The UNSCA School of Filmmaking’s Moving Image Archives

by Mark Burger

The Moving Image Archives at the UNCSA School of Filmmaking is any film lover’s dream come true. The Archives houses some 10,000 feature film prints, 700 trailers and more than 1,000 shorts. It’s an awesome collection that completely fills several large rooms on the UNCSA campus.

Without question, it is one of the largest collections of films anywhere in the country. “UCLA has us beat,” said David Spencer, senior curator of the archives, referring the the UCLA Film and Television Archives. So do the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. Spencer believes that the Moving Image Archives is the fifth largest in the nation, and from all visible evidence he’s probably right.

But whether it’s the fifth largest, sixth largest or eighth, the Moving Image Archives is both impressive and overwhelming — and it’s right in the heart of Winston-Salem.

The countless shelves of the archives are filled with Hollywood history. The titles almost jump out in rapid succession: Apocalypse Now (in 70mm, no less), Taxi Driver, Halloween, The Train, Blue Velvet, The Godfather, Superman, The Wild Bunch, Annie Hall, Network, Blade Runner….

In 1989, Columbia Pictures re-released David Lean’s Oscarwinning 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia in a fully restored, digitally enhanced 70mm version. That’s here, too. A couple of them, in fact.

Next to those containers rests the containers bearing the label “Pink Floyd — The Wall 70mm.” Spencer believes that the sound and picture quality of the print are far superior to any of the remastered homevideo releases of the film. “It blasts you right out of your seat,” he boasted.

Much of the collection in the archives was amassed by Ray Regis, the first curator, who had procured films over the years while seeking a permanent home for his sizable collection. When the School of Filmmaking was established in 1992 and Sam Grogg appointed as the first dean, Regis’ collection had found its home — and UNCSA had an expansive, enviable film collection.

Even those closest to Regis, who died in 2007, freely admit that he was eccentric and temperamental. He was not always an easy man to know, or an easy man to like. Spencer knew Regis better than most, having toiled under him as assistant curator since the mid 1990s.

“Ray loved film, there’s no question about that,” Spencer said, “and it was he who brought his collection to the school. He had a passion for what he did, and I think he recognized that in me.”

Matt Jones, the archives’ assistant curator, remembered the first time he met Regis. Thinking that he was going to interview for a position as an intern, Jones was instead drafted by Regis — on the spot — to haul heavy containers of film to the warehouses where the collection was initially and temporarily being stored. “I didn’t even know him,” Jones recalled. “I don’t even think I’d told him more than my name!” Other films in the archives have been willed or donated to the School of Filmmaking through the years, and some were simply found. Spencer recalled one time when someone cleaning out an abandoned warehouse had unexpectedly come across a long-forgotten selection of films. Where they originally came from or how they came to be there, no one knows for sure — but they’re now a part of the collection. Otherwise they’d likely have been junked.

The films in the archives are also a financial asset to UNCSA.

Film schools, film festivals and revival theaters can rent them. A blackboard in the ACE Exhibition Complex on campus lists the films currently out and who rented them: Harvard University, the Alamo Drafthouse, the National Sound and Film Archives in Australia….

Before a film is shipped out, it is carefully inspected. When a film is returned, it is inspected again. If a print is returned in haphazard or shabby condition, Spencer will make the appropriate inquiries and, if necessary, issue the necessary warnings. When it comes to “repeat offenders,” Spencer doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t need to.

In addition to his ongoing duties as senior curator, Spencer also teaches American Cinema History and oversees the operations of the ACE Exhibition Complex, where films are screened on campus. On average, 6 to 12 prints are screened a week when school’s in session, and they can also accommodate any number of specific formats: 16mm, 35mm, 70mm, DVD, VHS… adaptability is key.

Scattered throughout the storage rooms are old projectors and VCRs, from which parts can be cannibalized if necessary. One of the projectors in the archives building was, in fact, fashioned in just this way — using parts from other projectors.

Originally, it took 180 semi-trucks to transport about 4 million pounds of film to the school. Many of the films were obtained by Regis from defunct distribution exchanges, which were scattered throughout the country and provided films for their respective regions — at least until the 1980s, when the studios decided to cut out the proverbial middle men and handle distribution themselves. Now, many studios need only send a key code to theaters. No traditional delivery. No film heavy film containers. In fact, no film whatsoever; it’s all digital.

