Given the relative indifference to America’s vast history of sponsored filmmaking — a term meant to connote those promotional programmers made by corporations, government bureaus, school boards, and the like — local maven Rick Prelinger ranks more a media archaeologist than a typical archivist. His work seems somehow related to filmmaker Guy Maddin’s: where others see film history’s detritus, they see possibility, stones left unturned. Prelinger first started collected these films some 25 years ago: a collection which, by 2002, had developed enough esteem to warrant a Library of Congress acquisition. Besides collecting, Prelinger has made access a strong priority, partnering with the Internet Archive (see below) and frequently writing about the ins-and-outs of Intellectual Property. Other Cinema — an organization known for a similarly intrepid stance on copyright law — has invited Prelinger to show some of his favorites at Artists’ Television Access on the occasion of the new book, A Field Guide to Sponsored Films. I spoke with him on the phone as he readied for the ATA event.
SF360: Could you describe the Other Cinema program and talk a little about what the impetus was for this particular collection of the ‘ephemeral’ films you specialize in?
Rick Prelinger: For quite a while I’ve been very interested in trying to get this material in the mainstream a little bit, trying to get them out of the realm of camp and kitsch. I’d been working over the years doing screenings, working on laserdiscs that try to contextualize this material, and then a couple of years ago, I realized we don’t really have criterion of judgment. So I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to put together a collection of meritorious films people should preserve and teach with, just take a snapshot — not a canon — to give people something to work with and begin to figure out what was important here?’ The National Film Preservation Foundation got money from the Mellon Foundation to do this book which we now call A Field Guy to Sponsored Films. We don’t say ‘industrial’ or ‘institutional’ anymore because people don’t understand what it means; we say ‘sponsored’ because that’s a big umbrella — it could be for-profit, it could be non-profit, educational, government sponsored films, and so on. With this screening, we’re going to give books to people who are interested, and then I’m going to do a selection of interesting films that are compatible with the Other Cinema vision, which is [about] pushing boundaries, cinema, and representation — so we’re going to show some stuff that’s a little unusual.
SF360: Are there any specific qualities, whether having to do with film style or narration, that you look for in these kinds of films when you’re putting together a program like this?
Prelinger: One of the big things about these films is that they really take place outside film history. They’re seen as having style, but they’re not seen as having integrity. A lot of times people have said to me, ‘Oh, Cinema Studies people would be really interested in your work.’ For years most of the people who looked at these films were interested in sociological issues. That’s actually changed; now people are starting to focus on how these work as films, and it turns out that there’s a lot of things that are just as interesting [as] the features and short subjects that get a lot of attention. The first fact about [sponsored films] is that there are so many. In the United States alone at least 400,000 sponsored films have been made since the beginning of the talkies, and if you go back to silent films, who knows. It’s a numerically dominant genre. And then beyond that, they have evidentiary value; they’re incredibly rich, dense records of daily life, of the way people worked, of the way the landscape looked, the way the city changed, body language. Beyond recording the way people looked, they’re also these great documents of past persuasion because they were usually made for pretty clear reasons. They were made to promote products and ideas; they were made to convince people. Now we have websites to do it.
SF360: I’m curious how much you think of the films in terms of the audience for whom they were intended because I would think that when you do a show like this the audiences who are going to be watching it are going to have an entirely different experience of the film. How do you contextualize?
Prelinger: One of the things about these films that’s really hard to pick up on now is the issue of reception. We know that people watched them. We don’t know much about how they were received. You have to go to external sources to figure that out, and what you end up finding out is that yes, they did work. These films were an incredibly efficient way of reaching large audiences inexpensively. Here’s an example: Greyhound made these travelogues — ‘Tour the United States by Bus’ — and some of those films were in circulation for 20 years. A film might have cost maybe $50,000 — might be half a million now — but if that film was seen by twenty million people, it was an incredible investment. Given that you had a captive audience for perhaps half-an-hour, it turned out to really actually make a tremendous amount of sense, so that although these films sometimes seem a little strange or flaky from today’s point of view, they represented a sound business strategy.
SF360: There are a lot of working filmmakers who integrate this type of footage into documentaries or fiction films. Do you work with people in this regard?
Prelinger: Yes, for years we sold stock footage, and that’s how I funded the archives. Even now I mostly live on proceeds from stock footage sales. There was a big change in 2001 when I started working with the Internet Archives which made almost 2,000 films from our collection available online for free. That was a real counterintuitive thing, to just give them away. But that, more than anything, has popularized the material. It’s suddenly accessible, and now there have been something like 7 million films downloaded from the Internet Archive, free and without restriction. That’s an incredibly high level of archival access when you think of an archive that shows silent films, and maybe five-thousand people get to see them in a year. This is access on a much higher level; some of it is deeply serious and academic, a lot of it is for fun, and a great deal of it is people downloading so that they can use the footage. It’s changed not only the function of the archive, but my own experience as an archivist. We have this semi-collaborative relationship with our users, which has been extremely cool.
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