Loss of Universal’s tape and film vault raises archival questions

Last week’s fire that destroyed a massive video and film vault at Universal Studios in Los Angeles was followed by news that no tape or film assets were lost. Copies of everything exist at a backup location.

Now, a week later, there’s concern this may not exactly be true.

By midweek, as the smoke cleared, Universal executives realized that the losses could be far more serious than originally thought though not even the studio itself is sure where things stand. Some executives said it’s still too early to tell what was lost.

However, Paul Ginsburg, a vice present at the studio, warned repertory theaters in an e-mail that the fire “destroyed nearly 100 percent of the archive prints kept here on the lot.”

Totally destroyed were vault services, shipping and receiving, and the studio’s massive tape and film vault. The majority were tape assets with a small percentage being film.

Everything is replaceable — in theory. Backups exist in Philadelphia. However, some prints are enormously valuable in their own right. EK prints, struck from the original negatives when the negatives were new, are among the most valuable assets, according to experts.

Even if a negative is immaculate, a new print might not match the old, said David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Even black-and-white classics might not be fully reproducible.

The biggest issue today, though, is that while these archival prints can be replaced, that doesn’t mean they will be. “That’s the biggest fear,” Patrick Loughney, curator of motion pictures at George Eastman House, told “Daily Variety.” “That the only real revenue from these films is from cable TV and DVD, and they won’t have new prints made. Then these important films won’t be available in the form in which they were meant to be seen.”