An Open Letter to Google: You’re Killing Us

The motto of Google is, “Don’t be evil.”  Well, I’ve got a message for you, guys.  You’re being evil.  I don’t think it’s intentional, but you’re killing us.  By “us” I mean the small group of independent film preservationists who try to make a living my preserving and presenting films.  And there’s one thing that’s killing us more than anything else.


YouTube (which is owned by Google), has morphed into a Frankenstein-like creature that’s made up of cat videos, people’s reviews of other media, music, and bootlegged movies.  It’s become the global repository for everything that is cinema.  People never seem to ask me whether something is available on video, on film, whether they can see it with an audience, nothing but this: “Can I see it on YouTube?”

But there’s a problem.  Google has an odd policy about YouTube, which is that anyone can post anything for any reason at any time and it’s up to the original copyright owners to file a complaint to take it down.  The amount of Google patrolling that happens there is pretty thin.  Disney does it of course, but you have to be on it all the time.  New videos pop up every moment.  And I’ve done some complaining… they often ask me if I’m really affiliated with the project.

Google seems to have the idea that the whole world will be better if everything that ever existed in the history of the world is suddenly indexed and available for download.  A few years ago, Google was scanning books, copyright notwithstanding, and posting them for searching in Google Books.  When some of the authors complained, there was a strange reaction that this was somehow stupid.  After all, if the books are up and searchable, isn’t that an advertisement for you to buy it?

No, it isn’t.  And it’s even worse for people restoring films.  You see, the restoration of a film isn’t copyrightable.  Please don’t email me and tell me otherwise.  I’ve researched it.  If I add something to it, then I can copyright the changes, but only that.

So if I restore an uncopyrighted film, spend hours doing it, release it on video to recover my costs, then it’s perfectly legal for someone to rip the DVD and throw it on YouTube.  A lot of people think this is great.  It’s cool.  It’s sharing a movie with the world, opening up the audience.  And, to a certain degree, that’s true.  It is giving publicity to the work.

But it’s free.  And it encourages people not to buy the work, which means that sales go down, and suddenly you’re not making it on the razor-thin margin of sales, but you’re still reaching the same number or more people than you reached before.  They’re just not paying for it.

Sure, I hear you say, there are people who will find out about your work on YouTube and buy it just to show support.  But I’m finding that that’s about 1 person in 10 to 1 in 20.  Five to ten percent.  90%-95% just look at it and say, “WHEE!  IT’S FREE.”

So I’m just a bitter whiner punk, right?  Well, don’t believe me.  Ask people like Paul Gierucki, David Shepard, Kevin Brownlow or Dave Stevenson.  They’ve all had to curtail or stop their releases because of YouTube.

And Google is generous enough to let us share ad revenues with people who post films.  That’s wonderful. We can post our own stuff and hope we can make money that way.  Except no.

The most popular person on YouTube has some six billion views, with an annual income of $4 million.  This equates to about $ .0006 per view.  That’s for dude-boy video games and YouTube Poops that are amazingly popular.  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we apply that to a bootlegged version of Seven Chances that appears on YouTube.  It’s got 40,500 views at this point.  I’m not supplying the link because I fear that some of you will watch it.

I spent about 80 hours just fixing the color sequence for this film, and Kino paid me about $250 for my trouble. (They apologized for this, and they were very nice, but they said they couldn’t afford any more.)  The bootlegger has taken this film, which I’ve got to say is probably among the most popular silent Blu-Rays, and he’s earned a whopping–get this–$24.68.

And let’s assume that maybe one in ten would otherwise have bought the film if they couldn’t get it for free… that’s 4050 copies sold.  I’m sure Kino would LOVE to have sold that many of this disc set.  I’ll bet it didn’t sell anywhere near that.

While I’m on the topic of Seven Chances, let me take this opportunity to rant a bit more.  Not only does Kino make no money off this, but the print on YouTube is horrible.  The uploaders used a compression technique that makes the film really dark, so that you can barely see the color in the sequence I restored, and a lot of detail is missing in the rest of the film.

I think this really does Seven Chances and silent film in general a great disservice.  By featuring inferior copies on YouTube, we’re perpetuating the idea that silent films, and old films in general, look bad.  People almost invariably feel that it’s due to bad old technology and not bad new compression techniques.  This perpetuates the idea that old films are inherently boring and not worth seeing.


