, and contextualising film once it has been archived is essential. Some of the sources I have found valuable in understanding these periods of filmic history are not necessarily film texts. It’s of vital importance for archivists to consider if a work has truly been saved from oblivion when it is physically restored and catalogued, or if there is more work to do in establishing its significance to a broader audience is a part of saving film for future audiences. It’s often these sources that engage the public and elicit a deeper interest in filmic history and result in a resurgence of interest in particular periods, leading the archival of other films from that period which have not yet been restored.

Looking specifically at the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, one of the sources I have found invaluable in engaging my interest in the film of this time was a podcast; ‘You Must Remember This’, written and performed by Karina Longworth. The podcast is centred around essential periods of Hollywood history, linking interesting contextual information with film and methods of distribution to build a picture of Hollywood history. While Longworth has an academic background, and this does inform her work (Porch 2015), her podcast is accessible to the uninitiated, having more in common with a friend telling you a story than a textbook. In her highly regarded podcast series covering the Manson murders, she highlights the incident as an event significant to the cultural context of Hollywood in the late sixties and early seventies. Part of her central thesis is that Manson was able to so easily infiltrate the entertainment industry was because they had lost the youth audience (Truitt 2019), offering further context and linking the events to filmic history. In my opinion, ‘You Must Remember This” is a prime example of how effective this form of archiving can be.

Figure ii. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Tarantino 2019)

Furthermore, narrative film can sometimes be archival work. My experience of watching Boogie Nights (Anderson 1997) as part of researching the popularity of pornographic film in the late seventies contextualised the period and film genre, but also provided an emotional, narrative-driven aspect that pure information could not. Again, looking at the period of the late sixties and early seventies, director Quentin Tarantino’s newest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Tarantino 2019) centres around this time and the cultural context of film production. While it has not been released yet, the trailer highlights a Pussycat movie theatre, which was once a chain of porn theatres prevalent in California (Sanford 2010). The central character is a television actor seeking success in the film industry, a reference to the distinction between the two forms of distribution prevalent at the time. While, like You Must Remember This the trailer does reference the cultural context of the time, Tarantino’s inclusion of distribution methods is interesting, as using narrative film to archive methods of distribution that are important historically and culturally enriches our understanding of film history.

Perhaps the most vital question this has raised for me is how we decide whom we archive and if we prioritise the work of specific demographics, such as white, male directors, which I have explored through the film festival assessment. Of course, the prevalence of this demographic in archived work is due to their prevalence in the industry at the time, but there clearly are female directors whose work is worthy of archiving and centring in history. It also informed my opinion that efforts should be made to archive the work of female directors and the work of people of colour, in an attempt to redress this balance and undermine the idea that only men create historically significant work. Likewise, my research into John Water’s Pink Flamingos (Waters 1972) led me to an exploration of trash and queer cinema, again, a cinema outside of the mainstream that is often overlooked. Particularly in the case of Pink Flamingos, drawing boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable content, we can learn a lot about the cultural context of the time and how breaking these boundaries influences the future of film.

While I believe that the contextualising of film is integral to archival work, advances in technology have again raised important questions about the future of archiving film. While physical copies have historically been the primary method of archiving and accessing film to consumers, the rise of movie streaming services have raised questions about the future maintenance and archiving of film assets, particularly about how we as consumers access the films of the past. After all, is there any value in archiving film and efforts being made to contextualise it for audiences of the future if it isn’t accessible to them?

In this regard, streaming services have been both helpful and detrimental. Services such as Netflix offer accessibility to titles almost instantaneously, and with over 139 million followers worldwide (Fiegerman 2019) it’s one of the most accessible ways to access film for most consumers. While the prevalence of streaming should be a massive bonus for archivists, it does present problems. To engage subscribers, streaming services such as Netflix regularly remove and add films, meaning that what may be available one week is unavailable the next. Once films leave these services, there may be no way for audiences to watch them legally. Additionally, while these services provide access, they do little to contextualise or program the films, providing viewers with little insight as to why they are worth engaging with. This could potentially lead to a situation where Netflix purchases distribution rights to a film, the film is put online with no context or fanfare, is removed due to lack of engagement, and then is not available anywhere for people to watch.

Streaming services also present challenges concerning content, particularly studios controlling their own streaming services. For example, Disney has recently confirmed that they will be removing a scene from Dumbo before it is available through their upcoming streaming platform, Disney Plus, due to concerns about its controversial content (Harp 2019). In my opinion, studios owning both the content and means of distribution harks back to the early days of cinema, where studios had control of the means of distribution, which was eventually challenged and ended through the courts due to antitrust laws (Conant 1987) and it’s still problematic for consumers today, only the methods of distribution have changed.

