Film collectors get screen time of their own in ‘Film Is Dead. Long Live Film!’ documentary

film is dead

“Film Is Dead. Long Live Film!” will be shown at The Barrymore Film Center in Fort Lee, March 28.

The new documentary “Film Is Dead. Long Live Film!” is about the glorious history of celluloid.

And here’s the cruel joke: The movie was made, and can only be projected, digitally.

“Physical film itself is dead and gone,” admits director Peter Flynn. “The (Christopher) Nolans and (Quentin) Tarantinos who continue to commit themselves to celluloid get the press, but they’re the exception to the rule. Less than 2 percent of theaters in the country can even run film today. That essentially says it all.”

Except, frankly, there is still more to say. And Flynn’s documentary — which will premiere March 28 at The Barrymore Film Center in Fort Lee — lets the people who still treasure and protect celluloid say it.

Q: You’re based in Massachusetts, teach at Emerson. What drew you to Fort Lee as a showcase for this?

A: Well, the first doc I made was about the Kalem Company, an early silent film studio, so I was very aware of Fort Lee as a birthplace of American cinema — even though so much of its history had been bulldozed away over the years. So it seemed right to take this to the Barrymore Film Center; like the collectors in my film, it’s doing so much to salute and preserve movie history. Plus a lot of the serious collectors seem to be from the area, like Bob Furmanek (of Clifton), who’s done a lot of important work preserving 3D movies.

Q: He’s an interesting example, because he’s worked as an archivist. At the other end, you have collectors who are more like hoarders, with storage spaces crammed full of stuff. Yet despite the differences, almost all of them still fit a certain profile: Over 60, white, middle-class, male.

A: A big part of it is definitely generational. I’m 51, and anybody my age or younger grew up in the video era, so for us movies are often something on tape, not something you hold and handle and thread through a projector. We’ve lost that magical, physical connection. But Baby Boomers had 8mm home movies, and 16mm movies in school, and 35mm movies in theaters; their world was completely saturated with film. And then, fitting with the rest of the collecting profile, film and projectors have a certain mechanical aspect, which used to be thought of as an exclusively male interest. And in terms of income, it wasn’t a cheap hobby to get into; it helped if your father had a projector, and you had enough money to get stuff, and a basement where you could set up a screen and some chairs.

Q: I grew up in that era, and I remember buying Castle Film shorts, and even renting features. Once I saved up my allowance and bought a print of the “Psycho” trailer. But full-length features cost a lot; once cheap videos came in, I switched to collecting them. Yet these guys went all in on film, no matter what it cost. Why?

A: I think there were a lot of things that appealed. There’s the thrill of the hunt — you know, going out in search of something rare. And then if you find it, it’s a source of pride: “I have the only copy of this film, and if you want to see it, you have to come to me.” There’s a certain power there. And then, adding to the thrill, is that obtaining these prints sometimes required illegal, or at least quasi-illegal, means. I mean, legally, a lot of those films don’t belong in some person’s basement. But most of them were never picked up from the shipping company, or never sent back from the drive-in. They were lost or purposefully abandoned. So they ended up with these foster parents.

In a scene from “Film Is Dead. Long Live Film!,” Geoffrey Curtis runs 35mm film at the CineSea Film Collectors Convention.

Q: People who took better care of them, in many cases, than their original parents. There are so many horror stories of silent films melted down for the silver nitrate.

A: Absolutely. Other films were just thrown out and ended up in landfills. They were seen as disposable products; a lot of places decided they weren’t worth the storage fees. Then, at one point (in the ’70s), the studios woke up and decided to crack down, and go after these collectors for copyright violations. The FBI even raided Roddy McDowall’s house and confiscated all these prints he used to show at parties. People became terrified of letting you know what they had.

Interestingly, that’s changed, since Blu-rays. Studios realized the value of content — trailers, alternative takes, things they threw out that these collectors had saved. Now, the studios aren’t just looking the other way, they’re actually approaching collectors looking to collaborate. “I know we tried to jail you, but do you have a print of this old movie we could borrow?” It’s ironic that the greatest villains in all of this are the studios that created this art and then spearheaded its destruction — and the heroes are the small people, the folks labelled pirates and bootleggers and criminals, who saved it.

Q: They made some great discoveries. Years ago, it was a private collector who found a nice print of Edison’s original “Frankenstein.” And just recently another collector found what was long thought to be a lost Clara Bow film.

A: In “Film Is Dead,” we talk to a man who has spent years working to restore this silent serial with Boris Karloff, a really gorgeous-looking film. We interview someone who uncovered this marvelous documentary, shot just before Watts burned, following a Black teenager around her neighborhood, talking about her life. Most of the movies these collectors have preserved … OK, they’re not “Casablanca.” But they’re history. And they are full of all these wonderful moments we wouldn’t have if these people hadn’t saved them.

A piece of decayed nitrate film, as seen in “Film Is Dead. Long Live Film!”

Q: Film is fragile but, let’s face it, this generation of collectors is aging, too. What’s this community’s future?

A: The sad thing is pretty soon there will be nothing left to collect. It’s like, you arrive on the crime scene and the body is gone and all that’s left is the chalk outline. If a film isn’t in a vault, it’s already fading, already decaying and, as you said, the generation who grew up with this love of celluloid … they’re vanishing, too. Pretty soon, this culture will be gone. That was really the impetus of this film, to capture something of that before it disappeared. In the six years or so I was making this, many of the people I spoke to passed away. But back then, when you met them and went to their home … you know, there was 100 years of history.

Q: Even if some of those collectors were no longer sure of everything they’d collected.

A: Well, yes. The vast majority of these people are not professional archivists. They got into collecting at an early age, and it gave them a purpose and a focus and, in some cases, defined who they were. But if left unchecked that can become very unhealthy. You can’t deal with this topic without acknowledging the pitfalls. There’s a lot of that in this film: people who start out as collectors and end up as hoarders. They aren’t even able to protect what they’re trying to save, because it’s all crammed into their basement, wall-to-wall. When you’ve lost sight of your own floor, you may have lost sight of why you got into this. As Othello says, “I am one who loved not wisely, but too well.”

“Film Is Dead. Long Live Film!” will have its theatrical premiere March 28 at 7:30 p.m. at The Barrymore Film Center in Fort Lee. Visit

For more on the film, visit

Here is the trailer:

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