Not only is Google depriving us of income that we might otherwise get, the are also poisoning the well for new people giving these films a chance.  The vast majority of the bootlegged features are exceptionally dark and blurry, and this is often noted in reviews that we see on IMDb.  Sometimes for good movies.

Let me clarify that Seven Chances IS copyrighted, and that one of the bootlegged versions has been up for two years from the time of this posting.  It’s got the copyrighted score on it.  Imagine how much easier it would be to bootleg someone’s restoration of a public domain film.  That’s not even against Google’s rules.

Look, I appreciate free as much as the next guy, but the market here is dying.  At one time, you could try to sell films to TCM, but they’re becoming increasingly insular due to costs, and they still have zillions of films from the RKO, MGM, and Warner library that they’ve never aired.  Why should they license films from outside?

That leaves Google.  I’d love to see Google spend some of its dripping billions on putting non-junk on YouTube.  If YouTube is suddenly the cultural repository of all video not on NetFlix, then can it at least look good?  Can you find collectors, historians, archives, and preservationists who will get you good prints instead of stuff that’s reviewed as “bad, and I couldn’t read most of the titles”?  Throw those people or organizations a check.  After all, they saved good copies of the films in the first place.

I suppose we can consider, but their stuff, with a few exceptions, looks even worse than YouTube.  It’s even more lax in rules than YouTube, with blatant violations like an uncut Dracula and the Metropolis restorations with complete Kino titles.

I know that a lot of people seem to think that restorations happen like magic and are pretty cheap to do.  I used to be in the computer animation business and we’d have a similar problem: guys would come in and request substantial changes, then come back in 5 minutes and ask to see them.  Hence our motto: “All computer rendering takes place in zero time.”

Since I do this professionally, I’ll outline what I’ve done on my NFPF restoration of King of the Kongo.  I get a couple of requests a month to put this on YouTube, and about two per week asking for the Dr. Film episodes.  Then they don’t understand why I answer, “I can’t afford to put them on YouTube.  Once they’re on YouTube, they’re valueless.

I don’t have another job to fall back on for the money I lose on this.  And if I did have another job, I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the work I do now.  Here’s what went into King of the Kongo, Chapter 10:

  1. About $6500 of lab work, including scanning and archival film recording.
  2. Breaking the film down on a shot-by-shot basis to fix contrast and brightness issues (about two days of work plus about two days of computer rendering time.)
  3. Stabilizing the film on shot-by-shot basis to make the image stable enough to do lip sync.  (about 4 days of work plus a couple of days of rendering.)
  4. Synchronizing the sound.  This is a technical disaster that I could go on about for hours, but let’s just say it was about a week.
  5. Getting everything moved.  The sound discs moved from Michigan to Indianapolis, to Virginia, to New Jersey, back to Virginia, and back to New Jersey.  This was all hand-carried to avoid damage in shipment. The film went from NY to Indianapolis, then hard drives went back and forth.  The logistics are a nightmare, with about 5-6 people involved in it.
  6. Restoring the credits.  Again, a long, long explanation, but a lot of math and about 4 days of work for 45 seconds of footage.
  7. De-noising the picture.  Using a special statistical analysis program, all 30,000+ frames of the film are analyzed to remove suspected dust.  About half of these are false positives and must be cancelled by hand.  This takes about two weeks.

Now, I did get an NFPF grant to cover this.  They covered the lab expenses.  Everything else I did myself.

So am I going to put this all on YouTube for free?

Am I going to produce more episodes of the Dr. Film show and post them for free?  (Maybe even one with the Kongo restorations.)

I’d love to.  I’ll do it when Google sends me a big check to cover my heating bills for last winter.  I’m sure not going to make it back in Blu-Ray sales.

Why Ted Turner is Cool

Ted Turner has, at least in the eyes of film fans, perhaps the worst reputation of any living person.  The commonplace idea that I hear from fans is that he is assured of a place in Film Purgatory for his colorization efforts and that he only really deserves praise for Turner Classic Movies, which was something he didn’t care about very much.

Bunk, I say.  Bunk.

Let me address a minor sticking point here: some of my dear readers may say that since I’d like to sell my pilot for Dr. Film to Turner Classic Movies, then I probably am giving a suspect opinion so that I can butter up a potential buyer.  Again, not so.  Ted is long gone from any active position at Turner Classic Movies, and I’ve been singing Ted’s praises for years, far before Dr. Film was even a gleam in my splicing block.

