Where do all the movie prints go? Can we buy them?
What happens to all the prints of a film after they've had their runs in theaters? A movie may show on 1500 screens on opening weekend, which means there are 1500 prints in circulation, right? What happens to all these prints? Are they all stored? Sent overseas? Do they get donated or sold to film libraries? Private collectors? Are they used when the video copies of the film are made? --- Louis J. Cassorla
Almost every projection print that goes into circulation comes back an absolute mess, if it ever does come back. The days of projection booths run like spotless surgeries (as shown in Fritz Lang's CLASH BY NIGHT) are long gone. Projectionists instead thread up entire features onto large endless-loop platters that play like big 8-track tapes. The films are waxed to operate on these punishing platters and they collect scratches and dirt almost immediately. The quality of projection has certainly improved in the last decade or so, but it is still rough on the prints.
Most of these prints are eventually destined for companies bonded with the responsibility of recycling them. This used to be mainly to reclaim the traces of silver used in the photographic process. Yes, most of the thousands of release prints of a mass release are disposed of in this and other ways. There was once a trade in prints detoured from this fate, but with modern security, that black market really doesn't exist anymore. When it does happen you hear more talk of 'film piracy' and 'grand theft' than you do 'film appreciation'.
Back at the distributors, a number of showable prints (usually non-plattered screening prints) are kept for use as needed. A distribution executive I knew said he shipped off two prints of each of his studio's films to be archived at UCLA. Sounded good to me. And when I cut trailers needing shots from a movie two or three years old, the studio thought nothing of sending me a not-too-worn projection print from which I would pull two or three shots and discard the rest.
The negatives, and materials used to transfer for videotape, go an entirely different route. The original cut negative of a film is a precious thing brought out only when necessary to make dupe negs or low-contrast positives from which to print or transfer.
The tragedy of many older, popular films is that their studios reissued them so many times that their original neg was worn out and what remains to transfer now are second or third-generation pictures and hissy dupe audio tracks. Look at some less-celebrated film from the 30's, which may only have been pulled from the vault once to make a 16mm reduction print for TV, and chances are it looks very good! For films, benign neglect can sometimes be a blessing.
Restoring and remastering films often just means taking the time to find the best printing elements - if there are 3 or 4 printing low-cons in the vault, one might test them all to pick the best, or parts of several. In the case of many of Turner's fabulous MGM musicals, the trouble has been taken to work with the original separate B&W 3-strip negatives to create sparkling new video masters. With the restoration of KISS ME DEADLY, the director's own personal print was found to be in such pristine condition that it could be used as a printing element.
Text © Copyright 1997 Glenn Erickson
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson