By April MacIntyre
According to UCLA’s Film and Television Archive, 50 percent of all films produced in the U.S. prior to 1950 have already disappeared and 90 percent of classic film prints are in very poor condition. Similarly, much of historic television now exists only on obsolete and deteriorating tape formats.
Addressing these issues is 20th Century Fox’s archival team, the small Local 683, which is managed by Schawn Belston, Fox’s executive director of film preservation and worldwide library services. The walls of his office, three floors down in the underground vaults of Building 99, are filled with posters, books and stills of the Fox legacy.
Some have suggested that Fox—pioneer of such cinematic breakthroughs as the Technicolor process and CinemaScope—came a little late to the restoration and preservation game. But better late than never. The studio has made up for the tardiness with many successes, including a brilliantly remastered All That Jazz.
Being a film preservationist was risky business with the old nitrate-based stock, which eventually decomposed into ultra-combustible nitroglycerin. Fires occurred in the 1930’s and later in the 70’s at Fox storage facilities in New Jersey.
It is the responsibility of Belston and Local 683 to preserve Fox’s film library in Los Angeles, mitigating the risk of ruination from time, poor film stock and improper storage. Overseeing the cataloguing of film and other media, including posters, stills and props, Belston and the preservationists manning the archives are constantly protecting, checking and restoring the classics and the studio’s film, TV and pilot inventory—housed in cavernous gray rooms where the temperature is kept at a steady 37 degrees and the humidity at constant 47 percent. Every title is entered in a database; some are re-mastered with new elements added, or completely restored.
Much of Fox’s library is being re-released as DVD home video for new generations to rediscover, making Belston and the preservationists invaluable to the many original cinematographers, DP’s, sound re-recordists and editors who initially worked on these films. All are creative craftspeople that Belston enjoys collaborating with.
Among the first films out from the opening of the Fox vaults: All About Eve, How Green Was My Valley, An Affair to Remember, and historic German filmmaker Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s critically celebrated Sunrise.
Belston clearly walks a fine line: corporate asset manager and creative esthete breathing new life into forgotten films overlooked by time and ravaged by decay. Not surprisingly, many staffers come to his department from crew positions, discovering the vaults while working on the lot, lured by the clever work Local 683 is entrusted with. Summed up Belston: “We are the keepers of the Logo.”
By April MacIntyre