Keeping it reel: are old films ever safe in the age of digital?

With streamers taking down beloved titles and digital purchases at the mercy of rights agreements, how do we hold on to old movies?

Earlier this summer, subscribers to the US streaming service HBO MAX were alarmed to discover that dozens of the platform’s offerings – from the Covid-themed heist thriller Locked Down to the recent remake of The Witcheshad been quietly removed from the service, their respective Anne Hathaway performances raptured from film history like characters from the network’s own eschatological drama The Leftovers (itself, aptly, still available to stream).

The news seemed like vindication to those who had long warned that streaming was more about controlling access to the cultural commons than expanding it, as did reports (since denied by the show’s creators) that Netflix had begun editing old episodes of Stranger Things to retroactively improve their visual effects.

What’s less clear is whether the commonly prescribed cure for these cultural ills – a return to the material pleasures of physical media – is the right one. While the makers of Blu-ray discs claim they have a shelf life of 100 years, such statistics remain largely theoretical until they come to pass, and are dependent on storage conditions, not to mention the continued availability of playback equipment. The humble DVD has already proved far less resilient, with many early releases already beginning to deteriorate in quality.

Elijah Wood and Cate Blanchett in Lord of the Rings.
Eternal favourites such as Lord of the Rings may not always be a click away. Photograph: New Line Cinema/Allstar

If your Shoah box set is primarily a display piece destined to remain in its packaging for ever, then questions about the long-term integrity of optical media formats are largely academic. But those who intend to actually watch their carefully curated film collections might find the necessary hardware more difficult to come by.

Digital movie purchases provide even less security. Any film “bought” on iTunes could disappear if you move to another territory with a different rights agreement and try to redownload it. It’s a bold new frontier in the commodification of art: the birth of the product recall. After a man took to Twitter to bemoan losing access to Cars 2 after moving from Canada to Australia, Apple clarified that users who downloaded films to their devices would retain permanent access to those downloads, even if they relocated to a hemisphere where the adventures of Lightning McQueen were subject to a different set of rights agreements. Thanks to the company’s ironclad digital rights management technology, however, such files cannot be moved or backed up, locking you into watching with your Apple account.

Cars 2 … Territorial and format issues might make you blow a gasket.
Cars 2 … Territorial and format issues might make you blow a gasket. Photograph: Publicity image from film company

Anyone who does manage to acquire DRM-free copies of their favourite films must nonetheless grapple with ever-changing file format standards, not to mention data decay – the gradual process by which electronic information slowly but surely corrupts. Only the regular migration of files from hard drive to hard drive can delay the inevitable, in a sisyphean battle against the ravages of digital time.

In a sense, none of this is new. Charlie Chaplin burned the negative of his 1926 film A Woman of the Sea as a tax write-off, almost a century before Warner Bros would hit the delete key on its unreleased Batgirl film for similar reasons. Many more films have been lost through accident, negligence or plain indifference. During a heatwave in July 1937, a Fox film vault in New Jersey burned down, destroying a majority of the silent films produced by the studio.

Back then, at least, cinema was defined by its ephemerality: the sense that a film was as good as gone once it left your local cinema. Today, with film studios keen to stress the breadth of their back catalogues (or to put in Hollywood terms, the value of their IPs), audiences may start to wonder why those same studios seem happy to set the vault alight themselves if it’ll help next quarter’s numbers.

Three ways to keep your movies for ever

Build a bunker
Best practices mandate storing optical media such as DVDs and Blu-rays between 18-23C and 20-50% relative humidity in order to maximise their lifespans. Assuming you’re fabulously wealthy, why not build a controlled-environment vault in which to store your Lord of the Rings extended editions and six duplicate copies of Lord of War?.

Start torrenting
(legally, of course)
The best way to protect against the loss of digital data is to keep multiple copies of a file in different locations. The popular filesharing protocol BitTorrent is built on exactly this kind of decentralisation. Simply download a free client like qBittorrent and public-domain classics like Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon and the Lumière brothers’ Train Pulling Into a Station can legally be yours in perpetuity.

Make your own film prints
In 2019, the BFI announced a five-year plan to create brand new 35mm prints of 100 “carefully curated classics of British and international cinema”. Stored and handled with care, these prints could last for centuries, preserving films like Citizen Kane and Brief Encounter for future generations. For an estimated £1.5m, the same future could be ensured for 100 of your own favourites.

Charlie Shackleton

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘It just feels warm and fuzzy’: how Hallmark built an empire of unashamedly schmaltzy rom-coms
In these safe and schmaltzy TV movies, the only thing bigger than Valentine’s Day is Christmas. But are the US network’s cookie-cutter confections beginning to move with the times?

Laura Barton

11, Feb, 2023 @11:55 AM

Article image
Viewers defecting, writers striking … is streaming’s House of Cards about to fall?
When the political drama landed, it promised a future that Netflix and its competitors couldn’t deliver. Now, TV execs are looking beyond the streaming age

Gwilym Mumford

01, Jul, 2023 @10:55 AM

Article image
‘Awkwardness is part of life’: Amelia Dimoldenberg on Chicken Shop Date and flirting with Andrew Garfield
The deadpan YouTuber went from quizzing grime stars over wings to Vanity Fair’s Oscars party red carpet. What happens now she’s becoming as famous as the people she interviews?

Laura Snapes

29, Apr, 2023 @10:55 AM

Article image
From Chris Rock to Burning Man: a complete guide to this week’s entertainment
Whether your idea of fun is cutting-edge US comedy or a desert festival-meets-country house sculpture clash, we’ve got you covered

27, Aug, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
‘Their T-shirts are too white!’: what real chefs think about The Bear and other onscreen restaurants
Tom Kerridge, Max Halley and Erchen Chang have seen a lot of service. Who better to judge the accuracy of kitchens in film and TV, from Ratatouille to Stanley Tucci in Big Night?

Anna Berrill

24, Sep, 2022 @10:55 AM

Article image
From The Little Mermaid to The Gallows Pole: a complete guide to this week’s entertainment
Whether it’s a live-action revamp of a watery Disney classic or Shane Meadows’s new drama about the Cragg Vale coiners, our critics have you covered for the next seven days

27, May, 2023 @5:00 AM

Article image
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One to The Bear: a complete guide to this week’s entertainment
Tom Cruise is back as Ethan Hunt, and the acclaimed US restaurant drama returns. Here are all the essential cultural happenings over the next seven days

15, Jul, 2023 @5:00 AM

Article image
Child star Jennette McCurdy: ‘It took a long time to realise I was glad my mom died’
The former Nickelodeon star quit acting in her 20s after years spent trying to meet the impossible expectations of her mother. Now she’s revealing the truth in an explosive new memoir

Emine Saner

10, Sep, 2022 @10:55 AM

Article image
Robert Popper: ‘I’ve said so many times: I hate my friends – they’re so close, they can annoy you’
Friday Night Dinner was famously based on the writer’s own family. So who was the inspiration for the bickering best mates of his new show I Hate You?

Rich Pelley

30, Sep, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Get stuffed: TV, art, books and more devoted to food, glorious food
From music extolling the virtues of red beets to chilli-based larks, our critics select culture to make you salivate

Jenessa Williams, Jason Okundaye, Sam Jordison, Jonathan Jones and Rebecca Liu

31, Oct, 2022 @10:00 AM