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Print Edition> Lifestyle
UPDATED: September 30, 2011 NO. 40 OCTOBER 6, 2011
Saving Forgotten Treasures
Restoring classic movies for modern viewers

Angels in the Street(1937)

Spring River Flows East(1947)

Spring in a Small Town(1948)

Crow and Sparrow(1949)

"Averagely, the CFA spends about 300,000 yuan ($46,875) on restoration of each film, which is far below the international average standard of $80,000," he said.

Old film restoration can be time-consuming. "It can take several months or even more than a year to repair and restore a movie," said Li. For instance, it took the CFA two years to restore the classic movie Song of the Fishermen.

Professional skills

The lack of professionals marks the first bottleneck for the project.

"Professionals for old film repair and restoration are badly needed," said Zuo. "Less than 10 people can guide the whole process and less than 100 professionals are engaged in the restoration work in China."

"It's not a well-respected job in China, and young people prefer shooting new films to dedicating themselves to this exhausting and boring job," Zuo said.

Many universities and research institutions offer a major in film restoration, but most graduates of this major would turn to other professions.

Film restoration is a demanding profession that requires computer savvy, and a thorough understanding of movie art and film's physical nature.

"Film restorers usually have very good computer skills but lack the basic art competency. Old films are different from today's films in terms of shooting methods and art connotations. Without being aware of this, restorers may produce a very different film from the original," he said.

Restoring old films involves creation without deviating from the original message of the movie, especially when some sections of the movie were damaged. In that case, restorers are advised to get in touch with directors and actors to learn their original intentions for the film.

"It's quite hard for restorers to fully grasp the message of classic films as creators of many old movies are not available for inquiries," he said.

The lack of standards for the industry is another challenge. "Without experts or specific standards to guide the job, professionals in the industry can only find a way by themselves," he said.

When some sections were damaged, should restorers keep the movie as it is or replace the damage with new content? It's a problem many restorers face.

The CFA is working on forming a team of experts to guide the restoration and establish relevant standards, he said.

Market for restored movies

The repaired version of Ashes of Time yielded 30 million yuan ($4.69 million) at box office when it was screened in 2009. But not all restored films are as lucky.

For instance, Song of the Fishermen doesn't have a chance to be screened either in theaters or on TV as movies with more promising box office performances are waiting in line for a chance.

Restored films are mostly screened in rural areas for free but don't have access to big theaters in cities. Some of them go to movie exhibitions overseas for foreign audiences to have a glimpse into the Chinese culture.

"Most of them are not known to ordinary moviegoers. Only experts in the industry study them for academic purposes," said Zuo.

But in other countries, there are diverse and mature ways of exploring the commercial value of restored classic films. The restoration cost can be recovered by showing the film on TV or in theaters. Many luxury brands in Italy sponsor old film restoration to promote rich connotations of the country's history and culture, he said.

The CFA is exploring more commercial operations for restored old films. It will put more emphasis on promotion and secure more chances for old films to be watched by average urban dwellers after restoring the 5,000 old films on its schedule, he said.

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