Arts + Culture

For the love of film

UCLA Film and Television Archive marks 50 years of saving America's finest moving images

Scene from the movie "Trumbo"
Hilary Bronwyn Gail/Bleecker Street

The UCLA Film and Television Archive, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, provided newsreel footage for "Trumbo," starring Bryan Cranston. It's one of many contemporary films that contain material pulled from the archive's repository of moving images.

Really big things often start small. That’s so true of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the nation’s second-largest moving-image repository behind the U.S. Library of Congress.

The archive, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, wasn’t on anyone’s agenda in the 1960s, when a few film lovers — UCLA graduate students and staff members with a hippie-era, anarchical mindset — began collecting copies of movies they wanted to save, including nitrate prints that the studios were about to discard.

The fledgling UCLA group, determined that film culture would not be lost, operated more or less outside the purview of the university. Filmmaker and former archive intern Alex Cox recalls, “Most of the major stages in our growth were accomplished by stealth.” Archive co-founder and professor emeritus Howard Suber refers to this time as the “Buccaneer Era.”

The group’s dedication was a key factor in the archive’s phenomenal growth, along with UCLA’s proximity to major studios, which were glad to unload their holdings. Huge numbers of prints acquired by the archive had to be held until funding was found for restoration.

In 2011, the UCLA Film and Television Archive established the Laurel and Hardy Preservation Fund. These efforts to restore all of their surviving negatives have met with resounding support from fans around the world.

But the archive’s mission took a giant leap forward  in 1974 with the arrival of Robert Rosen, who would later serve as dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Rosen, a historian, saw films as “historical documents that embody collective narratives.” He saw preservation and restoration as integral to ensuring that students can see “how past masters of the craft solved storytelling problems.” Letting films fade away was a “cultural crime,” he said.

Three years later, Robert Gitt became the archive’s first preservation officer and created a film restoration program that is “respected around the world,” according to current archive director Jan-Christopher Horak. Over the years, Gitt supervised the restoration of about 360 feature films and hundreds of shorts. By 2002, UCLA was elevating the entire field of moving-image preservation.

Today, transition to the digital age has begun, with the creation of portals for online delivery of moving-image content. But dedication to preserving analog images on film remains strong. The archive has moved much of its collection and preservation activities from facilities in Hollywood to The PHI Stoa, a new state-of-the-art center in Santa Clarita built and administered by The Packard Humanities Institute (PHI).  For many years, PHI has been a major funder and collaborator of the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

The archive’s holdings are in constant demand, as for the recent acclaimed film “Trumbo,” which includes newsreel footage from UCLA’s collection.

Among the screen gems in its collection of nitrate films are "The Maltese Falcon,” directed by John Huston; Laurel and Hardy’s “Way Out West;” “Meet John Doe,” directed by Frank Capra; Hal Wallis’ personal print of “Casablanca”; all of the “Flash Gordon” television serials; and Cecil B. DeMille’s personal nitrate (and safety) collection that includes “Cleopatra.”

Every day, filmmakers and fans alike, as well as students and scholars, benefit from the dogged determination of those unstoppable founders decades ago.

Adapted from a story in UCLA Magazine's April 2016 issue. See a detailed timeline of the archive's history.

Media Contact