Finding and restoring old movies in Bridgeport
Published 12:00 am, Friday, July 14, 2017
The future of thousands of movies and TV shows rests in the hands of a dedicated band of film buffs and technicians in a nondescript building in downtown Bridgeport.
Film Chest Media Group is at the forefront of the ongoing challenge of preserving and restoring titles presumed to be long-lost, or are in such bad shape they have become unwatchable.
A recent Film Chest coup was finding the 1958 TV series “Decoy,” starring cult actress Beverly Garland, that few people had ever heard of because it was such a rarity. Despite its obscurity, the show was a landmark on two counts. It was the first series centered on a female cop and the first TV show to be shot on the streets of New York City.
A few episodes had been floating around on YouTube for years, but they were in awful shape.
“There were people who had put out some of the shows in terrible quality versions — fifth generation transfers,” Film Chest’s director of business development, Ralph Stevens, says. “But I knew it was a great show and I wanted to put out the complete series.”
Film Chest obtained the rights to the series, but found out the only existing versions were tapes, not the original film masters. The company’s restorers in Bridgeport had to go through the video material scene by scene, restoring the quality of the visuals and the sound until they came up with a version almost identical to the film originally aired on TV almost 60 years ago.
“There are a few episodes where the quality dips because they were (made from) fourth or fifth generation copies that couldn’t be brought up to the level of the others,” Stevens says of the complete “Decoy” series Film Chest put out on DVD a few months ago and is also available for streaming on Amazon.
Stevens says one of the biggest challenges his company faces is that movies and TV shows have been produced using so many different formats over the years — 16mm and 35mm film and a staggering array of video and digital formats, ranging from 1/2-inch tape to VHS and others.
“You have to get to the original source, if you can,” Stevens says of finding out what format was used when the material was produced. “People might have made films with a 35mm negative, but along comes tape and those things were distilled down to tape. People foolishly got caught up in that and started throwing away all of the original film material.
“It’s crazy what people did (with the movies and TV shows they produced) and crazy what they saved. We’ve rescued libraries from places like a strip mall in Florida, where there was no air-conditioning and water damage,” he says.
Because of the often complicated search for the best-possible copies, a lot of what Film Chest does is old-fashioned detective work, combing warehouses and archives for as much original source material as they can find.
“We work with (storage companies) who are foreclosing on dozens of storage spaces. We get sent all of the lists. Someone looks at a balance, realizes they owe $50,000 and they stop paying. The film libraries fall into oblivion. That’s where we come in,” Stevens says.
Film Chest’s reputation for working on old film and video material has spread and the company offers its services to other video labels, such as the art house specialist Kino. The Bridgeport building includes temperature and humidity-controlled rooms designed for the safe storage of archival material.
The company’s location for the past seven years, a few blocks from the bus and train stations in downtown, is a bit of a real estate fluke. Film Chest outgrew its Manhattan offices and Stevens has a cousin who knows Connecticut real estate.
“I told him we needed to be close to a train station and within 60 miles of the city,” Stevens says. Film Chest lucked out finding a Bridgeport building that met all of Stevens’ criteria, including an internal loading dock so film and video in transport wouldn’t be damaged by rain. The long-abandoned building was a mess — water-soaked from a leaking roof, walls covered with graffiti, garbage everywhere — but after careful restoration, it’s now a hive of activity.
The company recently added a public component to its work with a retail store, The Archive, which sells Film Chest videos and other carefully curated titles, as well as hundreds of vinyl record rarities. In just a brief browsing, I found Alan Price’s fantastic soundtrack for the 1973 Lindsay Anderson film, “O Lucky Man!” The store also stocks posters, T-shirts and movie ephemera. Stevens is planning to add an event space and a screening room.
The store stocks titles from Film Chest’s wonderful Vinegar Syndrome label devoted to the so-called “grind-house” B-movies that used to play on 42nd Street in Manhattan and in other slightly disreputable urban movie houses. (The video label is named for a scourge of movie archivists, the vinegar-like airborne acid that destroys old films in poorly managed storage facilities.)
“That was the original independent cinema — outsider cinema, “ Stevens says of funky cult items, like “Disco Godfather,” “Malibu High,” “Witchtrap” and many more. “Lots of directors got their first jobs that way.”
So far, the company has transferred and restored more than 500 of these much-beloved potboilers, and offers them for sale via Vinegar Syndrome.
Fans of “Decoy” will be happy to know Film Chest is in the process of obtaining the rights to another forgotten but important 1950s TV series, “Deadline,” based on real newspaper stories of the day.
“We have found the original 16mm film for that one,” Stevens says, grinning. “It will be the perfect companion piece to ‘Decoy.’”
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