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Issue 006 Fall/Winter 2023 Features

Paywalled Memories

How archival producers are navigating the increasingly corporate nature of archives.

By A.E. Hunt

October 10, 2023

From Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), dir. Shaka King, courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

When the lockdown slowed the pummeling waves of mass-produced sounds and images, I remembered better what had always lain in front of me, or long-fermenting in a soggy box in the closet or garage.

I can’t count on my fingers how many friends and family went dredging up old photo albums and home movies they hadn’t seen for years. Some traced their family trees back further, uncovered secrets from generations past, or even took up personal archival films—though the inspiration for many of those seemed to run out, commensurate with the restart of production and new content running back in. Still, untended artifacts and their attendant memories came up for air longer than they would have if the surface machinations of capitalism hadn’t seemingly paused for a global pandemic that it could not, at least for a moment, tame.

In ways still unfathomable, some of us remain marked from a glance at a greater latitude of history. We weren’t just placating ourselves with pop culture nostalgia but remembering and missing other ways of living, modeled by our own families or others’. In digging deeper, perhaps we discovered or reacquainted ourselves with radical histories that the centers of culture, politics, and economy suppress, thus foreshortening our collective sense of possibility for the future by obscuring such blueprints of the past.

Black Panthers in Chicago, Illinois, 1969, by Hiroji Kubota, courtesy Magnum Photos.

The archives have our again divided but now discontent attention. Watching several hundreds of short films a year on festival juries and as a programmer/distributor since 2020, I have seen a significant rise in low-budget personal and archival documentaries. At the other end of the spectrum, archival producers are receiving more limelight for their work on mid- to large-budget docs and narrative features. These are the people who design a strategy and budget to source historical materials for films from myriad collections, whether they be corporate, institutional, local, or personal. What images, audio, or text they are or are not able to obtain can heavily dictate the form and style of a film—leading to the discovery of relevant interviewees or materials that upset or affirm how a documentary crew had perceived a true story. So, the legion of legal, financial, and political barriers to archival access can intertwine themselves into a film’s aesthetics, as well as reduce its possibilities.

As more of us remembered or discovered how empowering and reachable the histories closest to us are, I wondered how the ones out of our hands were being kept—if the distance between the two hadn’t gotten much, much further. But I was also interested in the film medium’s unique capacity—deeply entangled as it is in capital—to occasionally strike deals with the merchants of those memories, to unleash them to our TV screens, laptops, and smartphones at home—at least for the length of a streaming license.

To gauge how archival producers are meeting pressures to open and expand archives as corporate collections vie to control, shape, and monetize them, I talked with veteran and emerging figures in the field, on and off record: Sam Aleshinloye, of Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground (2021); Rebecca Kent, of the limited docuseries The 1619 Project (2023); Roxanne Mayweather, co-founder of SearchWorks, a prestigious and long-running research and IP clearance company; and Shola Lynch, the Moving Image and Recorded Sound Curator of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the director of films including Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed (2004).

From CHISHOLM ’72: Unbought & Unbossed (2005), dir. Shola Lynch, courtesy Realside Productions.

In the wake of the 2020 uprisings against systemic anti-Black police brutality, Black Panther iconography became an easy and marketable signifier of solidarity for film distributors and exhibitors. So, old footage resurfaced of the Black power organization, and past documentaries about it recirculated. A Hollywood film, Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), streamlined a portrayal of Fred Hampton, the young leader of the party’s Chicago chapter, and bowdlerized his Marxism-Leninism. But, on the other hand, the party’s renewed marketability attracted the resources needed to recall a fuller picture of its record, viewable from the present.

As archival producer for Sophia Nahli Allison’s series Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground, Sam Aleshinloye employed the production’s budget to digitize photographer Hiroji Kubota’s contact sheets of the Chicago Panthers. As much of a photographer’s work is distinguished by what images they withhold, they do not always share their contact sheets, which show every frame in a film roll. Contact sheets are thereby more expensive for an archival producer to acquire than the select photographs already distributed. In the case of Eyes on the Prize, the production’s investment paid off—Kubota’s contact sheets contained unpublished photos of the chapter’s young leader, Fred Hampton, with William O’Neal, the infamous informant who choreographed Hampton’s murder with the FBI.

