The Film Collectors Who Risked Everything To Preserve Film History
We don’t know how easy we’ve got it. Film collecting these days is a pretty straight-forward process. You can simply roll up to the store to buy almost any of your favorite films on DVD or Blu-ray. Easier still, you open your laptop/turn on your computer and have access to films throughout history on a variety of formats.
You can keep track of what you’ve got and what you need to get on a digital platform you can access wherever you go at the touch of a button (or you could stream, but where’s the joy in that, right?). While these conveniences seem like a given to us, we rarely give a thought to only a few decades earlier when you could only see a movie if it was screening somewhere near you, much less own it, or even have a whole collection of all your favorites films on hand.
With this in mind, it’s fairly inconceivable that film collecting was once relegated to a criminal underbelly. There were a few guys in LA in the 60s and 70s trading in real film, with the FBI hot on their heels. In the mid-70s, at the behest of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the FBI was coming down hard on film collectors who sold movies from New York to LA. The problem with being a hardcore film collector/dealer pre-wholesale distribution was that it often also involved piracy and illegal trading. These film collectors would have to go to the lengths of obtaining film stock from studios (not always through legal means).
The book ‘A Thousand Cuts‘, co-authored by Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph, digs into the history of film collectors and the role they play in the history and preservation of film. According to the book, many of the collectors persecuted by the FBI were gay men. In 1975, Roddy McDowall was busted by the FBI with a collection of film they claimed was worth over $5 million. Rather than face serious charges, he reached an agreement with the FBI, whereby he would name fellow collectors, Rock Hudson and Mel Tormé. In a statement issued to the FBI, McDowall stated he had been collecting prints since the 60s, citing the reasons being to study the performances of other actors, and to protect certain films from being lost to age or neglect – which wasn’t an unfounded concern.
Woody Wise, a renowned film collector and dealer of the era, (and focal point of Matt Novak’s excellent piece ‘How 1960s Film Pirates Sold Movies Before the FBI Came Knocking‘ for Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog) who became a felon in the process, was a theatre manager in the ’60s. As a way to make a bit of extra cash at a time when movie theaters were struggling to compete against the relatively new advent of the television, he started handling the shipping of film prints from major studios in Washington D.C. to regional Virginia a couple of times a week.
As Wise told Novak in an interview, he would befriend the guys in the shipping department of film exchanges of studios like Universal, Paramount, and MGM where all the 35mm film prints were stored. “When a movie breaks back then [in the 1960s], they put it in like a hundred theaters. And, of course that’s film. That’s 100 films. After two or three weeks, they only need 20 and [the movie studios] pay tax on every print that’s in the room… so they have to junk 80 prints – they have to throw them away. So you can kind of guess the story there, when I find out they’re throwing these things away…” After finding out these film prints were being thrown on the trash heap, his friends in these shipping departments came in handy, swapping junked prints for a few bucks. It started as one movie every now and then, but soon ramped up.
Destroying film prints wasn’t a new thing in the 60s. As studios had to pay tax on every print they were holding onto, once that film had had its day they would lose money on those prints pretty quickly, so throwing them away was just a practicality. Not to mention that prior to the adoption of ‘safety film’ having a tonne of extremely flammable nitrate stock around was pretty dangerous. It was so flammable that it made great kindling any time a studio needed to make a huge fire scene for a movie. As the film critic Carl Sandburg once wrote, ‘The next time you watch Atlanta burn in Gone With The Wind, realize that these flames are probably being stoked with movie history”.
While we could herald these collectors as saviours of physical media and preservers of culture – their motivations weren’t strictly selfless. There was money to be made. When the exchanges did a mass purge of films, Wise and other film collectors like him would get to go and take their pick before they were scrapped. Wise says he would usually pay about $15-20 each, then sell them on for $75. Wise finally ended up getting charged with interstate transportation of stolen goods following the sale of a single 35mm print of the 1968 William Wyler film, Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand.
The real dealer the FBI was supposedly after was someone who was selling prints to South African film distributors during a time of cultural boycott led by the UN. Major film companies weren’t sending films to South Africa in protest of apartheid, creating a black market for nefarious film collectors to cash in on, though they never brought charges against anyone for this.
In the 70s, with the rise of home VCR systems and home recording devices, the Supreme Court would rule that recording movies and television was no longer copyright infringement. It was a move that angered the MPAA, who would go on to profit off the sale of VHS.
Bartok and Joseph conclude that film (real film) collecting will almost definitely fade into history, as most enthusiasts will prefer the convenience, quality and accessibility of a brand new Blu-ray over a scratched and faded original 16mm or 35mm. But without these collectors who have gone before us, who knows what we’d be left with.