Ted may be the single greatest contributor to film preservation in the history of the 20th Century.   He’s certainly in the top 10.  Don’t believe me still?  Here’s why:

MGM has had a troubled history since the late 1950s; they had a big sale of their studio memorabilia as early as 1970 and they were bought and sold and bought and sold and bought and sold (I think that’s actually the right number.)  At a particularly low point in 1986, Ted bought MGM—the entire studio, films, buildings, everything… lock, stock, and barrel.  People said he was crazy.

That wasn’t the first time.  Turner bought a floundering TV station in 1970, renamed it WTCG.  It was still broadcasting in black and white, so he held a telethon to raise money to get color equipment.  He sold bumper stickers and sold ad time cheaply just to keep cash flowing.  People said he was crazy.

He was one of the first people to buy space on one of those giant, old-fashioned satellites.  These are the ones that used to litter the countryside at every hotel with a FREE HBO sign.  But Turner’s station was just up there for free, not some premium channel.  He generated his money from ads.  People said he was crazy.

Turner dreamed of having a media empire, and he had only a measly UHF TV station and a space on a satellite.  He renamed his station WTBS, nicknamed it the Super Station, and then set his sights on another goal.

He started another station, this time on satellite only, and called it CNN.  It was a 24-hour news channel.  Everyone said he was crazy.  There wasn’t enough news for a 24-hour cycle, they said, and tiny Atlanta, Georgia was too remote from the hubs of the universe (Los Angeles and New York) to get any decent news coverage.  I remember people making fun of him.

In the late 1980s, with CNN a success, Turner fought for squeezed space on the large satellites and got another station on the air: TNT.  He did every deal he could with as many carriers as he could to get it on the air.  People said he was crazy.

But I jump ahead of myself.  Remember I said that Turner wanted a media empire?  He dreamed of owning a movie studio and making his own movies.  In 1986, with MGM in the doldrums, having merged with United Artists, also in the doldrums, underwater with debt from films that failed to make money, Turner thought it might be a good chance to buy the studio.

It didn’t work out.  Many people claim that Turner was acting as a corporate raider, just cherry-picking the items he wanted from the studio, but I tend to believe that Turner hoped to maintain the studio as it had been.  For whatever reason, Turner and his investors sold off the studio and its assets one by one, except for one item: MGM’s film library.

In the mid-80s, with one station, and another planned, it made sense for Turner to have access to a large film library, and MGM had it: the entire Warners library pre-1948; the entire MGM library to 1986, and the entire RKO library.  All of this material was deemed worthless by most experts.  It had been played to death on local television over a period of 30 years.  There was no real home video market for any but a few titles.

Amazingly, Turner did what no one else would do.  He poured money into preservation.  New 35mm prints were made for distribution to theaters.  MGM’s restoration efforts, which had started years earlier, were stepped up and enhanced.  Turner entered the home video market, even the laserdisc market, which was just starting.  Anything that even had a chance of selling was issued.

When TNT (Turner Network Television) launched in 1988, Ted scheduled it full of films that hadn’t been seen in years.  They were all transferred from beautiful 35mm prints.  That lasted until he found he could make more money with newer material, so the movies got forced out.  Those were great days at TNT, though, because there were movies shown there that have rarely been screened since.  In the early days of the channel, everything was fair game.

There was a channel dedicated to older films at the time, and that was American Movie Classics (AMC).  They even had a long-term lease on the RKO package that eventually expired and reverted to Turner.  In those days, AMC was commercial-free, its fees paid by the cable companies who carried it.  Turner started Turner Classic Movies in 1994 following AMC’s model.  He also made sure that anyone picking up TCM had to pick up WTBS and TNT as well, guaranteeing that he’d have some extra income from the movies.

Ted felt that the best thing he could do was treat his investment with respect so that he could make as much money off it as he could.  I say more power to him.  Some people look at classic film as some supreme royal sacrifice, something that one does just for art’s sake.  Turner did it and made it pay.  And he made it pay the right way.  Restoration, video availability, cable showings, 35mm booking prints.

We only need look to the example set by Hallmark recently for the other end of the spectrum.  They purchased the Hal Roach back library, rather unenthusiastically, as a tax loss investment.  They were begged to release Laurel and Hardy films, maybe some Charley Chase titles.  SOMETHING.  Eventually, Turner Classic Movies got a package out of them.  Hallmark couldn’t be bothered to look through what they had.  They didn’t care, and the materials languished.  Thank heaven UCLA now has all of it and is giving it the care it deserves.  The problem is that this stuff could have made them money–maybe not a lot, but some.