Aleshinloye excitedly describes the rare image: “As [Hampton’s] talking, he has his hand on William O’Neal’s chest, pointing at him, almost like he’s praising him or something. And the expression on William O’Neal’s face looks really guilty. Before our film came out, there were literally no photos of them together.” Eyes on the Prize had already planned to feature scholars conjuring the event from its description in books and newspapers, Aleshinloye explains, “but when you actually see the thing on-screen as it has been described, it is a very magical moment.”

From Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), dir. Shaka King, courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

By harnessing the production’s budget in this way, archival producers can be the catalyst for processing—describing, digitizing, and organizing—dormant records that a collection, usually a library, university, or smaller local archive, does not have the resources to label themselves. Aleshinloye gave a ballpark estimate that 80% of archival materials are undigitized. “It’s a gamble,” he explains, comparing it to blind-buying storage units with unknown contents. Production can pay to digitize reels or have a student researcher view and describe them. But, Rebecca Kent noted, sometimes “it’s not even about [money] but lots of behind-the-scenes politics that prevent things from being released to the public in an efficient manner.”

As the curator of an archive herself, Shola Lynch confirms, “There’s no way to go through the permissions ladder internally before we can even do it externally at a fast pace. The library is a nineteenth-century organization. So our ‘fast’ is very old school in this instant gratification environment—let me put it that way.” The Schomburg Center, an archive that specializes in Black and Brown historical materials, operates under the auspices of the New York Public Library, which she calls “not necessarily a diverse organization on the research library side.” The Schomburg owns the right to share materials for reference but not for copyright, meaning archival producers have to track down copyright holders separately if they want to reproduce them for a film. The library’s pace is often incongruous with the relentless forward charge of the film industry. Lynch says, “If you have a three-month commercial project, I’m like, ‘Listen, we’re the wrong place for you. Go to Getty.’ Because they’ll turn [material] around in 24 or 48 hours. If it’s a more independent project and it has a longer research time, then the library can be a great place, depending on the subject.”

A Black Panther leader adresses high school students in a church, Chicago, 1969, photo by Hiroji Kubata, 1969, courtesy Magnum Photos.

Every archival producer I talked with, on or off record, acknowledged Getty Images’ bloating monopoly. Recently, the company signed an exclusive global licensing partnership with NBC News Archives and renewed its partnership with BBC Motion Gallery. Two archival producers I talked with got their start with collections—like Film Bank—that Getty has since acquired. The Prelinger (or Corbis) archive, MTV News archive, and Viacom archive are just some of the other collections that have been absorbed by the media giant, which presides over similar private profiteering libraries like Alamy and Shutterstock.

“Our history can be held hostage by [corporate archives] and made inaccessible because it’s not financially expedient for them,” Lynch says. When I ask each interviewee how collections have changed over the last several decades, they answer unanimously: collections have become more monetized. Roxanne Mayweather, who started out at a time archival producers were still duping and FedExing ¾-inch tapes, says archival materials used to be spread out across more, smaller collections. Now there are fewer, bigger collections, and the process has become “more streamlined and corporatized.” That also means it is, across the board, much more expensive. Lynch explains, “When I started in the ’90s, it was extraordinary to pay $50 for a licensing fee. We only did that rarely. And now, you can’t even get access for $50. And licensing fees per photograph are [$300] or $400 sometimes. Archives wanted their material to be seen. Now archives are so under-resourced that they have to see it as a way to create revenue.”

Getty breaks down and monetizes archives by rebranding free footage in the public domain—slightly changing its tone or coloration—to sell it as something ostensibly new and by breaking clips down into ten-second or so increments, inflating the total price. “It’s thievery,” Kent says, and “extremely expensive.” Like contact sheets for stills, raw, uncut footage is both more costly and more difficult to clear rights for. Each news network has its own set of rules and conditions for copyright and use. CNN will not license any footage with children or minors, even for crowd scenes. Some networks require that an anchor’s voice only be laid over footage of what they’re literally talking about, or that audio in general not be disembodied from its image, and vice versa. The archival producer must convince the network of their good intentions on paper and later prove that the film’s use of the material does not betray the original terms of agreement. This red tape discourages the use of that material to critique its rights holders.

And tiered rate structures and the fragmenting of clips apply pressure to the rhythm and duration of archival projects and discourage the revelation of lesser-seen images, narrowing and narrowing film exhibition’s historical purview.

Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, speaks at a meeting, Chicago, 1969, photo by Hiroji Kubata, courtesy Magnum Photos.