Once the exchanges became obsolete, they closed — literally overnight. Some studios, however, did not bother to retrieve the prints, which sat languishing in old warehouses or storage facilities, gathering dust (or worse). In some cases, these films were literally rescued. In one of the storage rooms, stacked high with full shelves, Spencer spread his arms out and said: “All of this, believe it or not, was going to be dumped into the Pacific Ocean.”

A triumph, thus, for both film fans and environmentalists. The metal containers, although sturdy — to say nothing of heavy, especially when full — are not indestructible. Some have rusted, some have been punctured or battered in transport. The risk of rot and water damage is high. Film stock is hardly indestructible. The storage rooms in the archives must be carefully monitored and kept at a certain temperature.

Yet even for those films that are damaged, if a single reel can be salvaged it will be. As for the containers, many have gone to recycling centers. As with the film-rental fees, whatever money comes from that goes right back to the school. “We’re one of the few departments that makes the school money,” Jones observed. In an economy as tight as the current one, every dollar counts.

At one time, representatives from the Motion Picture Association of America arrived unannounced on campus to demand royalties for the films being screened, claiming ownership of them.

(Where the MPAA was when these films were sitting in storage, forgotten for years, is a question that doesn’t bear close scrutiny.)

Spencer didn’t panic. He knew all along that sooner or later they’d come knocking. Working closely with the legal advisers in the UNC System, an eventual compromise was reached that allowed a narrow exemption for educational purposes. These films, after all, represent a valuable, integral component of the School of Filmmaking’s curriculum. The MPAA acquiesced.

For many faculty members, the importance of showing an actual film print cannot be understated.

“There’s a real difference to my students when we’re watching a print,” said Dale Pollock, the School of Filmmaking dean from 1999-2006 and currently a faculty member. “They’re more excited. They’re more engaged. And it has a greater impact on them than watching a DVD. I’d rather show an aged print than a newly-restored DVD in my class.”

Filmmaker Richard Clabaugh, who taught cinematography at the School of Filmmaking from 1999-2007 (and has occasionally been engaged as a substitute since), is a great aficionado of the latest, up-to-date filmmaking technology but does not downplay the importance of traditional film. The archives, he said, “is really one of the gems of the School of the Arts and an absolute asset of teaching there. They have an amazingly good collection of films.”

Clabaugh recalled the the first time he was shown the the archives by Regis and fellow faculty member teacher, the late Robert Collins. Like many, he was overwhelmed. “That was one of the things that lured me,” he admitted. “To know that you could pull out a print and show it to the students — God, what a luxury.”

In addition to being an acclaimed filmmaker (and a two-time Oscar nominee for 1971’s The Last Picture Show), faculty member Peter Bogdanovich is also a respected Hollywood historian, having written a number of wellregarded books about films, including The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang in America and Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week). He’s also a staunch advocate of film preservation.

“I think the archives is amazing and very useful,” he said, “I knew nothing about it before getting here. With film stock on the way out, it has become even more valuable, of course. Preserving films in their original form is a must for future generations.”

When he visited the school last month to show his latest film, The Sitter, filmmaker and alumnus David Gordon Green urged the students in attendance to realize the importance of the archives. “You have an amazing opportunity,” he told them. While a student himself, “you could literally roll out of bed and go see a movie,” he said, “one that could open your eyes to something you may not realize.”

The RiverRun International Film Festival has a long, storied relationship with the UNCSA School of Filmmaking, and the archives collection has provided a number of special screenings for the festival over the years. When actor Cliff Robertson received the very first Master of Cinema award at the 2004 festival, there was a special screening of Charly (1968), the film for which he won the Best Actor Oscar, at the Stevens Center. The festival didn’t have to look far to obtain a print.

Andrew Rodgers, RiverRun’s executive director, makes no secret of his appreciation. Said Rodgers: “In the film world, there seem to be two types of people: Those who seek (and usually get) lots of recognition for their efforts… and those who plug away, secure with their place in the world and confident that those who should take notice eventually will.