OK, I avoided talking about colorization, but here goes.  I hate it, I’ve always hated it.  It looks fake.  Turner’s pushing it was obnoxious, and I didn’t like it.  I never saw a single picture that looked better with it, although I’d nominate the nasty color version of King Kong as the worst one.  That being said, it’s an interesting technical experiment.

I’ve always rather suspected that Turner never really wanted to change the world with colorization, but only to get some publicity with the idea.  After all, boring old movies never get any press, and he sure got it.  He ruffled feathers in the process, but that never bothered him.

Eventually, he even got a chance to make his own movies, and they’ve gotten a fair amount of respect.  Maybe he was right the whole time about needing a studio.

(As an aside: you want loyalty to friends?  Ted’s your man.  Anchorman Bill Tush [with a short u] started with Turner in the WTCG days.  He stayed as a news anchor until Ted gave him a weekly show in 1980, a groundbreaking original comedy.  When that didn’t gel, Tush got a cushy job at CNN that lasted for many years.  Ted takes care of his friends.)

Having accomplished what he set out to do–creating a media empire–Turner sold his stock to Time Warner and cashed out.  Turner, for all his flamboyant crazy behavior, seemed to run his stations more efficiently than the conglomerate does.  The crown jewel in the collection is probably still Turner Classic Movies, which showcases classic movies from most of the major studios.  I love the irony that Warner Brothers bought back their own, “worthless,” catalog of films when they bought Turner Broadcasting.  Who’s really crazy?

Turner strikes me as somewhat of a throwback to the brazen showman/marketer types like Merian C. Cooper in the 1930s.  Turner had a vision, and was going to pursue it.  He was loyal, but anyone who criticized him could be stepped on.  Quality was paramount.  Even if it was pro wrestling, he wanted it done well.

We could use a few more people like that.  Viva Ted.

The Reclusive Collector, or How Films Become Lost

Film people are a different breed.  It’s a necessity.  Some of you have heard the legends about some guy who has discovered the only print of Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight (1927).  The story goes that he’s just waiting to cash in on the bonanza when the film’s copyright expires.  Well, there isn’t a bonanza.  The potential market for a video release of London After Midnight is so small that the money probably wouldn’t even cover the costs of transferring a nitrate print to video.

Film collectors don’t collect films because we want something rare and valuable (there are a few, but not many, who do that).  We collect films because we love them.  We collect films because they look beautiful on the big screen.  We collect films because we know that many will be neglected and thrown away unless we keep them.  Most of us would like to do more public shows, but the way the laws are written makes it difficult.  (See my other post on “The Marx Brothers Explain Copyright Law” for a more detailed rant on this).

The rules for public performance of music are much more civilized than they are for film.  I can even bend the artist’s intent and still get by with it.  If I decided that I wanted to become Hitler Elvis, and that I wanted to sing Elvis songs in German while doing a “Sieg Heil,” I could probably do it.  I’d have to pay the BMI/ASCAP fees and keep a record of which songs I played, but I could do it.  I use this example not because I’m advocating it, but because artistically it’s about as far from what Elvis did as I can imagine.

But for film it’s different.  Say I wanted to run a retrospective of Walt Disney movies, and I wanted to do it respectfully using quality prints.  Say I wanted to pay the proper royalties and contacted the people at the Disney corporation.  They’d file charges against me!  Sure, I can be disrespectful to Elvis for a price!  But even paying proper respect to Mickey Mouse gets the Feds at your door.

It’s much easier for a collector to sit on his collection and not let anyone see the films he has.  No hassles, no effort.  It avoids all kinds of issues.  I’ve been called evil and greedy by people who want me to release a copyrighted film on video (I won’t).  I’ve been called evil and greedy by movie studios who are upset that I saved something they threw out.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s a real story…

A number of years ago I was in an old film exchange in Vincennes, IN.  They were going to close it and throw out all the films that no one wanted.  Down in the guts of the building was a 35mm print of a film listed as Going All the Way.  I recognized the title. It was based on a best-selling novel by Dan Wakefield, and much of it was shot near my house.  The owner of the building wanted $50 for the print, so I figured I could watch it once and trade it.  At least I’d see it on a big screen.  Remember, I have 35mm projectors at my house.

