Extinction is Forever: The Star-Studded Foundation Committed to Preserving Classic Cinema

Martin Scorsese wears his influences on his sleeve.

His gangster films owe a debt to the work of director William Wellman. Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharaohs inspired him to create sprawling epics like Kundun and Gangs of New York. And Citizen Kane's revolutionary cinematic techniques are apparent in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that in 1990, Scorsese, along with other filmmakers, established the Film Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to film preservation and the exhibition of restored and classic cinema. 

Now comes news that the foundation has partnered with the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) and UNESCO to create the African Film Heritage Project to locate, restore, and preserve films made on the African continent. FEPACI's advisory board—composed of archivists, scholars, and filmmakers currently active in Africa—will identify the initial 50 films for inclusion.

Film preservation is certainly a laudable goal, particularly when you consider the stakes. More than half of all films made before 1950 have been lost, and only 10 percent of those produced in the U.S. prior to 1929 still exist. 

Wow, right? Imagine if that many books published in the early 20th century disappeared. Of course, the Library of Congress has long been tasked with preserving the nation's books. But until the Film Foundation came along, there was little attention to preserving films.

Scorsese had the benefit of some friendly help when he launched the foundation 27 years ago. Its original board of directors (an aptly named body in this case) included—and no, I'm not making this up—Woody Allen, Robert  Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford, and Steven Spielberg. Some of these people still serve on the board, along with younger filmmakers like Ang Lee and Peter Jackson. 

The Film Foundation's work has been supported by a range of funders, including the George Lucas Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, the Material World Foundation (founded by the late George Harrison), the Righteous Persons Foundation (created by Spielberg), and several entertainment companies such as 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures.

The Film Foundation’s member archives propose projects annually, outlining and prioritizing the films with the most dire need. The board then reviews the proposals and allocates funding, weighing factors including the film's physical condition, the scarcity of the elements, and the film's cultural and historical significance.

Since its inception, the foundation has saved more than 600 movies.

It also distributes "The Story of Movies," a free interdisciplinary curriculum to millions of students across the U.S. "By introducing young people to classic cinema," the foundation says, "the program encourages an appreciation of film as an artistic, cultural, and historical document, leading to an awareness of the importance of artist’s rights and the need to protect our motion picture heritage.

To date, the program has been used by over 100,000 educators at more than 40,000 schools across the country. 

Given the foundation's Hollywood connection, plus the fact that resources like the National Film Preservation Foundation exist to preserve American films, it's only natural that the Film Foundation has taken a more global focus as of late.

The African Film Heritage Project is the latest country for inclusion in the foundation's World Cinema Project. To date, 28 films from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America, South America, and the Middle East have been restored, preserved and exhibited for a global audience. 

"There are so many films in need of restoration from all over the world. We created the World Cinema Project to ensure that the most vulnerable titles don’t disappear forever," Scorsese said.

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