“The folks who work in the Moving Image Archives at UNCSA are most definitely the latter,” he continued. “Since I first moved to town in 2005 to lead RiverRun, I’ve been continually impressed with their efforts, output and passion. At the same time, I’ve been surprised at how few people really understand what a treasure the archives is and how lucky we are to have it here in this community.”

He’s not the only one surprised. Jones admitted he’s sometimes irked by how the Archives is taken for granted, even within the walls of UNCSA.

“We all believe in film,” he said. “We’re an oasis in the school community. It’s a great place and we have this great natural resource, but it’s still an uphill battle.”

“We’ve shown many of their films at River- Run over the years and have worked closely with the staff of the Moving Image Archives over the years,” Rodgers said. “They’ve been such an invaluable help to us over the years that it’s safe to say RiverRun wouldn’t have become what it is today without their help.”

There are those, however, who hold to the opinion that traditional film is dead. Even some people at the School of Filmmaking have said as much. Spencer respectfully disagrees.

“We’re trying to preserve the experience of watching a film as it was meant to be,” he said. “These are cultural artifacts, as valid a piece of art as a beautiful vase or a great painting or a great sculpture.”

There are, of course, countless classics in the archives, but there are also a wide (and wild) selection of films that are anything but classics.

It being the holiday season, Spencer pointed to the containers for Santa With Muscles, a low-rent Christmas comedy starring Hulk Hogan. “We certainly have enough of these,” he laughed, “and we’ve got more Joysticks than we could ever want,” referring to a 1983 teen comedy that capitalized on the video-game craze. “Oh, and do you know anyone who needs The Trial of Billy Jack?” The first sequel to the box-office hit Billy Jack was released in 1974 and ran almost three hours long. The archives boasts enough prints to stretch from one end of the room to the other and back again.

There may not be any great demand or artistic reappraisal for the likes of Porky’s Revenge or Goin’ All the Way or the 1978 Hal Holbrook thriller The Creeper (AKA Rituals), but they’re here too.

Sorting through and cataloging the collection has been a lengthy and ongoing endeavor, not unlike an archaeological dig. Even after 20 years, Spencer, his staff and students will still come across a surprise. There are containers that have been mislabeled, unlabeled or contain different reels from different films. A selection of containers marked “Jerry Maguire” contained the first reel — 30 of them. Just the first reel. One that wasn’t labeled at all turned out to be something of an (ahem) adult nature.

“Yeah, I don’t think we’ll be showing that anytime soon,” Spencer quipped.

Once, Spencer came across a title he wasn’t familiar with. Examining the film more closely, he discovered it was the original 1932 Scarface starring Paul Muni (“a pretty good print, too”), only it had been retitled for re-release. Such was not uncommon, as studios often re-released older films under new titles, doubtless hoping to entice customers to what they thought was a new release. When Universal reissued the 1934 Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi chiller The Black Cat, it was retitled The Vanishing Body — essentially ignoring one of the more potent selling points: the Edgar Allan Poe connection.

Spencer’s detective work has also paid off in other ways. Last year, the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) bestowed a $6,410 grant to the Moving Image Archives for preservation work on a 16mm print of The Golden Mirror, a promotional film commissioned for the American Legion in 1968. The print was produced by the Walter J. Klein Company, a publicity firm in North Carolina that specialized in promotional films of that nature. The company’s collection of promotional films had been donated to the archives, and after three years of what might be called “cinematic sleuthing,” Spencer was able to prove it’s the only known copy of the film in existence.

“The physical condition [of the film] had so deteriorated that we couldn’t run it through the projector,” said Spencer.

The grant will allow for the reconstruction and striking of a new 16mm print of the film, a painstaking process that will take the better part of a year to complete. Spencer is also confident that the archives may contain the only known prints of some feature films as well, and hopes to apply for additional NFPF grants if he can prove it. Spencer lauded his staff of three for their effort in helping to obtain their very first NFPF grant on the very first attempt. “It’s testament to their hard work and dedication and love of film.”

“By saving and storing the films they do, and by working with cultural institutions around the world, they are helping to ensure the continuity of film and film culture for generations to come,” Rodgers concluded. “Put even more simply, their efforts are crucial to the ongoing protection, preservation, and presentation of cinema.”