By Elaine Hargrove-Simon
On February 8, 2001, the Silha Forum marked a creative departure from typical fora of the past which have dealt with issues relating to press law and ethics. Entitled "Lost and Found," the forum dealt with the rights and responsibilities of the film industry, in film restoration and preservation, as well as the rights all of us have to enjoy film as a significant part of our culture and history.
The Forum was presented by Barry Allen, Executive Director of Broadcast Services for Paramount Studios in Hollywood, whose work involves the rescue and restoration of film. According to Allen, an estimated ninety percent of the films made before 1920 have been lost, and fifty percent of the films made between 1920 and 1950 are gone. Losses are attributed to many things, such as studios going out of business, lack of concern for the artistic value in the films, simple carelessness, film deterioration, changes in film ownership, ignorance, and a lack of ownership trails with the result that a current owner's name is unknown. But there are other losses as well - some films have been purposely destroyed because the film had been based on a book or some other work, and the rights had expired. It was easier in some cases to destroy the film than to deal with the resulting liability. Parts of film can be lost as well, when segments are edited to shorten running time, or when the edges of pictures are cut so that wide screen frames can fit the smaller ratio of a television screen.
According to Allen, the film industry began from a need to tell stories, and stories were told out of a need to explain the mysteries of the world around us. In the beginning of time, such stories were not written down, but were passed from one to another orally. Today there are no new stories, Allen says, but the best of them are retold, especially when they reflect something eternal and universal.
Directors are concerned that alterations, such as editing for language content or nudity, can alter or dilute their work when films move from the theater to network broadcast. It was especially problematic in the early days of television when there were so many more taboo areas than there are today. One film from this era, Secret Ceremony, starred Elizabeth Taylor as a prostitute. Before the film was aired on television, her occupation was changed. The director protested and finally demanded that his name be removed from the credits. Losses such as this and others diminish the director's message, as well as the efforts of the artists who participated in the making of the film.
In television's early days, the demand for programming was so great that many films that might have been lost found a new life on the air, and thereby were saved from obscurity. Even so, many of them needed to be preserved, or even restored. Allen's work at Paramount currently focuses on evaluating the assets of the recently acquired Republic film library; on evaluating the condition of its contents and determining which properties should have priority treatment based on the value of a title and its urgency for preservation. He further coordinates the task of gathering master film elements from archives worldwide, and he is also working with the UCLA Film and Television Archive, where the bulk of the nitrate negatives of the Republic library are on deposit.
Allen concluded his presentation with a challenge to the audience. "If you do not like where popular entertainment is going," he said, "you have the opportunity to influence change. Those of you who go into the real world to be writers, teachers, and parents have the power to influence your children, your readers, and your students....It will happen if enough of you care to make it happen."
In addition to leading the Silha Forum, Allen was interviewed by Minnesota Public Radio in a conversation about protecting and preserving film and home videos. In an event co-sponsored by the Minnesota Film Board, Allen presented the first public screening of a newly restored print of The Red Pony on February 9 at the Heights Theater in Northeast Minneapolis, itself a restoration-in-progress. The following evening, Allen presented a newly restored version of Johnny Guitar, also at the Heights. All three Silha events received detailed coverage in the Twin Cities' City Pages, and each event was open to the public.