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Saving Our Cinema Legacy – Martin Scorsese, Steward of Film Preservation

“…there’s no such thing as an old film, just a film you’ve never seen. That’s all.” – Martin Scorsese

All film geeks love lists, so here’s a little experiment for you:

  • Print a list of your top 100 films
  • Fold the list in half, horizontally
  • Repeat the same
  • Tear off the bottom three folds and throw them away

The small piece remaining in your hand is approximately what would be left a few decades without some form of diligent film preservation. Nobody, including yourself, will ever experience what those works meant to you.

Martin Scorsese noticed way back in the 70s while filming Mean Streets that many of his own favorite films from the past were deteriorating rapidly. Discoloration and sound loss followed by a final crumbling into nothing was the fate of every film, be it a silent classic, a blockbuster epic or a B-movie serial destined for Saturday matinees.

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It’s a sad fact that 90% of American-made silent movies are already gone, lost forever. It’s also estimated that 50% of entire Hollywood catalog made before 1950 are also gone. India, arguably the country with the most prolific film industry and largest per capita percentage of filmgoers, had lost 70 – 80% of all films made by 1950. With a few exceptions, their silent film catalog has disappeared entirely.

After assisting or supporting a few independent film restoration projects, Scorsese founded The Film Foundation in 1990, a non-profit dedicated exclusively to saving – and exhibiting – our cinema history. This effort also includes The World Cinema Project that focuses its efforts on films from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central and South America. To date, approximately 800 films on the verge of being lost forever have been restored and exhibited to audiences that would never have had the chance to experience their magic.

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A quest that began as an effort to save the films he loved personally has expanded into an international effort, and Scorsese has galvanized other filmmakers and archivists to get involved. The Board of Directors of The Film Foundation has and does include a virtual Who’s Who of filmmaking: Alexander Payne, Ang Lee, Clint Eastwood, Christopher Nolan, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Paul Thomas Anderson, Peter Jackson, Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, and Woody Allen. Robert Altman, Curtis Hanson, Stanley Kubrick, and Sydney Pollack also served on the organizations board before they passed.

Every film-lover owes Martin Scorsese much gratitude for his magnificent personal filmography, but for his dedicated efforts to preserving the work of others, worldwide, for future audiences to experience? We owe him everything.

Here is a very brief slideshow of some titles I cherry-picked of films that we still have thanks to his efforts and inspiration. Just imagine your “film life” without them.

 

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