I’m sure many of you read about the terrible fire at Universal Studios a couple of weeks ago and the irreparable damage to famous sets such as the Back to the Future town square. The fire also destroyed hundreds if not thousands of film prints and has caused repertory film programmers across the country to scramble to replace lost titles in their calendars. I don’t think we have all of the facts as to the extent of the damage so I don’t want to speculate or spread inaccurate information. I’ve talked with a colleague at Universal but at the time they were still trying to document the losses.
I do know that CAPA had to cancel their screening of Thoroughly Modern Millie this weekend and we had to replace a screening of the pre-Code film White Woman on July 22 with the Warner Bros. title Ladies They Talk About. Some prints are stored in offsite depots and were spared such as those for The Mummy, Spartacus, and The Birds, all of which are screening at the Wexner Center over the course of the summer. Many may not know that Universal also owns approximately 750 pre-1950 Paramount titles and prints of many of these films were also destroyed.
What is most worrisome for venues like the Wexner Center or the Cleveland Cinematheque is that lost prints may not be replaced. It sounds like no negatives were destroyed in the fire so most prints could be replaced (if negatives still exist). But will they? The vast majority of films in the catalog are only booked once or twice every few years. Will the studio pay the thousands of dollars it will require to replace prints of films with limited commercial appeal? The cost per print when creating thousands of prints for a new release like The Incredible Hulk is relatively low. The cost to strike one or two prints, however, is relatively high and considering that most films will take years (if not decades) to recoup the cost it took to strike them one has to wonder how many prints will in fact be replaced. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
To give this even more local resonance, the lone print of Milos Forman’s next-to-impossible to see film Taking Off, which we screened during Mr. Forman’s visit on April 4, was one of the prints destroyed as was the print of Peter Watkins’s next-to-impossible to see cult film Privilege which we screened as part of our Secret Cinema series in March 2007. Neither film is available on home video. -- Dave Filipi, Wexner Center Film/Video Curator