The Report: How to Save Films From Disappearing

1 REP Harry Potter
Warner Bros. Pictures

A startup led by Hollywood tech veterans is pitching a 100-year solution to the industry’s digital-archiving problem.

Imagine key Elements of Tron or the latest Harry Potter vanishing.

As more movies are shot, posted, distributed and stored as data, a significant amount of valuable content — think dailies, sound and digital intermediate files — is at risk of being lost. In fact, a 2007 Academy report found that no digital archival format will last at least a century, as traditional film does. In some instances, content that was stored on digital formats was gone after only five years.

Finished movies generally are still archived on celluloid, but elements of films that were shot with digital cameras typically reside solely on digital media. That is causing some insiders to fear that a big part of this decade’s movie history eventually might be lost.

“If something doesn’t come along and gain widespread acceptance in the next few years, there is going to be at least a decadewide gap in history,” says Dan Rosen, chief technology officer at post house Prime Focus.

Rosen has joined a who’s who of Hollywood tech players in a startup company that believes it has found a digital archival medium that is secure, inexpensive, environmentally responsible — and, most important, could last 100-plus years. Owners of the Digital Optical Tape System say it can withstand extreme temperatures, exposure to electrical or magnetic fields, solar flares and even deliberate electromagnetic pulse attacks. And they suggest that once recorded to DOTS, movies need only to be stored at room temperature (unlike film, which must be kept in cold storage).

The blueprint for DOTS is owned by Group 47, formed by Rosen; Rob Hummel, president of Legend 3D and an Academy SciTech council member; and Kodak alums Dick Sehlin and Jim Minno. It is discussing the system with the Hollywood tech community in hopes of making DOTS an archival standard, not only at the studios but at any organization around the world that preserves records in the digital realm.

Some have expressed concern about one company becoming the sole provider of archival technology. However, the group’s goal is to license DOTS to interested manufacturers, who then would be free to make and sell it.

The DOTS technology was developed by Eastman Kodak during the 1990s, but the project was retired in 2002, according to Hummel.

Kodak invested more than $80 million and during the development period shared its research with Hummel and others in the tech community. In 2010, Group 47 — helped by Minno, who led the project when he was at Kodak — acquired from the company the 36 patents and related intellectual property that make up DOTS. The result, the group hopes, will be a format that Hollywood embraces. 

“The industry has to take a stand of supporting what the archivists and the users need,” Hummel says. “We can’t keep satisfying hardware manufacturers by constantly migrating technology when it is not necessary.”