European film treasures

Daisy Doodad’s Dial

Florence Turner in Daisy Doodad’s Dial (1914), from http://creative.bfi.org.uk

Announced today is a plan by Lobster Films of Paris, with a number of partner organisations, to release up to 500 film titles from thirty-seven European archives, online and for free, with 50% funding from the European MEDIA programme, which is all about expanding markets for films and exposing content to new audiences. The partners include the British Film Institute and the Danish Film Institute. The project, European Film Treasures, launches in April.

Here’s a Reuters press report:

PARIS (Hollywood Reporter) – Where do you go if you want to watch rare archive films such as a 1916 document about life on a German submarine or John Ford’s 53-minute Western “Bucking Broadway” from the following year?

Until now, the answer would have been a trip to one of the film archives that house these prints, respectively London’s Imperial War Museum and the French Film Archive.

But that is about to change with the launch in April of a Europe-wide video-on-demand platform bringing together content from 37 film archives and cinematheques across the continent. And the good news for film buffs is that it’s free.

European Film Treasures, as the site will be known, is the brainchild of Serge Bromberg, founder of Paris-based historic film and restoration specialist Lobster Films. The European Union’s MEDIA Program has pledged to put up half of the approximately 500,000 euros ($725,000) needed to fund the project for its first year.

European Film Treasures is hoping to tap into a chunk of the huge audience for free on-line video sites like YouTube and Bebo. “The difficulty today is not so much to find old films and restore them, it’s finding an audience for them,” Bromberg says. “These are some of the best films shot in Europe over more than 80 years, but it’s often difficult to convince people to see films like these.”

Each partner archive will propose films, and a jury of historic film specialists will decide which to include on the VoD site based on criteria such as historical interest and artistic quality. Footage will be accessible for streaming only, not download, but the site may in the future extend to associated DVD sales.

Films will be available in their original language with translation where needed into English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.

The site is expected to launch with about 100 titles, but the aim is to include as many as 500 films once fully loaded. Lobster is coming up with original music to accompany silent films.

It took two years to convince all the archives to come on board. “They thought it was a good idea but considered it was impossible. The idea is not just to show their films, but also to present the archives and their work,” Bromberg says.

The only major national archive that decided not to be represented was from Belgium. “That is to their great shame,” Bromberg opines.

Bryony Dixon, curator (silent film) at the British Film Institute’s National Archive, says that VoD is a well-adapted platform for these early and short films, which are otherwise difficult to program. “Theatrical, you may get a few thousand viewers. On the Web, you can get hundreds of thousands or even millions. If you put it out there, people will find it. You get that long-tale effect.”

As with the other partner archives, the BFI is not putting in any financing but simply making films available. “We’re in a good position to do that as probably the biggest film archive in Europe,” Dixon says.

Among films the BFI is submitting are “Daisy Doodad’s Dial,” a 1913 British-made comedy starring U.S. actress Florence Turner, and a rare film of a French boxing champion. “We’ll pick things that have appeal, like the boxing film, which will be really interesting for the boxing community because it’s not seen before,” Dixon contends.

For its part, the Danish Film Institute is submitting a 1923 Danish film that is one of the earliest examples of a viable talking film; an animated sausage commercial film from the mid-1930s that uses Dufay Color, a mosaic screen additive system that predates Technicolor; and a raunchy 1910 one-reeler about Copenhagen nightlife.

“These are films that we restored recently. They’re all entertaining films, one about color and cinema, one about sound and cinema. It’s broadening people’s idea of the development of cinema,” said Thomas Christensen, curator of the DFI.

“It’s great that there’s this kind of channel for content that is otherwise sitting fallow in the archive,” said Christensen. “I don’t expect it to become a blockbuster phenomenon. It might never be more than marginal but it’s an interesting channel to be represented on. I think this is very much a transition time, and we have to explore the possibilities.”

This is exciting news, though it doesn’t explain where the other 50% of the money has come from, or what happens after the first year. Also, some of those films may have been already made available online elsewhere (Daisy Doodad’s Dial is being offered by the BFI for free downloading on its Creative Archive site). But the more exposure the better, because it is all about finding those new audiences.

So roll on the 1910 scenes of raunchy Copenhagen nightlife, and shame on Belgium.

Update (June 2008): The site is now available, from www.europafilmtreasures.eu. An initial review of the site fom The Bioscope is here.

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