Treasures' launch a classic move

VOD service will give Europeans access to rare footage

Where do you go if you want to watch rare archival films such as a 1916 documentary about life on a German submarine or John Ford's 53-minute Western "Bucking Broadway" from the following year?

Until now, the answer would have been a trip to one of the film archives that house these prints, respectively London's Imperial War Museum and the French Film Archive.

But that is about to change with the launch in April of a Europe-wide video-on-demand platform being developed by Enki Technologies that is bringing together content from 37 film archives and cinematheques across the continent. And the good news for film buffs is that it's free.

European Film Treasures, as the site will be known, is the brainchild of Serge Bromberg, founder of Paris-based historic film and restoration specialist Lobster Films. The European Union's MEDIA Program has pledged to put up half of the approximately €500,000 ($725,000) needed to fund the project for its first year.

European Film Treasures is hoping to tap into a chunk of the huge audience for free online video sites like YouTube and Bebo. "The difficulty today is not so much to find old films and restore them, it's finding an audience for them," Bromberg says. "These are some of the best films shot in Europe over more than 80 years, but it's often difficult to convince people to see films like these."

Each partner archive will propose films, and a jury of historic film specialists will decide which to include on the VoD site based on criteria such as historical interest and artistic quality. Footage will be accessible for streaming only, not download, but the site may in the future extend to associated DVD sales.

Films will be available in their original language with translation where needed into five European languages: English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.

The site is expected to launch with about 100 titles, but the aim is to include as many as 500 films once fully loaded. Lobster is coming up with original music to accompany silent films.

It took two years to convince all the archives to come on board. "They thought it was a good idea but considered it impossible. The idea is not just to show their films, but also to present the archives and their work," Bromberg says. The only major national archive that decided not to be represented was from Belgium. "That is to their great shame," Bromberg says.

Bryony Dixon, curator (silent film) at the British Film Institute's National Archive, says that VoD is a well-adapted platform for these early and short films, which are otherwise difficult to program. "Theatrical, you may get a few thousand viewers. On the Web, you can get hundreds of thousands or even millions. If you put it out there, people will find it. You get that long-tale effect."

As with the other partner archives, the BFI is not putting in any finances but simply making films available. "We're in a good position to do that as probably the biggest film archive in Europe," Dixon says. Among films the BFI is submitting are "Daisy Doodad's Dial," a 1913 British-made comedy starring U.S. actress Florence Turner, and a rare film of a French boxing champion. "We'll pick things that have appeal, like the boxing film, which will be really interesting for the boxing community because it's not seen before," Dixon contends.

For its part, the Danish Film Institute is submitting a 1923 Danish film that is one of the earliest examples of a viable talking film; an animated sausage commercial film from the mid-1930s that uses Dufay Color, a mosaic screen additive system that predates Technicolor; and a raunchy 1910 one-reeler about Copenhagen nightlife.

"These are films that we re-stored recently. They're all entertaining films, one about color and cinema, one about sound and cinema. It's broadening people's idea of the development of cinema," says Thomas Christensen, curator of the DFI.

"It's great that there's this kind of channel for content that is otherwise sitting fallow in the archive," Christensen says. "I don't expect it to become a blockbuster phenomenon. It might never be more than marginal but it's an interesting channel to be represented on. I think this is very much a transition time, and we have to explore the possibilities."