Pro-Tek Vaults, Which Helped Restore ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Moonlighting,’ Charts Course for Future of Film Protection

In the digital age, there is a tendency to think of the phrase “film preservation” only as it relates to the care and restoration of movies from the 1950s or earlier. But while classic films need care, so too do newer projects. Digital formats not only become obsolete but degrade over time. When global IP is worth billions of dollars, the stakes for its owners are even higher.

Straddling both the physical and digital worlds, Pro-Tek Vaults has planted its flag in this space as a leader in media services, film preservation and archival solutions. The 30-year-old company is charting its course for a robust future by expanding on plans to help protect and celebrate the past.

“We work with some of the most sophisticated owners of intellectual property in the industry, so they understand that preserving their content for the long run is critical, and it’s something that requires specialized environments, but also a level of expertise and care that a dedicated team that focuses exclusively in this area can bring,” says Pro-Tek CEO Doug Sylvester.

Pro-Tek got its start in 1994, when Rick Utley, following successful tenures at MGM Metrocolor and Technicolor Laboratory Laboratory Services, was hired by Eastman Kodak to run a newly created business in that space. They understood that a digital revolution was coming, and sought a leader to develop other revenue streams to help potentially backfill falling film sales.

But the roots for its continued success stretch back a bit further. The proliferation of cable television — and in particular Ted Turner’s $1.5 billion purchase of MGM in 1986, made to leverage its library entertainment assets for his cable channels — opened studio eyes to the enormous potential worth held in its vaults. No longer was it merely a cultural responsibility, but instead a possible corporate benefit, bolstering the value proposition for their preservation.

Ancillary revenue generators helped spur the development of a cottage industry of smaller preservation services. Given its resources and considerable human capital, Pro-Tek was uniquely situated to capitalize on the moment.

“I wanted it to be more than cold storage,” explains Utley, who retired from Pro-Tek in 2015, after a career spanning nearly five decades. “I wanted it to be a facility where we actually helped the studios understand the condition of their film elements.”

With the design and construction of a state-of-the-art facility to meticulously identify and catalogue defects and other information, Pro-Tek set about building a bedrock reputation for the type of painstaking and detail-oriented work that would generate more informed corporate decision-making.

“It was amazing how much misidentification took place initially on some of those film elements, as they went into the vaults at the studios,” says Utley, describing various “a-ha” moments, like finding original camera negatives misidentified as other types of film elements.

“Pro-Tek was the first company I recall to offer premium film storage for core assets in a very secure, proper temperature- and humidity-controlled environment,” says Grover Crisp, exec VP, Asset Restoration and Preservation at Sony Pictures Entertainment. “When we were looking to upgrade our film preservation plans in the early 1990s, after Sony acquired the studio, Pro-Tek fit those stringent requirements. Subsequent to creating our own internal infrastructure that meets film storage standards, Pro-Tek continues to be a valuable partner as part of our asset separation policies.”

Those early years of Pro-Tek’s work dovetailed with the advent of DVD and its explosion in revenue, which only further incentivized studios to protect more materials which could be utilized in commercial home releases. This in turn helped Pro-Tek solidify market share.

By 1999, the company had opened three new cold vaults for film storage, as part of a Burbank facility. A little over a decade later, Pro-Tek expanded with a facility in Thousand Oaks; a second joined it in 2015, followed by the 2017 addition of a storage area network and frozen vault in Burbank.

In recent years, following a sale to Champlain Capital in 2021, Pro-Tek has expanded its digital media services, and it recently opened its third Thousand Oaks facility, with another cold vault for film storage, bringing the total of its facilities to a combined 200,000 square feet.

“We have a long history and good relationship with them. In our business we have to trust these facilities with our crown jewels,” says a senior Hollywood studio archives executive. “So we set the bar very high: We have stringent security requirements. They have to be MPA-audited, we do our own security audits, we require certain environmental controls, we require them to report their environmental controls to us monthly. They really act as our partner.”

Pro-Tek’s work for studios includes storage, scanning, and expert evaluation, and spans projects with deadlines ranging from quick turnaround to the long-horizon. “While we use Pro-Tek primarily for film storage of critical assets, we have leveraged their services in the more recent digital era as a key component of the preservation procedures for our digital assets,” says Crisp. “And when we need materials inspected for quality, or just specific identification, their technicians are able to turn that around when we have something that’s really time-sensitive.”

To that end, Pro-Tek is involved in work on everything from big-screen classics like “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” where they were involved in the physical inspection of the original negative for a 4K Ultra HD release, to last fall’s Hulu streaming debut of beloved TV show “Moonlighting,” for which they handled film scans to create archived DPX files.

