Why I’m Just Mean

Many years ago, a friend of mine disciplined his 5-year-old girl.  She reacted with disgust at not being able to do whatever she had put her mind to doing.  As one might expect with a 5-year-old, tears were immediately forthcoming and she burst out with a loud pronouncement:  “You’re just mean!”

I thought of that again the other day when I got involved in an argument on archive.org.  It was only a third-hand argument, and, frankly, I can’t do anything about it, but it points up a problem that I keep encountering, and it’s one that makes me “just mean.”

I’ve long hated the kind of collector who collects things just so other people can’t have them.  I particularly believe that film is an art form that depends on being served up socially, and someone who squirrels away prints just so no one else can see them is, I think, somewhat messed up.  This is why I do every thing I can to ensure that films I have are accessible to people.

That’s another problem.  I have a lot of films that are in “copyright hell” that no one can legally watch, and some of them are languishing with no one to show them or even (in a few cases) preserve them.  I keep these prints.  Others may be public domain but of a nature that no one will ever want to see them.  These include bad pictures, shorts of an odd length with no stars in them, and sometimes even films that are of only historic/academic interest.

I keep these prints, too.  I hope someone wants to see them someday. But I’m crazy.  You knew that.  I keep these prints and I mend them, resprocket them, throw camphor in with them, patch them, put them on new reels, etc.  It takes money.  And, as you all know, I am a film professional, which means that I make a “living” (not much of one, hence the quotes) from doing film shows, presentations, and lectures.

Film exhibition is a strange thing.  Rare films doubly so.  There may be an area that really wants to see a particular film and has wanted to for years, but they just can’t seem to find it.  I got a job recently in Vevay, IN playing a print of The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1935) just because the author of the book came from that same town.  It didn’t matter that the film had virtually nothing to do with the book.  They wanted to see it.

That film is available freely on archive.org, which is fine, since it’s in the public domain, and it had an impact on how many people showed up.  Despite the fact that I had a nice print, showed a cartoon, and showed it on a big screen, it was “contaminated” by being free on archive.org.  Only 15 or so people showed up.  It’s sad.  (I could do a whole separate posting on how theatrical exhibition is being killed by inferior material shown at home, but that’s for another time.)

I have to face the fact that I can put on a better, nicer, sharper show than archive.org can put on, but the fact that I have to charge in order to keep solvent is a hindrance to me.  That’s why I rely on a few profitable films that keep me floating above water.

These are films that are generally not very available, in the public domain, and have some niche market for them.  These are films that I run over and over again.  I refer to them as “the pantheon.”  They pay the bills for the other, less marketable, films in my collection.

Alas, I have to guard these films jealously.  No one seems to care that I lavished time, care, and hours of work into preserving some of these films.  All they care about is seeing it free on archive.org.  Many years ago, I was also involved with a video company that specialized in getting good copies of public domain titles into the marketplace.

I learned my lesson on that one, too.  Ever buy material from Alpha Video?  Well, probably 1/3 of their catalog is material that got copied from my collection.  Sure, it’s public domain, but my copies were and are nicer.  I was charging $10-$15 for copies, and they’d make DVDs blasted (poorly) off VHS copies of copies and throw them at Wal-Mart for $1.  At the time, I couldn’t even buy blanks for that price.  The power of cheap blew away the power of better quality.  Ack.

So, in response, I started doing live film shows.  These are infinitely more satisfying, because they’re with an audience, you can see the quality difference, etc.  Amazingly, if you factor in costs of media, I make more money from 2-3 successful film shows than I did in a year of selling video copies of the same film.  Extra points: as I accrue more rare titles, Alpha doesn’t get them.  I can still show them.  I get eating money.  Yay.

At this point, a lot of people will already chime in and claim that I’m “just mean” for not putting these on video.  A couple of years ago, a woman who called me worse than that for not releasing a film with questionable copyright on video.  Yes, I have the only copy, and no, no one wants to preserve it because of rights issues.  That doesn’t mean I’m going to break the law to make the film available.

I also point out that I am more than happy to rent out films from my collection, to do backyard parties or film shows, etc.  I have never told anyone to buzz off if their request was legal.  That doesn’t mean I’m going to shoot myself in the foot by putting it on video.

A while back, there were 3 people who asked me for a copy of a particularly rare film.  I won’t go into specifics, because that will draw attention to that title, and not to my overall point.  These people had some good reasons that they could use a copy.  I made some, and asked them not to make copies of that title.  I nicely explained that doing shows of this film helps keep me preserving others.  They all politely agreed.

