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The History of Archival TV & Film Storage: Fire and Thefts

17th January 2020

Chariots of fire

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The entertainment industry has been plagued by fires and other threats over the course of its history. Many of them have destroyed just that – history – yet were largely written off at the time as affordable losses. The impact on our modern appreciation of the period has only been felt in recent years, with whole swathes of silent films, props, sets and more being lost due to negligence.

Advancements in TV media storage techniques and changes in materials have allowed for the preservation of more of these assets, helping to preserve TV and film history for future generations, and inspiring future filmmakers. In the first article of a two-part series, however, we’ll explore those losses in a bit more depth, and set the stage for modern preservation efforts.


The silent film era

It’s fairly difficult to lose a film or TV show nowadays. While it was possible for media to fall into obscurity right through the analogue era, the dawn of digital made it far easier to maintain visual works. Numerous perfect copies can now exist in all kinds of formats, while enormous archives of classic movies and shows are now available on demand through streaming services. Collectors and historians meanwhile are more judicious and careful than ever in how they record and maintain collections of classic works.

This hasn’t always been the case, however. For much of the 20th century, the new mediums of TV and film were considered to be more frivolous and disposable. Until at least the Second World War, the entertainment industry was a highly nascent and volatile one, and films would be churned out at a tremendous rate, with the public and the industry always looking forward. As a result, sets and props would be reused or discarded at will, and copies of films were kept for record and re-release rather than preservation.

As a result, numerous fires saw entire archives of film lost on multiple occasions. Perhaps the most devastating and the earliest was the 1937 Fox vault fire, in which some 20 years of silent and scored films were lost, including nearly the entire collections of some of the biggest stars of the day. A 38-degree heatwave caused the unstable nitrate film to degrade into flammable gases, which accumulated and erupted in flame. At one point, a 100-foot jet of fire burst from a window, killing a child who was escaping with his family.


Later vault fires

Fox dismissed the fire as only having affected old films, being of little concern to the people at the time. But having been frivolous entertainment at the time, the loss of these films is now considered an Alexandrian tragedy for the history of American movies, with only reviews and descriptions of some of these films now cluing us in to their quality and the place they hold in the history of movies. including nearly the entire collections of some of the biggest stars of the day.

Public concerns about fires claiming current movies were not without precedent. Universal was stricken by multiple major fires during the 1920s and 30s, losing as many as 40 films in pre-production in a single fire. The cost of reshooting the films was estimated at $250,000, the equivalent of almost $4 million today. Fires due to pyrotechnics and faulty wiring would happen on a startlingly regular basis; on more than one occasion, film stars and crew had to fight the fires themselves, and would often dash into rooms to rescue films they were appearing in.

The other great vault fire is that of MGM’s Vault 7 storage facility in 1965. Much of MGM’s archive was stored in poorly ventilated concrete bunkers, which were deemed superior to other storage for security purposes. The spontaneous ignition of film stock in Vault 7 destroyed the only known copies of hundreds of movies, including several notable silent films. Thankfully, MGM was among the premier preservers of its work, and had begun to transfer its archives to safety stocks a few years earlier. As a result, 68% of all MGM silent films survive to this day, the highest proportion of any major studio.


Props and artefacts

Old film stock posed an innate risk, as it was known to be highly flammable (as the video below shows). However, fire safety was is not always applied to stable stock either, and many other aspects of film history have fallen prey. A recent and devastating example was the Wallace & Gromit warehouse fire, which tore through the props and plasticine of the beloved animated classics. Props, sets and storyboards from every Aardman creation up to 2005 was destroyed, although the films themselves were stored elsewhere.

An even more recent example demonstrated the power of fire to strike even sets. The wildfires that tore through California last year claimed numerous stars homes and most pointedly dozens of lives, making anything else pale into comparison. As the home of Hollywood, however, they’ve also destroyed a number of shooting locations, including the set of HBO’s hit TV drama Westworld. Continuity nerds will have a close eye on the accuracy of recreated sets in any future episodes.

Another fire risked claiming an even more iconic set: that of Hobbiton, the home of Hobbits from The Lord of the Rings. A fire in 2015 claimed a storage facility and rest area used by employees, which happened to contain many of the props used in the Hobbit holes, as well as the tools to make and repair them. In this instance, the damage was fairly contained, and the more recent nature of the movies (and presence of the prop makers nearby) meant that the incident hit fewer headlines.

Theft is arguably an even bigger issue when it comes to preserving artefacts. One of the only surviving pairs of ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz was stolen in 2005, and remains lost despite a $1 million reward. The Aston Martin DB5 (actually a modified DB4) from Goldfinger has been missing since 1997, when it was insured for $4.3 million. And one of the three prop guns from The Man With The Golden Gun was stolen from Bond studios Elstree in 2008, with an estimated value of $136,000.

For much of human history, entertainment has been a frivolous industry, from the travelling minstrels of the middle ages to the movies of the 20th century. While the losses above are tragic, we sometimes need to lose things to realise the value in them, and take stock of what we still have. In part 2 of this piece, we’ll explore the first steps to preserving TV and film history, and the value this still has in a world of wall-to-wall entertainment.


Read part two of our history of TV and film archives, all about the history of preservation and modern archiving!

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