Appraising Moving Images: Assessing the Archival and Monetary Value of Film and Video Records

By Sam Kula. Lanham, Maryland and Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2002. vii, 155 pp., $40.00 ISBN 0-8108-4368-4.

 

Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol. 66, No.1, Spring/Summer 2003)

 

Archival literature on the appraisal of film and video is almost non-existent. Thus it is a welcome contribution to the field that Sam Kula, who is internationally recognized for his work in the field of moving image archives, has written a book on the subject. The current president of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, Kula started his career at the British Film Institute, then moved to the American Film Institute and went on to establish the National Film and Television Archives at the Canadian National Archives.

Appraising Moving Images: Assessing the Archival and Monetary Value of Film and Video Records is organized into five chapters, with a bibliography and index. The book opens with a brief history of moving image archives. As early as 1898, the Polish cinematographer Boleslaw Matuszewski recognized that films were historical documents and recommended that a worldwide network of archives be established to acquire and conserve films. But it was not until the 1930’s that the pioneering work in this field was begun, most notably by Henri Langlois at the Cinematheque Francaises in Paris, Ernest Lindgren at the National Film Library in London and Iris Barry at the Museum of Modern Art Film Library in New York. The International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) established in 1938 and International Federation of Television Archives founded in 1978 have been instrumental world-wide in promoting and supporting moving image acquisition and preservation standards and policies.

A chapter on appraisal theory reviews archival literature on the appraisal of textual documentation and how it might be applied to moving image material. Kula’s focus is on historical significance, evidentiary and information values, and cites relevant writing on these principles by Jenkinson, Schellenberg, Boles, Young, Eastwood, Duranti and others. The author points out that moving image archivists are not inclined to develop appraisal guidelines; if developed at all they tend to be institutionally specific and often unreasonably all-inclusive.

Kula states that moving images can “be categorized by provenance, function, and form”(p. 53). Form, as it pertains to moving images, concerns their structure and intended purpose, such as fiction versus non-fiction. Function concerns the circumstances under which a production was initiated and the reaction to that production. A chapter on appraisal policies and practices provides models of moving image archives’ operations from around the world. The author covers the appraisal of textual documentation generated during the production process and the importance of these materials for potential re-use/re-edit and evidentiary value. An extensive chapter examines the importance and role of the archivist in appraising moving images for monetary value.

Despite the fact that film was introduced at the end of the 19th century and television in the 1930s, it was not until the latter half of the 20th century that there was a general acceptance of the worthiness of moving images as a source material for study and collection. Nevertheless, Kula says there continues to be little systematic, intuitive or opportunistic acquisition of moving images by archives and libraries or by the moving image industry itself. As a result the earliest years of moving image history have been lost and the future preservation of our existing and growing film and television collections pose a significant archival challenge.

Kula does not pretend to present scientific “facts” on appraisal of moving images nor espouse philosophy, but rather suggests some guidelines for assessing moving images. He believes that the “analysis of the facts” about an acquisition is imperative. Specifically you need to know the “context and subtext” of a work or collection in order to determine if it will be of value to your archive. Accordingly, Kula writes, “you must know the work in context, in relation to other works and to the creators and the administrative unit that sponsored the work, and to the particular economic and social conditions and the ideological framework in which it was created and distributed” (p. 127).

While collecting strategies, appraisal theory and practice vary widely in the moving image archives community, there tend to be three major points of agreement. The first is that age – in and of itself – is an important appraisal criterion, and requires vigilant attention to assure survival. Second is the consensus that most, if not all, moving images have significant informational value. Third is the fact that as mass media, film and television will become part of the public record. There are appraisal principles that pertain specifically to moving images. Kula notes that the aesthetic principle, film as art, is both “subjective and transitory” (p. 43). Collecting film as art is prone to be influenced by what the users (film historians, critics and others) consider to be the “canon.” Another principle is appraising moving images as part of the history of an industry and its production technology. Kula cites the principle of “universal retention.” This applies to the acquisition of all works of a particular producer, director or other creative individuals recognized for their influence in the moving image art and industry world. Finally, and more controversial, is appraising moving images, especially feature film, based on their sociological or psychological impact. This has been applied to the collection of works dealing with the rise of Nazism in the 1920s and 30s and the threat of nuclear war and the Cold War.

While the nature, purpose and value of production-related textual documentation is covered, this chapter lacks a thorough discussion of film and video production elements – the various pieces of film and video that make up a master or finished program. The elements mentioned are interviews and trailers, but many archivists will find themselves confronted with a vast array of production media elements and no idea of their value, place or importance in the production process. A discussion of such items as answer prints, B-rolls, camera rolls, conversion masters, core-offs, iso reels, mix elements, trims and work prints would have been helpful. While there is discussion of the DVD (Digital Video Disc) with film director’s cuts, there is no real focus on the purpose and uses of television production elements that warrant retention by archives.

My only overall criticism of this work is that it focuses on film at the expense of television, with the emphasis on the finished master film rather than collective entities of the production process. This point is becoming critically important as moving image archivists move into the digital film and television production arena. As Howard Besser has written, moving image archivists need to “shift from a paradigm centered around saving a completed work to a new paradigm of saving a wide body of materials that contextualizes a work.”(1) We should be more proactive in identifying ancillary production materials that may have historical, institutional and commercial value. Indeed, as always, another tough appraisal conundrum.

MARY IDE
WGBH Educational Foundation

 

1 Howard Besser, “Digital Preservation of Moving Image Material?,” The Moving Image 1, no. 2 (Fall 2001): 44.