The Morning Call (Sunday)
Hollywood’s Fort Knox
Iron Mountain Entertainment Services restores treasured footage from entertainment industry’s past as demand for content soars in pandemic
It’s been several decades since a TV show was recorded on a two-inch Quadruplex videotape machine. Kurt Spada, lead encode operator for Iron Mountain Entertainment Services, remembers working on one early in his career as a TV technician.
Fortunately, he still knows his way around the piece of equipment, which was first used during the advent of videotape in 1956 and now looks like a set piece from a vintage “Star Trek” episode. One afternoon in the Moonachie, New Jersey, facility, he was transferring tapes of programming from the 1960s into a software system that converted them into digital files.
“As long as you’ve got the proper equipment, you could probably play this 100 years from now,” Spada said. “But most of that equipment is hard to find, which is why people are taking their material and digitizing it for whoever wants to view it.”
As the pandemic has turned the past into the present for the entertainment industry, expect to see some of that content on a streaming service soon.
The creation of new shows and movies has been slowed by the health crisis while the appetite of homebound consumers looking for content is intensifying. The demand is sending media companies into their vaults to supply streaming services and documentary filmmakers, lending sizzle to the unglamorous business of archiving and restoring film, video and music assets.
The steady work flow has boosted the entertainment services unit of the Bostonbased Iron Mountain, which was founded in 1951 with a mandate to protect documents, films and other media from destruction in the event of a nuclear attack. Its main storage facility is an underground limestone mine built in Boyers, Pennsylvania, that goes 22 stories underground.
Iron Mountain, which had $4.26 billion in revenue last year, does not disclose finances for its entertainment services unit, known as IMES. But the company said it had doubledigit revenue growth this year because of increased usage of archived material.
“Our business has been stronger in this period,” said Lance Podell, senior vice president and general manager for IMES. “If no one’s producing, we still have to find content to entertain you.”
Media companies have mined their storage files for vintage assets to give consumers a robust selection of shows and feature films. Iron Mountain’s clients include major film and TV studios, HBO, several sports teams and the Grammy Museum.
Record labels also have been scouring their files to make vintage video and audio available for streaming on YouTube, a project Iron Mountain has underway for Universal Music Group.
Iron Mountain has about 650,000 square feet dedicated to IMES, with locations in Boyers, Hollywood, London, Paris and New Jersey. Each site is equipped with temperature and humidity-controlled storage facilities and studios where technicians can remediate, restore and digitize old analog media.
The move to add those in-house services in recent years has proved invaluable during the pandemic when access, travel and production throughout the TV and film industries have been limited.
“When no one’s trucks were on the road and no one was transporting any material, the projects we had continued — nothing stopped,” Podell said. “The more material they wanted to digitize the more we were able to deliver because it was sitting in our warehouses. No one has to travel anywhere and risk their health and safety. We can access it all and upload it to them. It never has to leave the building.”
One of the New Jersey facilities is located in a utilitarian two-story red brick building in Moonachie. Inside are the original tapes from many of the biggest entities in film, TV and music — most of which cannot be named publicly due to client confidentiality. But the scope and cultural value of the stored holdings are clear when scanning the thousands of labeled boxes in the vaults.
The work of IMES and other archival services was on full display recently when HBO and HBO Max premiered White Horse Pictures’ “The Bee Gees: How Do You Mend A Broken
Heart,” a new documentary by director Frank Marshall. It chronicles the Australian pop group’s enduring career spanning five decades, including its phenomenal reign on the music charts during the disco era that was rivaled only by the Beatles’ dominance in the mid-1960s.
Video and audio material from Universal Music Group were accessed for the two-hour film. Among the 23 film reels restored for use were eight-millimeter home movies of the Brothers Gibb as children growing up in Australia.
The story is also told through vintage tape of TV interviews and performances. The group’s longevity means its career was captured on an alphabet soup of obsolete video and audio formats, from two-inch multitrack reels to small cassettes.
“A lot of the stuff had been sitting in these pallets for decades, and no one had really touched it,” said Aly Parker, a producer on the film. “I’ve worked with other archive houses, and they’re all great. But Iron Mountain probably has the most capabilities. If you’ve got something weird, you take it to them.”
All of the machines need to be operational as an archived original tape might only play in the format it was recorded on. Keeping the aging equipment running can be a source of anxiety for Kelly Pribble, principal studio engineer and preservation specialist for IMES.
Pribble has gone to mechanical engineering school and learned how to build his own devices and safely clean video and audio tape. He applied his restoration skills to tapes in the Bob Dylan archive, which is being prepared for the 2021 opening of the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Thousands of items from the singer’s career will be curated and exhibited at the site.
The maintenance of a master tape — the most accurate representation of an original recording — is necessary even after its content has been transferred to a digital source. Archivists will want to transfer information from the original tape again whenever new technologies with higher resolution come along.
“This is cultural heritage,” said Brian Towle, director and global head of operations for IMES. “There is a point that when you can’t hear it and you can’t play it, it’s gone.”