Fair use, an esoteric exception to copyright law, allows the “limited” and “transformative” use of another author’s or artist’s work without permission. But citing the doctrine puts you at risk of being sued, which pushes productions to hire lawyers or legal counsel for protection. And the conditions for fair use are becoming more conservative. On May 18, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled that Andy Warhol’s orange silkscreen portrait of Prince, for which Warhol referenced a photograph by Lynn Goldsmith, was not sufficiently “transformative”—was too derivative of the original photo—for fair use within commercial purposes.1 The case sets a new precedent: “In the past maybe you could get away with not licensing photographs. Now legal precedent has established that photos must be licensed,” Kent says. “It’s [an] ever-evolving interpretation of the law. We have to evolve with that interpretation and adapt and conform our usage to whatever [form] the law takes.” Fair use also multiplies the archival producer’s workload, requiring, among other things, spreadsheets for every archival cue for every cut of the film. Both this legalese and the steep costs and labor associated with legal protection from it make fair use less accessible to productions with fewer resources and further subject the forms of creative expression to financial, political, and legal interpretation.

Because typically only mid- to large-budget documentary productions can afford to hire an archival producer, the role contends with internal politics on top of external ones. They receive notes from the project’s studio or broadcaster, like HBO or PBS, in addition to the editor, the assistant editor, the director, the producers, and the legal department. Everyone I talked with emphasized, with exasperation, their responsibility to “massage” relationships within and outside of the production crew. How do they voice dissent if and when the production utilizes footage in a way they are uncomfortable with? “Diplomatically,” if they can muster the energy, says Lynch. She explains how, in her past work as an archival producer, her long-standing relationships at Corbis granted her physical access to the stacks: “There’s just an intangible quality about finding the right images. And if you don’t understand the project, and I send you a list of Black life in 19-whatever, your eye of that and my eye of that are different, because you’re not a subject specialist related to the film we’re trying to make.” Now such long-term collaborations and physical access are rare. “What is difficult about corporate archives these days,” Lynch says, “is you can build a relationship with a sales rep, but before you know it, that person no longer works there.”

The beleaguering bureaucracy that archival producers endure makes their generative work even more astounding and vital. Lynch explains how her Chisholm documentary helped reset public perception of her subject, the first Black woman in Congress. “When I started the Chisholm film, most people thought she had passed away already, or they looked down on her run for president,” she says. “You look at all the political science books, the feminist women’s studies books, et cetera, of that period in the ’90s, and there’s a devaluing of what she did. She was considered more of a publicity person. Her motives were questioned. [The film] reset how people think about her because we had another visual. We had another way of seeing her. And now I think there are two feature films being produced about her.”

For Lynch, time-crunched commercial productions that have to work with fast, corporate archives “don’t have the timeframe to dig deep enough to do anything revealing” like her Chisholm doc. Contrastingly, independent projects are more capable of bringing “new information and new visuals to the story” by working with slower institutional, regional, and family archives.

The archival producers I spoke with recommended The Black Archives, Emaline and ’Nem, Temple University’s Charles Blockson Afro-American Collection, University of Georgia’s Brown Media Archive, the National African American History & Culture Museum, Critical Paths, and Periscope. The one corporate archive they all recommended was Magnum Photos—though each of them admitted that whenever they can go directly to the photographer or rightsholder of a work in the collection, they do. Working on a different archival project with the distributor Sentient Art Film, I found generative work underway at TAMI (Texas Archive of the Moving Image), a nonprofit, and Entre, a community film center. The latter’s archive focuses on Latinx home movies and oral histories in the Rio Grande Valley. These personal records, among other things, contain the power to correct expensive news media and commercial footage that misrepresent the region, some of which you can find in TAMI’s collection.

I cannot help but think that the power of the archive starts and ends in our homes. “Everyone has an archive. Even your local club has an archive. Archive is everywhere,” Kent reminds me. “Start at home and see what you have. Look at your family members like archives. You can make an archival film in many ways, using material that’s relatively close to you—and for free.” She mentions sometimes tapping her own friends’ family archives for documentaries. But for the release of memories bound up in vaults, archival producers continue to outmaneuver unenviable conflicts at the center of the industry, each triumph a small miracle.

A Black Panther Party member, Chicago, 1969, photo by Hiroji Kubata, courtesy Magnum Photos.


1. Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith et al, 598 U.S. __ (2023).