The surviving history of movies

Over the past few weeks I’ve been hooked by Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s blog Observations on film art and Film Art. For the film geek in me, the discussions of film history and criticism from an academic perspective are fascinating.

Yesterday, Kristin posted an entry responding to A. O. Scott’s claim in the New York Times that:

It is now possible to imagine—to expect—that before too long the entire surviving history of movies will be open for browsing and sampling at the click of a mouse for a few PayPal dollars.

Most of her points (and those of two guests who contributed to the conversation) are good. The vast volume of surviving movies, the work required to restore and digitise them, and the difficulties inherent in the fact that for many movies there is no definitive version, mean that the task of getting them all available online is one highly unlikely to ever be completed. That said, there were two areas where I thought that the discussion was out of step with the way the web can work.

The first of those is her assertion that it is a significant problem that there is no co-ordinating body who will be able to tell us when the task is complete. From the film history side, this may be a problem, but from a technological point of view that decentralisation may be an asset.

There has already been much discussion of a microformat for marking up media information and, if that should be sufficiently nuanced and widely adopted, it would be possible to catalogue the available films without needing them to be managed through a central body. Even if some of the larger copyright owners were reluctant to mark up their code that way, some enterprising movie buff should be able to scrape their sites and replicate the catalogues in a more meaningful format.

I also wonder if the conversation in the blog entry is overly influenced by the inclusion of a representative of one of the big studios, as it brings to bear some of the fears endemic in big mainstream media’s approach to new technologies. There are definitely issues of managing quality, keeping pace with appropriate distribution formats, and of ensuring a revenue stream that allows for the detailed work of restoration. But there is little or no sense of the arguments being developed in the Free Culture/Creative Commons movement.

I wholeheartedly agree that some of the arguments in The Long Tail are naive when it comes to cinema, but there are routes other than DRM to building revenue for projects of this sort. Potential patronage, the existence of an enormous market currently unable to get access to the more obscure reaches of cinema, and (should seed funding be possible) the potential to gather a return over a period of years may shift economic ‘realities’ at least a little.

I highly doubt that we will ever reach a time when we can truly say that the “entire surviving history of movies” is available online, unless it’s in the unfortunate case that the only surviving movies are those available online. But technology is ever-evolving and some of the traditional obstacles may already be falling away. I look forward to the day when netflix’s catalogue of cinematic history looks miniscule compared to the breadth of films we can access through the net.

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