“That probably took a year, just to get that project up and running, from the time the conversation started,” said Pro-Tek COO Tim Knapp of their work on “Moonlighting.” “We had some of those assets on the premises, and the film was in good condition. Being at Kodak in that era, back in the 1980s when that was shot, for me on Hulu it was great to see the grain structure because you just don’t see that in today’s new films. It was a labor of love for all involved.”

Most of Pro-Tek’s work, though, isn’t consumer-facing. Redundancy is important in archival service, and their portfolio includes much proactive preservation on library titles. Active work for Warner Bros., which involves 4K or 8K scans and transferring original audio masters, includes “Rhythm of the Rio Grande” and a number of other Westerns from the 1940s, as well as the pre-Code classic “The Divorcee” (1930), which was nominated for several Oscars beyond Norma Shearer’s Academy Awardwinning performance.

“Pro-Tek’s inspection and scanning services have been an important tool in Paramount’s preservation and restoration of more than 2,000 titles — including iconic films such as ‘A Place in the Sun,’ ‘To Catch a Thief,’ ‘Roman Holiday’ and ‘The Godfather’,” says Andrea Kalas, Senior Vice President, Archives at Paramount Pictures.

Of course, in addition to film elements, Hollywood studios have tens of millions of other physical assets. Every production spawns a massive amount of production artwork — set design drawings, blueprints, costume sketches, location and continuity photos, and much more. Pro-Tek works to preserve and archive this material as well — a task that requires a level of trust which extends beyond the technical expertise of care, and into more artistic and cultural judgements.

“Pro-Tek is really at the top of the food chain in terms of when we need to call in the white-glove people,” says the aforementioned exec. “We’ll bring them in to do (projects) or supplement our own staff on archival stuff,” he adds, noting the substantive, varied benefits of the film and library science backgrounds of many of Pro-Tek’s technicians.

Some of these projects include the cataloging of an iconic studio’s nitrate short outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage from productions from the 1920s through the late ’40s. Other work involves digitizing continuity logs — actual paper scripts used on set with handwritten notes about camera movement, actor placement, and more — from classic movies.

“We’ve seen some of the biggest stars of early Hollywood between takes — playing cards, laughing, and just relaxing,” Knapp says. Identifying productions, actors, directors, and other key personnel in this material, and reading these notes, “puts you right back on the set in the heyday of the Hollywood studio system,” he says. Pro-Tek then digitizes and logs these images into a hub so that they can be searched in the studio’s internal database.

As Pro-Tek has grown, so too has its client footprint. Driven in no small part by the company’s careful handling of volatile materials like nitrate film stock, it has become an invaluable professional resource for museums, educational institutions, and presidential libraries. “We work with a whole range of partners outside the entertainment business,” observes Sylvester, “and often they’re coming to us because they have this very specialized archive of materials, and they know that type of expertise doesn’t reside everywhere.”

Music is another area of growth. A number of notable filmmakers (David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Antoine Fuqua and Michael Bay among them) got their start in music videos, an art form too long considered disposable. Pro-Tek has set their sights on helping to rectify this misguided notion. “It’s been really rewarding to do cataloging, restoration, and remastering of music videos, concerts, and documentaries of some of the greatest bands of the last 50 years,” says Knapp.

Overall, Pro-Tek’s storage and services are very much linked, driving a business mix that is close to 50-50. “We’re often called on to put together a comprehensive preservation program that involves digitizing content, storing the digital files in physical form on tape, and then also making other copies that can be uploaded to the cloud or other environments,” says Sylvester.

He described the company’s “high-touch service,” so that customers have both visibility into their inventories and access that allows for them to even make same-day decisions if and when commercial opportunities arise quickly.

The final piece of Pro-Tek’s work is “about evangelism and continued education,” notes Knapp. While ongoing research from the Image Permanence Institute at Rochester Institute of Technology, and elsewhere, is helping to inform and drive industry standards and best practice guidelines in preservation, disseminating that information more broadly can help achieve important consensus.

People “often know what needs to be done,” says Sylvester. “But if we can give them more ammunition to say there are others taking these steps and having good results, that helps them to build the case that maybe a project that’s been delayed should come off the shelf and get prioritized.”

If cinema is to indeed continue offering a living record of our collective memory, it’s those quotidian decisions regarding preservation — of both films themselves, and all assorted ephemera — that will prove most invaluable in helping to protect a fuller context of modern culture for future generations.

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