The Expensive Afterlife of Digital Movies

Surprise, surprise! Now after the shift to digital filmmaking is almost complete, we discover that archiving film for the future is more expensive than expected.

It used to be that when a motion picture studio was ready to archive a film, they packed the film, trailers, and assorted takes and shipped them off to a salt mine in Kansas or a limestone mine in Pennsylvania. It was a file-and-forget system that cost about $1,059 for the film’s master.

But then came digital, and everything changed. What’s astonishing is that the problem didn’t become public until recently when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the results of a yearlong study of digital archiving called “The Digital Dilemma.”


To store a digital master record of a movie costs about $12,514 a year—more than 12 times the cost of the film master. But, what’s worse is that to keep everything associated with making the film in the digital domain soars to $208,569 a year.

That’s vastly higher than the $486 it costs store the equivalent camera negatives, audio recordings, on-set photographs, and annotated scripts of an all film production into the cold-storage vault.

If you think this is doesn’t make sense—well, it doesn’t. Producing a film digitally was supposed to make it more accessible and less costly. But ubiquity, it turns out, is not the same as permanence.

Milton Shefter, a longtime film preservationist who helped prepare the academy’s report, told the New York Times that the problems associated with digital movie storage, if not addressed, could point the industry “back to the early days, when they showed a picture for a week or two, and it was thrown away.”

Unless something changes, Shefter said, many movies or the source material associated with them could reach “digital extinction” over a relatively short span of years.

Wait a minute. We’ve been there, done that. In fact, only about half of the films made before 1950 now survive. Old, flammable film stock was allowed to degrade, turning into combustible mush within the film can. The switch to digital technology was supposed to end all this.

Ironically, all films now being shown digitally are being stored in film format, protecting the finished product for 100 years or more. But for film aficionados, the current practice is already less than perfect. The digitally produced images are of lower quality than a pure film process and that is what becomes stored for the ages.


(click thumbnail)Beacham edits 16mm film in 1968. No archival problems here, film looks as good now as the day it was shot.But, it’s in the future where the problem really gets worse. As the conversion of theaters to digital projection takes hold in the coming years, demand for 35mm film stock will be reduced. At some point, the need for film will completely disappear. Then, we are operating totally in the computer domain.

Cheaply made hard drives, as we know, fail after a couple of years. DVDs tend to degrade—only half of a collection of disks can be expected to last for 15 years, says the report. Digital audio tends to hit a “brick wall” when it degrades. To put it simply, this stuff is fragile with a capital “F.”

As one generation of digital technology replaces the next, archived materials must be repeatedly “migrated” to the new format, or risk becoming unreadable. All of that makes digital archiving a managed, dynamic rather than a static process—one that studios have never before undertaken.

Today, the studios are saving as much of this digital ephemera as possible, storing it on tapes or hard drives in vaults not unlike those that house traditional film. But how much of that material will be migrated when technology shifts in seven to 10 years is anyone’s guess.

My guess is only the most profitable material will get the “white glove” treatment. Films that did not rate high on the monetary scale will be left as is. Once a film is out of sight, it becomes out of mind.

This, of course, is grossly unfair, since some of the best cinema—the stuff far ahead of its time—may not score high with audience popularity but will be of critical important in the years ahead.

There is only one answer to this problem. The technical industry must create a bulletproof archival system that can preserve these valuable archival treasures for generations to come. Once established, it should be agreed upon by all parties and adhered to in order to make all films available for future scrutiny.

Why we proceeded with digital technology without having an appropriate archival system is another of life’s mysteries. Could it be that at the end of the day it will cost just as much as film. Perhaps? But it just goes to show how poorly new systems are thought out before they are implemented.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that the only truly archival medium appears to be the medium being abandoned: 35mm film. Go figure!


With this column, we start a new feature. It’s a bi-weekly podcast featuring yours truly, Frank Beacham, reading from the best of the The Big Picture and Net Soup columns, along with assorted interviews and other entertainment industry news.

The new podcast is called “Beyond Television” and can be accessed at Go to the Web site and subscribe for an automatic download. It’s also available from Apple iTunes.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.