So, then, it was a great surprise to me to find that someone had uploaded it for free use on archive.org.  It was from my own transfer and my print.  I recognized my handiwork.  It was also 2-3 generations removed from what I’d done, so yet again a degraded copy is competing in the marketplace with something I have in a better copy.

I carped about it, and said that, once again, I’m too nice.  I should tell people to buzz off when they want video copies.   It’s already had an impact: I used to get 4-5 shows on this title per year, and I’ve only had one (non-paying) in the last year.  I just can’t compete with free.

A friend of mine leaped to my defense and posted a shame-on-you response on archive.org.  The vitriol that this caused amazed me:

“There is no copyright on this movie. No one owns it. No one has the right to keep others from watching it.

“Anyone who has a digital copy can—and should—share it with others.

“XXXXXXX is the one who should be ashamed for viciously and mindlessly attacking the uploader.

“Another who should be ashamed is XXXXXXX’s friend, who attempted to keep this film out of the hands of the public, and who, by so doing, increased the likelihood that the film would be lost forever.”

WHAT??????????  ARE YOU KIDDING ME????????  Well, that caused me to have Popeye syndrome:  “I’ve had all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more.”

I wrote this in response:

“Uploading low-resolution copies of material at archive.org is not a way of preserving films. Neither is the practice of uploading books a replacement for the books themselves. It may be useful, but it’s not a preservation. I intend no slam at the wonderful service archive.org is. Google isn’t a replacement for librarians, either.

“(the film in question) is preserved at The Library of Congress and a pristine 35mm print exists that anyone can rent out. The original camera negative survives. It is not in danger of going away. There are two senses of the word ‘own’ here: in one sense I do not own the intellectual rights to these films, because they have expired rights. In another sense, I may in fact own the best surviving prints of them.

“I need prove to no one that I stand for preservation and availability of films. I have donated films to every major archive, and I’m an archive source for TV and DVD. Many films from my collection have already been bootlegged and appear here for free, often in embarrassingly poor copies. I was not provided any remuneration for the hundreds of hours I put in preserving these films, transferring them, and making them projectable. Many of these are films that I preserved myself and would not have been available had I not rescued them.

“The vast majority of films in my collection are not marketable and few people care enough to see them… When a film is free on the internet, it drastically cuts down the audience that will pay to see it projected theatrically..

“I’d be happy to make more films available on archive.org, and even make good direct-from-film transfers of them. When someone comes up with a way for me to do so without compromising both my means of income and my ability to preserve films, I’ll do it. The gas man needs to be paid, even if he may agree that what I do is cool and worthwhile.

“Perhaps you still feel that I should be ashamed, but I am not, because I’ve done more for film preservation and availability than most people you will ever meet.”

You’ll note that I did not resort to profanity even once.  I’ll admit I sure thought about it.

I’ll close with some more thoughts here.  I love old films, and I love showing them.  I preserve material that no archive and few collectors care about.  I also know that I will lose all control and all income from them once they’re on the internet.  I further understand that I can only be in so many places at once doing shows.

The whole idea of the Dr. Film show is to let me do the same sorts of things that I do in live shows, but to share them with a wider audience.  I fully realize that they’ll be bootlegged nine ways from Sunday all over the internet once they air, but at least I can be paid once for my work before it gets shared all over the net.

You want to strike a blow for film preservation and availability?  Help me get Dr. Film on TV somewhere…anywhere. (Contact your favorite TV provider and send them our web page address!)  I guarantee you’ll see oddball films that you haven’t seen before, and usually from the best prints that survive.  Strike a blow against the third-rate free films and help me do it a little closer to “the right way.”

Still, if I come to your town, please show up anyway.  OK?

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One Response to Why I’m Just Mean

  1. Glory-June Greiff says:

    The opportunity to see a decent print properly projected will ALWAYS be the best way to experience film, the least appreciated art form. Staring at a tiny screen watching a blurry or muddy copy is almost pointless. You make many good points in this thoughtful rant, Dr. Film. I knew few film preservationists as dedicated and particular as you in caring for little known (and better known) prints and willingness to get them shown–properly! Copying–especially bad copying!–is NOT preservation.
    An analogy in my profession might be that making a HABS study of a wonderful building about to be demolished is not preserving it.
    My hats (I wear many) are off to you for your untiring efforts.

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