Universal Fire Follow-Up

Courthouse Square aerial view after fire

LA’s Universal Studios theme park reopened one day after a major fire destroyed several famous sets and a media storage facility. The Los Angeles Times, in an almost ghoulish touch of humor, ran a photo of a tourist tram passing the War of the Worlds set, a set untouched by the fire but consisting of the simulated wreckage of a passenger plane crash.

The Times also carried photos of the scorched ruins of Courthouse Square, seen in Back To The Future, and the burned-out media warehouse.

What archival film and music was lost along with the storage facility is a hot question among film and music buffs.

On June 2, Universal sent an e-mail to several dozen film exhibitors saying that the fire destroyed nearly 100% of the archive prints kept on the lot. According to Variety, those prints were housed in a vast vault containing up to 50,000 videos or film reels, as well as music recordings, and all were destroyed in the blaze. However, the studio is adamant that the vault contained only digital or film copies. All master negatives of classic films are kept elsewhere as part of the studio’s film preservation strategy.

Film aficianados posted online that often-rented titles are stored elsewhere, so what was on the lot were prints of new and old of features that were rarely requested. Even though the master negatives still exist elsewhere, the owners have little incentive to strike replacement prints, which are costly to make — around $5,000 apiece. The movies have not been lost to the culture, but for all practical purposes some are as good as lost to anyone who might have given them a theatrical showing.

The organizer of Cinecon, a classic film festival held Labor Day weekend at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater, called the fire “a catastrophe” because Universal was their main source, providing 40% of the prints on last year’s schedule.

As to the music archives, the Times added that “the fire also claimed about 5% of Universal Music Group’s recordings, primarily big band and jazz recordings on the Decca label, and video copies of Universal movies and television shows. Universal Music Group is no longer part of the NBC conglomerate but rents storage space from the studio.”

Another source reports Universal Music claims that in the past year it has moved master recordings of its “big name” musical artists to the giant Iron Mountain, Pennsylvania vault — the same one used by Bill Gates and Microsoft.

As to hopes expressed that backup copies exist of whatever master recordings were lost in the fire, “Will B.” cynically observed:

Whenever you hear about music box sets being created, the producers always talk about how they track down the original analogue tapes, then bake them in ovens to make them capable of being played, and then they copy them using the finest azimuth adjustment possible onto whatever is the latest digital technology. It takes a lot of money, time, and care. Sometimes they take weeks to find the same model recorder/playback device that the reels were originally laid down with. Yet now Universal says “we did all that”. Color me skeptical, because I’ve never read a story where the producer of a box set says “Yeah, it was easy to make this box set because Universal had already made digital backups. I just sat at my computer at home, and was done in a week.”

One thought on “Universal Fire Follow-Up

  1. I was afraid of this. My first reaction was heart-sinking at the loss of film, etc., but then I allowed myself to be lulled by the claim that nothing was really lost… Sad, hard stuff.

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