How Heritage Film Institutions Are Coping With a ‘Missing Arm’ During the Pandemic

Restoring, archiving and screening are the three pillars of film archives and cinematheques. During the pandemic, they have somehow had to stay standing with one of those pillars crumbling to the ground.

“Archives have had a missing arm,” as Frédéric Bonnaud, head of the Cinémathèque Française puts it.

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Bonnaud was among a number of experts who gathered for a Locarno Film Festival panel discussion on the future of heritage cinema online, and the challenges posed to exhibition by COVID-19.

With their three precious screening rooms closed, the Cinémathèque Française rushed to create an online platform to continue showing some of their cinematic treasures to audiences.

The resulting platform was Henri (named after the organization’s founder Henri Langlois), which launched last June with a selection of films the Cinémathèque restored and had the rights to. To this day, the platform is still free, partly because charging a fee would be against the organization’s principles, and partly because the Cinémathèque is commercially and legally “incapable” of making viewers pay for its films online, according to Bonnaud.

The Cinémathèque head shared some figures to demonstrate the platform’s perhaps surprising success so far. For instance, after only a few weeks of launch, the 1928 Jean Epstein classic “La Chute de la maison usher” had been watched 50,000 times on the platform.

Bonnaud says he is unable to tell “whether the film was watched in good or bad conditions,” whether viewers tune out after five minutes, or whether the same person viewed the film hundreds of times. However, the simple “gesture of screening” and “editorializing” online represented a step in a pleasing direction for the Cinémathèque.

“It’s important to re-discover the valorization of screening rooms, but we also have to think of the other ways of showing films so that people don’t watch only 20%, so that people finish those films. We have to think how to editorialize them, how to have them discovered, both in our own country, and abroad,” Bonnaud said.

Frédéric Maire, director of the Cinémathèque Suisse, and Matej Strnad, head of curators at the Czech National Film Archive, said both their institutions found themselves in a very similar predicament.

The Cinémathèque Suisse quickly constructed a Vimeo channel to give free access to certain of their restored works, while the Czech National Film Archive simply uploaded many of their films to YouTube.

“We did that because that’s where the viewers are, we thought,” Strnad explained.

Maire said that while restoring and archiving have continued with little disruption, screening films is a “major part of our DNA,” and that archives have to find more professional ways of showing their films online going forward.

Mubi and Latvia’s, two of the more established online platforms for heritage films, were represented on the panel by Chiara Marañón and Dita Rietuma respectively.

Marañón said the same editorialization, or “curation” as she called it, is at the heart of Mubi’s offering, and that the platform will continue to rely on the output from archives, cinematheques and, of course, festivals like Locarno for programming.

“We have been developing an audience of film lovers and cinephiles, people looking for alternatives to Netflix and the mainstream. We have the audience, we have the reach, so we can amplify the messaging around these films,” she said.

Noted filmmaker and restorationist Ross Lipman opened the panel by asking how the “viewing experience of archival and art cinema” can be improved online.

It was a question that no one on the panel had a miracle answer to, but Strnad neatly summed up the existential question heritage film experts are facing of how to preserve classic films and cultivate the theatrical experience, while at the same time granting access to viewers around the world who are hungry for it.

“Finding different ways to tackle that, especially in the realm of curatorial and programming work, is the greatest challenge that lies ahead of us as film archivists or programmers in general,” Strnad said. “Limiting access after we have been through the period when we have opened access so broadly, would simply be a step back. We need to go forward with this experience in mind, while at the same time cultivating and preserving the mere possibility of the cinema experience.”

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