Film Restoration Labs Thrive on Expanding Asia Business

Late Chinese film director Fei Mu's 1940 masterpiece "Confucius."

Italy’s L’Immagine Ritrovata reports 20 percent of its projects are now Asian, as the region's film archives and studios are awakening to the need to conserve classics and back catalogs.

BOLOGNA – When Davide Pozzi first assumed the position of director at Italian film-restoration laboratory L’Immagine Ritrovata seven years ago, he was mostly engaged in projects coming from Europe and the U.S. During his first full year in charge of the organization, 15 of his 16 film-restoration projects hailed from there, with the 16th being a Moroccan film -- Transes -- backed by Martin Scorsese’s then-newly established World Cinema Foundation.

These days, however, his business has taken him farther afield more often -- a testament to how film conservation and restoration is no longer a solely European and American enterprise. The 36-year-old says he spends at least one week in Asia every month, and among the countries he visited in June was Cambodia (where he attended the inaugural edition of the Asian heritage film festival, Memory!) and mainland China (where he inked collaborations with the newly opened Shanghai Film Museum), as well as trips to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

PHOTOS: China Box Office: 10 Highest-Grossing Movies of All Time

And when Pozzi doesn’t go to Asia, the continent comes to him at his workplace in Bologna, as evidenced by the ceaseless stream of visitors he and his colleagues have had to entertain for the past few days. Timing their visits to the weeklong Il Cinema Ritrovato -- a festival for rediscovered and restored films organized by Cineteca di Bologna, to which L’Immagine Ritrovata belongs -- industry executives and archivists were constantly being given tours of laboratory facilities and having their requests heard in preparatory meetings for their projects.

“Our business in Asia is growing,” Pozzi told The Hollywood Reporter in his office at Bologna earlier this week, in between meetings with clients from – where else? – Asia. “We started our work in Asia only in 2008 with [the Hong Kong Film Archive-backed restoration of the lost Chinese classic] Confucius, but now our Asian restoration projects take up 20 percent of our work.”

Among the laboratory’s finished projects in 2012 were Indian director Ritwik Ghatak’s 1960 film The Cloud-Capped StarAfter the Curfew, a 1954 classic from Indonesia’s Usmar Ismail; two Hong Kong Film Archive commissions in restoring tattered copies of movies featuring the legendary martial arts character Wong Fei-hung; and a World Cinema Foundation project to restore Uday Shankar’s 1948 film Kalpana.

This year, L’Immagine Ritrovata has finished work on Lino Brocka’s Manila: In the Claws of Neon, a joint project from Cineteca di Bologna and World Cinema Foundation that was shown in the classics section at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and Bu Wancang’s 1960 film Nobody’s Child, a Hong Kong Film Archive commission that made its bow at the city’s international film festival in April. The laboratory is now working on Malaysian director Husain Haniff’s 1962 film Dang Anom, as well as a handful of titles from some of the region’s other film archives, which Pozzi said are yet to be publicly announced.

STORY: Why Dolce, Gabbana Have Credits on Restored 'Fellini Satyricon'

Indeed, archivists, programmers and activists in Asia have become more active in preserving and restoring their own film heritage -- an enthusiasm also embodied in the growing number of participants in L’Immagine Ritrovata’s Film Restoration Summer School, a project the organization jointly launched in 2007 with FIAF, ACE and the UE Media Plus Program.

Among the school’s alumni, for example, are Zhang Wenjie, head of the Singapore National Museum Cinematheque, and Indonesian film critic Lisabona Rahman. They were among the main protagonists behind the restoration of After the Curfew in 2010, a project funded by the National Museum of Singapore (and joined later by the World Cinema Foundation) and the first-ever restoration to be done on an Indonesian film.

The success of the project -- which culminated in a screening at Cannes last year and then an extensive tour on the film festival circuit afterwards -- has helped in raising awareness about the conservation of film material in Southeast Asian countries, Lisabona told THR in a separate interview in Bologna earlier this week.

Perhaps sensing this demand, L’Immagine Ritrovata has linked up with National Museum of Singapore and World Cinema Foundation to launch an Asian edition of the restoration school program in Singapore in November. This also adds to the organization’s collaborations with other Asian counterparts: Pozzi said the Shanghai Film Museum will be sending a team to Bologna to study the technology in repairing film material within the year, with a view of jointly restoring Chinese films in the future.

Beyond the pedagogical and artistic benefits, film restoration is also an increasingly viable economic enterprise, as studios and production companies attempt to monetize the value of the back catalogs amid an increasing demand, and room for, rereleased classics in theaters and as home entertainment.

Pozzi said the film-bound “big restoration” projects are conducted at the same time when companies approached L’Immagine to conserve, digitize and restore their celluloid copies. While the restored Hitchcock and Rossellini oeuvres might be seen as an artistic, film-history initiative, the sparklingly new editions can easily find a market in screenings and then on discs or streaming platforms.

It’s a premise many Asian film companies are quickly catching up with alongside their counterparts at film archives or institutes -- resulting in much business to be done for Pozzi and his colleagues, who will continue clocking up air miles as they jet to and from client meetings on the other side of the world.