Films need a pension scheme / A digitization field report / by Juliane Lorenz

Films need a pension scheme

A digitization field report / by Juliane Lorenz

We began digitizing the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder at the beginning of the 2000s, using what were then the standard SD (Standard Digital) and HD (High Definition) formats, which we used as the basis for the production of DVDs. These techniques, it was said, were also beneficial for the long-term archiving of films.

From 2006 onwards this information became old news. Now 2k and 4k have become the standard data formats, with the result that we have had to re-digitize our films and even more laboriously restore them in order to conform to the new formats for cinema screenings, known as Digital Cinema Package (DCP) and as “new forms of distribution.” We therefore had to start from the beginning again.

What is the difference between “digitization” and “restoration”? The digitization of analog film material is only the first step. Ideally, the analog film material available to work with is the original camera negative. The material is carefully inspected by the film or digital laboratory concerned, which issues a certified finding. Any damage is carefully repaired before the original film material is scanned or “digitized.” The production of the raw scan prior to any digital processing marks the beginning of the restoration.

Complete destruction

In the case of “Eight Hours Don’t Make A Day” (1972/2017), which had been shot on Kodak Ektachrome and was available in a 16mm color reversal negative, the finding was reassuring – with the exception of the last sentence: “The first stage of ascetic-acid syndrome is in evidence, which will unavoidably lead to the complete destruction of the substrate material in ten to fifteen years.” This meant that every effort had to be made immediately to guard against the disappearance of this film. In this particular case, luck was at hand. In the mid-nineties we had already produced a 35mm dupe negative and used it to produce 35mm film copies. This approach still remains the safest way to ensure the long-term survival of films.

What does all this cost and who pays for it? When it comes to public financing of film heritage projects, there is a difference between the funding of archives and of rights holders, such as foundations and producers. The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation belongs to the second group. In concrete terms this means that we had to finance our first SD conversion ourselves. However, our own resources were unable to cover the subsequent restoration of Fassbinder’s TV productions, which included “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1979/1980/2007), “World on a Wire” (1973/2010) and, most recently, “Eight Hours Don’t Make A Day.” It was for the restoration of the fifteen-and-a-half hour “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” the budget for which was 1.375 million euros, that we found our first financial backers, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the German Federal Cultural Foundation, and the Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen, even though at this time the restoration of film-heritage works was still very much unchartered territory. Even with such a large budget we were able to cover our restoration costs and repay all other advances from our backers within ten years.

These days, rights holders have access to a non-repayable grant provided by the digitization program of the German Federal Film Board (FFA), which covers 20 percent of the overall costs up to 15,000 euros. The purely technical restoration of a feature film with a running time of up to two hours costs between 45,000 and 50,000 euros. Longer films obviously cost more. More recent works for which copyrights still apply and which were produced with television funding cost considerably more. The copyrights for all “new distribution formats” have to be negotiated with all persons (or their legal successors) involved in the artistic side of a cinematic work: story, script, direction, cinematography, sound, editing, costumes, make-up, set and music. Moreover, actors must also be remunerated based on their performance protection rights.

The value of a country’s film heritage in terms of cultural history is incontestable. On the other hand, it is important to bear in mind the additional costs and investment of time that must be borne by the responsible rights holders prior to the restoration of more recent additions to this heritage and the realization of returns on their investment. In this area producers and distributors require additional incentives and more active support. Among other things this means that the theme of film heritage needs to have a greater public presence: in advertizing and in print and other media.

Germany’s analog film heritage is immense. If we are to maintain it in its entire scope, with all its ideological and political facets, we need to consider other financing models – models that extend well into the next century. Short-term financial projections can only serve as guidelines, and even the initially calculated budget of 450 million euros for ten years of work on the national film heritage in German archives will not be sufficient. The sum of 100 million euros to be provided by the federal government through the Ministry for Culture and Media (BKM) over ten years starting in 2018 is completely unrealistic. On the other hand, the situation is not much better for producers. In the case of the proposed three-pillar model, the first two pillars – BKM and FFA – are in place, but for the third financing pillar, which is based on regional financing, only five of the sixteen German federal states have as yet issued memoranda of understanding.

Mere millions

Wouldn’t it be possible to construct a fourth pillar involving leading representatives of the German private sector and interested sponsors? And what about a contribution from public and private television broadcasters? The answer is simple: TV broadcasters should start repurchasing licenses for restored films and creating a forum for them with programming like “Film Heritage on Thursday,” for example. Income from licensing would help producers restore more of their films.

And what can the film business itself contribute? Tax liabilities are already in place for current film production. Five cents more would certainly provide a significant additional sum for financing the preservation of the national film heritage. We could also introduce a “restoration penny,” which would be paid from the budget of every successful film funding application – a kind of film pension scheme that would guarantee the preservation of the existing and future film heritage and could be drawn on as required by archives and producers.

What is needed is thus a perspective that extends much further into the future, one that is not only focused on the financing of current film but also takes into account an appropriate level of funding for the preservation of Germany’s film heritage. The BKM, which has a total budget of 1.67 billion euros for the coming financial year, will be providing the German Federal Film Fund with 125 million, a sum that surly makes the ten million euros earmarked for the three-pillar model seem rather meager. And if more German federal states do not commit themselves, the final sum may well be only eight million.

Juliane Lorenz is president of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation.

The other contributors to our series on the preservation of the national film heritage so far have been film historians Dieter Alt (8 December 2016) and Klaus Kreimeier (9 January), Alexander Horwath from the Austrian Film Museum (27 March), and Rainer Rother from the Deutsche Kinemathek (11 July).

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