Films on film: Yale Film Archivist shares strategy for preserving and screening

  • Closeup of man with short grey hair and beard and black rim glasses, turning head to right while speaking at microphone. He wears grey jacket and blue and gray plaid shirt open at collar.
    Brian Meacham, Yale Film Archive
  • Six people--four men and two women--sit at a long table with black cloth. Projected behind them on screen reads "Keeping Film on Film" discussion panel, Host: Fiona Maxwell, BFI and names of panelists
  • Woman with short blonde hair, tortoise glasses and leopard print shirt holds microphone in right hand, smiling while speaking
    Fiona Maxwell, British Film Institute
July 7, 2023

Brian Meacham, film archivist at the library’s Yale Film Archive, was one of the featured speakers at the British Film Institute (BFI) Film on Film Festival in London in early June. Experts from the BFI, Kodak, film laboratories, the Academy Film Archive, and elsewhere in the industry discussed the challenges of preserving and creating film prints in the digital age, the future of screening films projected on film, and related topics.

Meacham was the only member of the international “Keeping Film on Film” panel working in an academic environment. When moderator Fiona Maxwell, head of stakeholder relationships for BFI, asked Meacham about the level of interest in viewing films on campus, Meacham said that he has seen an “uptick in student interest” at Yale.

“Since the pandemic and with the return of in-person events,” he said, “I have seen more undergraduates at film events than I did in the first six years I worked there. They are coming back because these are real events, happening in a group, in community, in the dark, while all are focused on the same thing.”

Meacham’s focus is on finding original materials on film, preserving them, and producing film prints—in short, to “acquire as many prints for screening as we can.”

“This is not like having a streaming license,” he said. “This is forever. Yale will have these film prints in the collection for 100, 500 years.”

Throughout the year, the Treasures from the Yale Film Archive series presents free screenings of classic and contemporary international films in their original 35mm format, as they were meant for audiences to see them. There are three archivally sound screening venues on campus. At screenings, Meacham enhances the viewing experience by explaining the film’s context and providing technical information; occasionally he invites guest speakers who have a connection to the film or special expertise.

“The audience knows the event is going to be different every time,” he said. “I tell the story of the print when I introduce the film—where it came from, how we made it. Is it old? Is it new? Is it from a collector? I think students are really attracted to that and find it worth their time in the very busy lives that they have.”

Meacham, who was previously at the Academy Film Archive—part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—has been at the Yale Film Archive since 2013. In that role, he is responsible for the acquisition, inspection, cataloging, and preservation of thousands of print and pre-print elements.

Meacham also sees it as part of his mission to educate viewers. “It’s a virtuous cycle,” he explained. “The more you know about film, the more you are interested in seeing more of it.”

Watch the “Keeping Film on Film” panel discussion on YouTube. Meacham’s remarks begin at 29:45.

Learn more about future and past screenings in the Treasures from the Film Archive series.

—Deborah Cannarella