Rick Prelinger: On Collecting, Film Preservation, and The House in the Middle

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among film collectors, archivists, and preservationists, Rick Prelinger has the status of movie legend. Prelinger, an archivist, writer, and filmmaker, amassed a collection of 60,000 advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films that became the Prelinger Archives. In 2002, the U.S. Library of Congress acquired the collection, which has made a portion of it available free online to those who wish to view, download, or reuse the material. He is cofounder of the Prelinger Library (with spouse Megan Shaw Prelinger), an appropriation-friendly reference library located in San Francisco.

He wrote The Field Guide to Sponsored Films (2007) which “describes 452 historically or culturally significant motion pictures commissioned by businesses, charities, advocacy groups, and state or local government units between 1897 and 1980.” It is available as a book and as a free PDF from the National Film Preservation Foundation. From 2005 to 2007, Prelinger worked at the Internet Archive on a large-scale texts digitization project and recently helped organize the Open Content Alliance. His feature-length film Panorama Ephemera, depicting the conflicted landscapes of 20th-century America, opened in the summer of 2004.

On the heels of the NFPF announcement of its partnership with the New Zealand Film Archive to repatriate 75 American films, I thought a conversation with the founder of another important film archive was in order. Here are the results of our e-mail Q&A.

Rick, you’ve done just about as much as anyone to ensure that sponsored films remain a part of our cultural heritage. How did you get interested in this area of film making?

I was working in 1982 as a researcher on Heavy Petting, a documentary film about sexuality and romance in the years after World War II. As part of the job, I did extensive research about educational, advertising and industrial films, becoming fascinated with this rich world that no one knew much about at the time.

How did you build your collection?

When I started collecting, we were in a time of transition from film to video, just as we are now in a transition from physical to digital media. The U.S. is an incredibly media-rich nation—we throw away more media than most countries ever produce. I began approaching schools and colleges with media collections, libraries, production companies that had gone or were going out of business, and people who’d worked in the industry who had collected material. There was a great deal to choose from and my collection grew rapidly. In 1984-85, I realized that I needed to think in an archival way rather than just collecting, and began to collect original and preprint material instead of simply copies of release prints made for projection. Since there was obviously never going to be money to preserve all of these films, it seemed important to try and save these films in the best possible state.

Where is the collection now?

In 2002-03, the film collection to date went to the Library of Congress, where it is now being unpacked and processed. There will be public access to the materials sometime in the next few years, but it may take some time—they are dealing with some 200,000 cans: 60,000 completed productions plus a whale of a lot of unedited footage. Since that time, we have also continued to collect, and I mainly concentrate on home movies, amateur film, and a few commercially sponsored films. I don’t really collect educational films any more.

I’m a fan of these films, particularly “civil defense” films. The House in the Middle is a curious film that posits the unlikely idea that a fresh coat of paint will protect a house from a nuclear explosion. What are your personal impressions of this film?

The House in the Middle, to me, is a film that relies on a gimmick to get its point across. The government-run civil defense campaign was systemic and reached into many areas of life—there were films for householders, for farmers, for industrialists. In my opinion, this was simply another angle to repeat the line that preparedness would guarantee survival. In addition, the film links cleanliness and fresh paint with morality and survival. While this looks pretty ridiculous today, America’s marketers have often resorted to weird twists in order to sell their products. Compare this film to the many post-9/11 ads that use patriotic words and images to pitch specific goods and services.

Was this film an official part of the Defense Department’s informational effort?

I think it was made with the consent and collaboration of the government, who provided footage for the project, but I’ve seen no evidence that it was an official film.

Do we know anything about the people who wrote and filmed The House in the Middle?

Not really. It appears to have been made by a Washington PR film that may have contracted out production, but I haven’t done deep research yet.

Can you tell me about the physical state of extant copies of this film? What exists? How good are the YouTube and DVD copies of the film?

We have a 16mm Kodachrome print, as does the Library of Congress. Our print is not bad, though a little dark. We made a fairly decent video transfer and put it online for free at the Internet Archive. I think the YouTube version, like most YouTube archival videos, is a poorly derived, poor-quality dupe of what we offer online for free, and the DVDs are also copies of our online copy. I don’t know whether the original film materials still exist but hope to find them some day.

This film is on the National Film Registry as worthy of saving. What exactly does it mean to be on this registry and how will it affect The House in the Middle?

Films that make it onto the Registry are “artistically, culturally or historically” significant. I hope that this means the film will be preserved for posterity, but I believe we should hold off until we are as certain as we can be that original materials no longer exist. Going back to original materials would result in a film that much more closely resembles the original version. Beyond that, the Registry is a wonderful way of calling attention to films that may not be extremely well known but have the potential to enrich public understanding of cultural, social and cinema history.

Sponsored films are obvious precursors to the infomercial and the sponsored news spots that look like newsroom-produced stories. How do you compare these earlier efforts with today’s sponsored films?

Sponsored films are an ancient genre of cinema, going back to the first advertising films projected on New York City walls in 1896. While they are still being made by the hundreds of thousands, companies tend to focus more on the Web as a medium for their messages. The big difference to me between the film era and today is that the large and small production companies and studios that made sponsored films mostly no longer exist. But there’s more in common between video and Web production today and the glory days of industrial and advertising film than most of us might realize. Many of the messages and storytelling strategies are still the same.

What can people do if they want to see these films?

The best resource is the collection we’ve put online, and it’s absolutely free to download and use the films. Check out the Prelinger Collection at the Internet Archive. There are also other great collections at the Archive, including the Academic Film Archive of North America and AV Geeks. Click around!

  • Greg F spoke:
    8th/06/2010 to 12:33 pm

    Don’t forget, it was a fresh coat of reflective white paint intended to reduce heat absorbtion levels so the house wouldn’t… yeah, okay, it’s still a stupid idea, especially if your house is in the blast zone. And even if it isn’t there’s the matter of radioactive fallout that doesn’t give a crap what kind of paint you use.

    Great interview Marilyn. We need more people like Rick Prelinger (and you).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/06/2010 to 12:44 pm

    I knew you’d be interested in this, Greg. I have it on DVD and have always been fascinated with it. Prelinger is a very busy man – this interview was intended to run during the blogathon – but he graciously agreed to do it while on a business trip in Europe so I could post it with the “reveal” announcement.

  • Tinky spoke:
    8th/06/2010 to 7:26 pm

    Wonderful interview, Marilyn; thank you! The House in the Middle sounds fascinating. As soon as I’m back in the land of downloadable internet, I’m going to check out some of the Prelinger Collection online………

  • Marck Lein spoke:
    24th/06/2010 to 12:00 am

    All the questions were answered intelligently and nicely, I really had fun..!! Hopefully I could visit the Prelinger Library someday and most importantly I wish I could have an interview with Mr.Prelinger..

  • Karen Anderson spoke:
    16th/07/2010 to 9:16 pm

    He has a collection of 60,000 films? It’s really an achievement..I wish I could see all of his collection..Excellent interview, thanks for sharing this post..

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