Oliver Munday

What if the movies you loved weren’t around for your grandchildren to see? Thanks to the preservation efforts of the American Film Institute, they will be.  

Even if we don’t all agree on the movies we love, we all can agree that we love movies. Stretched out before us on the big screen, these larger-than-life stories each take us on a ride. We laugh at ourselves. We find our humanity. We explore our darkest fears. We create new worlds. We begin to understand each other.

The very best movies, of course, find a permanent place in our hearts. They capture a generation’s hopes and fears and weave those raw emotions into celluloid — or, these days, pixels. They are iconic, and despite the ways in which we are different from one another, these movies become something we can all share.

So what would happen if we could no longer follow Dorothy down the yellow-brick road? Or hold our breath while Jack Dawson finally succumbs to the icy water? Or fall in love all over again when Harry finally professes his love for Sally?

We may not realize it, but movies — be they new releases at the megaplex or classics stored on reel-to-reel — need proper care and preservation to guarantee they are not lost to history forever. The American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles works to do just that: save pieces of moviemaking history so future generations can continue to enjoy and be educated by these stories. Because, as AFI librarian and archivist Robert Vaughn says, when we lose movies, we lose a bit of ourselves.

“When a movie is no longer available,” he says, “we not only lose a work of art or entertainment but a piece of our cultural record.”

Casino Royale (1967)
everett collection
Set in the Southern California hills, the eight-acre campus of the American Film Institute overlooks its muse — ­Hollywood. Among the many studios and classrooms on campus stands the white stucco of the Louis B. Mayer Library building, shining brightly against the ever-blue Los Angeles sky. The AFI archives can be found there on the second and third floors, a veritable treasure trove of stories told through the films, scripts, photographs, ­correspondence and other documents that have made Hollywood history through the decades.

Inventors such as Thomas Edison first began making films in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, capturing five-second clips of men sneezing or eight-minute movies of boxing. To be sure, filmmaking technology and skill quickly evolved over the next few decades, but it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the film industry and the federal government joined forces to ensure these early films weren’t left to perish. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill that created the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).