The removal of content for moral reasons does have parallels with the enforcement of the Hays morality code in early Hollywood, which was intended to govern the presentation of immoral content in film (Schaefer 1999). In my opinion, it is problematic that studios can completely erase films as well as editing them to remove questionable content, as it allows studios to gloss over problematic pasts. For archivists, a crucial part of archiving film is the ability to archive films that illustrate social values. It stands to reason that the studio who have produced the problematic work should not be the ones to evaluate it in this way, but with streaming services, we are beholden to them in this process.

However, the problems with streaming do not necessarily mean that physical media is the solution for maintaining the accessibility of archived film. Technology and the way we access film has changed. In the UK, from 2017, revenue generated from streaming and digital media overtook physical sales for the first time (Sweney 2017). As technology changes, younger generations are having increasingly less involvement with physical media, something that has become evident to me in our class discussions. It can often be expensive to purchase and maintain. However, many archival efforts remain focused on this medium, with archival labels such as Vinegar Syndrome using it as their primary method of distribution (Raftery 2018).

There are streaming services that address some of the issues around the reliance on streaming. Mubi is a streaming service that not only exhibits film but curates it, uploading a different movie every day that remains available for thirty days, providing contextual information and curating film into ‘seasons’, with different themes (Smits and Nikdel 2018). Mubi often exhibits film from important periods or movements in the history of film. Curating these films helps to address some of the problems with streaming services such as Netflix, in that there is too much content, too little context, and it can be overwhelming for consumers to engage with. That isn’t to say that this is the ultimate solution for archiving and presenting film for new generations to engage with, and it also involves a company deciding what is worthy of being archived, being led by profit and what is attractive to their audience rather than pure importance to filmic history.

The conclusion I have drawn is that the film archiving needs to be multi-faceted, with a focus on saving films but also on providing context and engaging the public with the various periods in filmic history. I believe that without engaging the wider public and contextualising the work, we have not truly saved it. The irony was not lost on me that I was learning about film archiving and considering the future of distribution methods in a building I used to actually go to see films in as a child, in its previous incarnation as the Coventry Odeon. This really brought home how films are not only a record of the culture they depict, there is an important history to archive of methods of distribution.

While there are arguments to be made for different methods of distribution in ensuring films are available for future generations, I believe that various forms of distribution have their part to play; there is no one solution. What is clear is that archiving is a cyclical process; it is through archiving films of the past that we can elicit interest in film archiving, leading to the next generation of archivists who will preserve the film of the present in the future.


Allen, N. S., Edge, M., Appleyard, J. H., and Jewitt, T. S. (1987) ‘Degradation of Historic Cellulose Triacetate Cinematographic Film: The Vinegar Syndrome’. 1987 19 (4), 379-387

Anderson, P. T. (1997) Boogie Nights. [film]: New Line Cinema

Conant, M. (1981) ‘The Paramount Decrees Reconsidered   ‘. Law and Contemporary Problems 44, 79-107

Fiegerman, S. (2019) Netflix Adds 9 Million Paying Subscribers, but Stock Falls [online] available from <> [22 May 2019]

Harp, J. (2019) Disney Won’t Include Racially-Insensitive Scenes from these Classic Movies on its Streaming Service Disney+ [online] available from <> [9 May 2019]

Jennifer, N. (2016) To Preserve Digital Film Culture—Or Lose it Forever | Conservation Lab   [online] available from <> [23 May 2019]

Jones, J. (2012) The Past is a Moving Picture: Preserving the Twentieth Century on Film. Gainesville: University Press of Florida

Porch, S. (2015) How Karina Longworth is Reimagining Classic Hollywood – and the Podcast – in ‘You must Remember this’ [online] available from <> [23 May 2019]

Raftery, B. (2018) Streaming Isn’t Everything, and Blu-Rays are Back to Prove it [online] available from <> [23 May 2019]

Sanford, J. (2010) Pussycat Theaters – a Comprehensive History of a California Dynasty. [online] available from <> [23 May 2019]

Schaefer, E. (1999) “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!” A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959. Durham: Duke University Press

Smith, D. (2014) Cinemas from the Past [online] available from <> [23 May 2019]

Smits, R. and Nikdel, E. W. (2018) ‘Beyond Netflix and Amazon: MUBI and the Curation of on-Demand Film’. Studies in European Cinema 16 (1), 22-37

Sweney, M. (2017) Film and TV ​streaming and Downloads Overtake DVD Sales for First Time [online] available from <> [23 May 2019]

Tarantino, Q. (2019) Once upon a Time in Hollywood. [film]: Sony Pictures

Truitt, B. (2019) Why the Grisly Manson Family Murders Still Fascinate (and Haunt) Us 50 Years Later [online] available from <> [22 May 2019]

Waters, J. (1972) Pink Flamingos. [film]: New Line Cinema

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