How, you may ask, did a print end up here?  It happens all the time.  The studio makes a decision: “Are we going to make enough money off a future show to justify paying for return shipping on this print?”  If not, they just leave it for the owner of the theater or film exchange.  This is a long-held tradition in the film industry.  Dawson City, Alaska became the last-stop dumping ground for hundreds of silent films, and they were miraculously preserved due to the low temperatures.  The practice of dumping continues to this day, which is how I found this print.

A few years later I happened to meet the author of the book Going All the Way, Dan Wakefield, at a poetry reading.  Knowing that there’s an audience for personal appearances, I asked him if he might be willing to appear at a screening of the film if I could arrange it.  He was very nice and told me that he’d be happy to do that.  Unfortunately, I had no idea who owned the film, and he apparently didn’t, either, so that made it doubly difficult.

Like many independent films, Going All the Way only barely got made.  Even though the book was a best-seller, and Dan Wakefield is a major author, it was a tough sell.  Since there’s a fair amount of sex in it, the major studios shied away.  Studios like to make films with explosions and not ones from character-based books.

Going All the Way got sweet revenge on the studios by being one of those rare independent films with a long shelf life.  Ben Affleck appeared in it (before he became famous), which suddenly makes an obscure indie into a marketable feature.  The copyright records indicated a complex web of finances and loans. Unfortunately, I couldn’t track down who owned it for a theatrical screening.  The rights history is online, but there are video rights and theatrical rights, and all sorts of other ancillary things.   After a while it looks like buckshot on a rural stop sign.

A buddy of mine tipped me off that the theatrical rights might be owned by a particular studio.  I won’t implicate them, partly because they’re generally pretty nice, but they’re known the world around.  I called my contact there, and he told me that it was owned by a studio sub-division, and he gave me the contact information.

The lady yelled at me and screamed that I was an evil film pirate, and that they would sue me.  I thanked her and told her that I’d suddenly lost the film and I wouldn’t be showing it.  Normally, I’d offer to let the studio borrow the print or use it for remastering, but not with an attitude like that!  She confirmed that they didn’t have a negative or print material on it.  (It’s not surprising… I think I counted twelve ownership changes since the film was released.  Studios just bought rights in bulk and didn’t check to see if film shipped on every title.)

I point out that this explains why there isn’t a legitimate DVD or Blu-Ray of Going All the Way.  With the film masters missing, no one has material good enough to reissue the film.  It’s not exactly lost, but it’s the next thing to it.  We’ve got the low-definition master tape made for cable release and VHS.  That’s it.  Amazon has some bootleg DVDs made from the VHS tapes.  I’m sure they look terrible.

Let me interject here that projecting 35mm is a lot of work.  You have to change reels every 20 minutes.  It’s heavy, and everything needs to be rewound afterward.  I don’t do it unless I really need to.  So this film had been sitting in my basement, unseen, for all this time.  I will also interject that it was on Agfa stock, important because Agfa is an undated stock that a lot of independent films used, because it was pretty cheap.

Fast forward another year or two.  A film festival wants to run Going All the Way.  They want to get Mr. Wakefield to attend the screening.  They’ve heard I have a print.  They contact me and ask what I know about it.  I tell them that the owner studio is hostile, but if they can get a legal clearance, I’d be happy to let them use the print.

But first, I’d need to watch it to make sure the print is in good shape.  In all these years I hadn’t seen it.  I figured it was time.

I put in the first reel.  It was ratty and brittle, but runnable. A couple of splices made with masking tape.  Ick.  The credits came up with the title, and a 1950s car.  Looked OK.  As  I let it run, I realized that Ben Affleck wasn’t in the movie, nor was anyone else I knew from the cast.  This wasn’t the right film!

What I had gotten was a soft-core drive-in film called Goin’ All the Way (no g—that’s the key).  I hadn’t known it because it was on undated film stock. I never had the film that I thought I’d had.  The festival ran the correct movie from VHS (gag). All that work to track down the owners and the rights, threats of lawsuits, and nothing!

And still, it’s possible that Going All the Way will never be recovered on film.  It was made in 1997!  If this film were a person, he wouldn’t be old enough to drink yet!

This is how films become lost.  It’s also how collectors, people who want to play the rules, will say, “I don’t have that.  I don’t know anything about it.”

No wonder that 50% of all films made before 1950 are said to be lost today.