Monday, March 21, 2011

The Market for Home Movies

Archivist Andrea McCarty inspecting film for Home Movie Day, Boston, 2005.
Photo credit: Reed Sturtevant, Super 8 Wiki.

Contrary to the impression sometimes inadvertently created by popular shows like Antiques Roadshow, most old items are not valuable.  I always assumed that this was particularly true regarding home movies.  Who wants to see my family dressed in out-of-date clothes, clumsily posing for the camera?

Nevertheless, I asked Snowden Becker about the value of home movies, expecting that her answer would be that they had no value, aside from sentimental value.  But that’s not what Snowden replied.  In fact, her answer genuinely surprised me:

Could my old films be valuable?

Snowden:  “In a word, yes.  However, it’s very important to distinguish between historical value and cash value, and be aware that they are not always directly related – and sometimes maximizing one means destroying the other.

“While there is a collector’s market for home movies at flea markets, swap meets, and online auction sites like eBay, most films don’t fetch very much money.  Maximizing profit will usually require that an intact collection be broken up and sold as individual reels, which can destroy much of their context and continuity, making them less meaningful as historical records.  Furthermore, film is not a liquid asset – its specific storage needs, and the cost of transferring the film to a format where it can easily be used by contemporary producers, mean that a significant investment must be made in any film footage before its contents can be licensed for reuse.

“Copyright is another complicating factor, particularly for film of unknown origins.  Many people assume that home movies are copyright-free or in the public domain, but that’s not the case.  Most of the time, they fall into the same legal category as unpublished diaries, letters, or photographs – that is, they don’t enter the public domain until 70 years after the death of their creator, or 120 years from the date of their creation if the creator is unknown or unidentifiable. That’s NOT a typo – unpublished materials currently take over a century to enter the public domain.

“Footage containing images of celebrities may enhance its commercial value, but it can also increase the legal risks involved with using it.  Even ordinary people who appear in home movie footage have rights that should be considered, especially if the footage depicts intimate activities or religious rituals that would normally not be accessible to outsiders.

“The primary value that most home movies will have for your family and the larger public is cultural and historical, not financial, but every kind of value they have will be increased by proper storage, careful handling, and the responsible provision of access to their contents.”

© 2011 Lee Price

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