Sunday 19 February 2012

Canyon Cinema - the impact of the digital on film access and preservation

Home from a weekend back in Scotland today I was saddened that the first e-mail I read was from the AMIA (Association of Moving Image Archivists) list saying that Canyon Cinema is under threat.  Canyon Cinema is a film collective based in California who provide over 3,500 film titles for rental, sale and distribution on film and DVD, though mostly on film - Super 8, 16 and 35mm.  I first heard of Canyon Cinema at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in LA in March 2010 where I attended a panel - 'Celebrating Chick Strand through screenings and discussions'. The co-operative started in the 1950s and their website gives an account of their history which just makes you wish you'd been there in the beginning!  Chick Strand is one of a huge number of the film makers who are represented by Canyon - other famous names include Len Lye, Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger.

The story of the threat to Canyon Cinema of course ties in with the ever increasing news coverage being given to the impact of digital on the film world, in terms of preservation and availability of 35mm prints for viewing. The New York Times article which was highlighted on the AMIA list refers to the growth of digital film as the main reason for the large drop in profits from renting, selling and distributing films.  The article quotes Dominic Angerame, Executive Director of Canyon Cinema, as saying that about 70% of their film titles are not digitised and that its annual film rental income has dropped from $133,000 in 2004 to about $90,000 now.    The suggestion is that they would need to digitise the majority of their film titles in order to survive, and the cost of this is so prohibitive as to make it impossible. 

Now I know that nothing stays the same forever and that technologies have to change but I am just so saddened by the implications of the take-over of digital film.  The thought of never seeing a film on 35mm in a cinema again, of the ever-increasing difficulty which film archives, film schools, and individual film lovers are going to have in getting hold of and maintaining the equipment needed to project and repair films.  All this makes me so sad and I really don't think that change is always a good thing.Of course digitising all the film titles in their collection would increase their accessibility but I just don't see that digitisation is the solution to everything - many of these films were made by the artists to be experience in the particular medium they were made in.  Not to mention that there are still many viewers who want to experience the films in their original format.  However I'm not a Luddite either and I get that there are lots of benefits to digital over film - I just don't want to have the new over the old - can't they co-exist?

Interestingly the article also says that the money problems of Canyon Cinema have been around for a while and that in 2009 they got $100,00 from Stanford University for selling them their paper archive.  I did wonder why the paper records weren't actually held at Canyon - I thought maybe the didn't have the space, the staff, or the time to make them accessible.  It hadn't occurred to me that this would be a way of trying to ensure survival of the film collection.  Again, although I understand it is rarely practical to house entire paper collections with the film collections they relate to - different preservation needs, storage conditions, different archive specialisms to name but a few issues that spring to mind - in an ideal world I'd love it if more archives did contain the films themselves alongside the paper records relating to their creation, even better if it was all catalogued on the one database - ah well, it's nice to have archive dreams!

I was glad to read in the article that they do have some options and ideas for how to ensure the survival of the film co-operative.  The proposition is that by turning themselves into a non-profit they would have a much higher chance of survival - well, I hope this turns out to be true.

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