What Happens to Films Selected for Preservation by the Library of Congress?
On Wednesday morning, the Library of Congress announced its latest slate of movies selected for permanent safekeeping in the National Film Registry. As always, the picks varied widely. The National Film Registry’s class of 2017 includes Dumbo (1941), The Goonies (1985), Die Hard (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), and Titanic (1997), plus the home movies of a Mexican-American family of life in Corpus Christi, Texas in the 1920s.
Originally established in 1988, the National Film Preservation Act tasks the board with selecting American films that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically" significant. They can pick up to 25 per year, and the movies must be at least 10 years old. The National Film Preservation Board is made up of representatives from a number of industry organizations, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Directors Guild of America, and the National Society of Film Critics. With the new selections, there are 725 films in the registry.
Selection for the registry is an honor, of course, but what does it mean beyond that? How does the Library of Congress, the U.S. legislature’s storage agency for documents and media, go about preserving movies?
According to Steve Leggett, program coordinator for the National Film Preservation Board, selection implores the Library of Congress to get the best possible copy of the film in its original format and store it in their vaults at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. This ensures the film will be available to future generations.
For Hollywood movies, the process is usually pretty easy. “We simply ask the studio to donate a copy,” Leggett told Mental Floss in 2015. In some cases, that isn’t even necessary. The Library of Congress has more than 1 million films on file, many of them sent by studios or filmmakers for the sake of copyright registry. When the original Star Wars was selected in 1989, Leggett says, congressional librarians simply checked that the 35 millimeter print submitted with Lucasfilm’s copyright application was in good shape. It was, so no further action was needed.
For older and more esoteric selections like newsreels, silent films, documentaries, and early technical achievements in filmmaking, Leggett says the library often seeks out a copy from the community of preservationists. Universities, private foundations, and hobbyists that preserve old films might get a call from the Library of Congress if they have a good copy of a National Film Registry selection. In rare cases, the library will barter for the film, using redundant materials on its shelves. Other times, it will make a copy or pay the archivist to make a new 35 millimeter copy for them. The Culpeper facility stores nitrate prints, the original film stock for many early movies, in specialty lockers because the material is highly volatile and flammable.
Silent films can be tricky because studios often released, revised, and then re-released versions of the film. When one is selected, Library of Congress archivists collect as many aspects and versions of the film as they can, which might mean contacting several studios and archivists.
Of particular challenge in 2015 was the induction of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, William Greaves’s quasi-documentary of his 1968 theatrical project staged in Central Park. The film was screened often through the years, as Greaves gained a cult following. It was released on DVD in 2006, but the National Film Preservation Act specified that the library should seek a copy in the original format, which it didn’t have. Leggett said Greaves’s 1968 original cut was “lost,” but the library worked with the late filmmaker's estate to create a new 35 millimeter version that resembled it.
The Audio-Visual Conservation Center itself, buried on a mountainside, has storage space controlled to stay cool and dry. “A film could survive for hundreds of years there,” Leggett says. He admits the audiovisual center wouldn’t survive a nuclear strike—in the event of World War III, the world might lose its best copy of Buster Keaton’s The General—“but it did survive an earthquake with all materials intact.”