1951’s recklessly reassuring 'Duck and Cover'—a 2004 addition to the National Film Registry—features Bert the Turtle showing kids what to do in case of atomic attack.

Essential SF: Rick Prelinger

Dennis Harvey November 2, 2010

Rick Prelinger says he’s “really trying to be future-focused, to deal with the past in a way that’s not nostalgia.” But no matter how Prelinger finesses his perspective, his wistful affection for the detritus of postwar Americana has led him to conduct a career-long excavation of the forgotten minutiae of what was once American family, consumer, civic and workplace life.

[Editor's note: San Francisco Film Society's Cinema by the Bay features Rick Prelinger in conversation with Les Blank November 7 at the Roxie Theater; Prelinger is honored along with other vital Bay Area film luminaries and institutions in SF360 Presents Essential SF November 8 at the Lab. More at]

When he first started down that path, few were interested in hearing about—let alone salvaging—such arcane artifacts as a 1948 Lucky Strike commercial with animated cigarettes square-dancing. Or financier Charles Keating’s mid-’60s diatribe Perversion for Profit, which identified U.S. pornography as a Communist plot. Or a social-instruction-for-youth doozy like 1958’s How Much Affection?, created to assist teens in negotiating where, when, and how much of that precious commodity is appropriate for them.

Rick Prelinger in Berlin

Such celluloid fossils, originally produced and shown well off the accepted grid of cinematic “art,” may individually remain relatively obscure today. But the fact that this type of material is far more widely recognized, enjoyed and even preserved (by the Library of Congress no less!) is in no small part due to the inseparable toil and love of Rick Prelinger’s efforts over nearly three decades to date.

Prelinger was born in 1953 Washington, DC—a perfect time and location for a Coronet Instructional film, say Ricky Tours Our Nation’s Capital—but raised in nearby New Haven as an Army brat. He migrated West to study at UC Berkeley, then moved to NYC at the dawn of the ’80s to “make it in the movies.”

A couple unpaid production internships and dreary paid typesetting jobs later, however, that dream appeared to dead-end. However, around 1982 two significant things happened: First, his flatmates finished working on the long-in-progress feature The Atomic Cafe, a radioactive flashback to the height of Cold War A-bomb awareness that was entirely composed of archival propagandistic materials—and which became an unprecedented hit, appealing to much the same hipster audience then flocking to John Waters’ Polyester and David Lynch’s midnight perennial Eraserhead.

Second, Prelinger himself began gathering up what he soon called “ephemeral films,” after the term “ephemera” used by libraries and antique dealers for miscellaneous items falling outside typical cataloguing slots. “It seemed appropriate to the ‘bastard genres’ I collected,” he says, primarily “sponsored” movies made by or for governmental, industrial, consumer, educational or other agencies to promote something—be it driver or workplace safety, approved social behaviors, tourism, patriotic pride, product purchase, or classroom knowledge in various subjects.

Before the video age dawned, students everywhere were routinely enlightened, bored and/or entertained by such short (typically 10-to-30 minute) films. They had a tendency to grow outdated fast in style or content, yet often remained in active school circulation decades past any common-sense “expiration date.”

If major-studio preservation of commercial features was then paltry (and has only improved somewhat in years since), it didn’t exist at all for these subterranean genres, which were usually produced by small independent companies working contract-to-contract. Many of them had long since folded, their works rotting in some warehouse or high school A.V. closet when not already given the final burial of dumpster and landfill.

It was a largely uncharted terrain explored by precious few collectors. Prelinger dove in with what quickly became obsessive zeal. (“I’d do anything short of theft to acquire films or keep them from being thrown away,” he wrote a few years later.) First he stored these finds under his platform bed, then in a small Soho office space, then a building in the city’s meatpacking district.

Meanwhile he’d been hired as director of research on Heavy Petting, another all-archival compilation feature commissioned in the wake of Atomic Cafe’s success (though it wasn’t released till 1989); and he’d started to compile, index and cross-reference information on “ephemeral films” in general.


“I discovered that hundreds of thousands of these films had been made, perhaps ten times as many as feature films,” he later wrote. “Films on every imaginable subject, region, historical epoch, biological species, and brand of human behavior . . . I (also) learned that almost every corporation one could think of had made films to promote itself and its products.” The careers of their makers—many, it turned out, “World War II veterans who learned their cinematographic skills in the service”—were virtually virgin research territory.

With an expanding collection came requests to use its contents. Thus, Prelinger Archives was born, turning his passion into an actual money-making stock footage operation. (Albeit one whose profits seldom outstripped acquisition spending.) Such activities also led to gigs with HBO, Comedy Central, MTV and other cablers then young, hip and cost-conscious enough to encourage content utilizing campy old public-domain material. The Archives also provided clips for features from David Byrne’s True Stories to Natural Born Killers and Michael Moore docs. Plus, “countless TV shows, forgotten industrial videos and interactive things.”

Prelinger also created his own thematic laserdiscs and CD-ROMs for the Voyager label (which also first published the prestigious Criteron Collection of world cinema classics), arranging “ephemeral film” excerpts to “construct a kind of ‘invisible narrative’ about the progress of American social and cultural life through the middle part of the 20th century.” More ambitious still was his 2004 feature Panorama Ephemera, another entirely found-footage construct about what he describes as “the American tragedy throughout history, the narrative of the nation as a whole. I’m tremendously interested in the migration from East to West, how that relates to the fear and distrust between people that’s also part of our history, and how people related to the landscapes around them.”

“From the beginning I’ve been interested in films that have evidentiary value,” he says. Early on, while looking for materials for Heavy Petting, he came across a 1948 Bay Area-produced film called When You Are a Pedestrian. “It was shot on Oakland streets with all these wonderful simulated accidents. What caught my eye was the periphery—the streetscapes providing a window on the past that would be impossible to reconstruct.”

“I was amazed by these films’ dual character,” he says. “How they both recorded appearances and sold persuasion—how to behave, what to buy and do. They showed the way things were and the way things were supposed to be. Quite unlike feature (commercial narrative) films, which tended to have a much more synthetic, artificially-constructed world.”

It was collaborator Bob Stein who invented the term “media archaeologist” for one of those Voyager disc’s cover copy, and Prelinger says that he “began to try to grow into that identity.” He curated and presented live programs of vintage ephemera. One such was built around “menace and jeopardy films” that, for instance, cautioned against factory blowtorch-blinding incidents. His venues ranged from universities and museums to rep cinemas and comedy clubs. He orchestrated an epic effort to compile all extant film and video sources in North America, resulting in the 900-page tome Footage 89. He taught at New York’s School of Visual Arts and lectured—as he still does—across the country and beyond.

Meanwhile, the Archives grew to tens of thousands of films—somewhere north of 60,000. Prelinger himself had moved from NYC to San Francisco, en route marrying Megan Shaw, a person with equally fervent interests in collecting and analyzing cultural artifacts long considered disposable, those mostly ignored (at least until recently) by archives and academia.

Together they’ve since co-founded the Prelinger Library, a “noise-positive, appropriation-friendly” space South of Market. It counters current institutional trends by emphasizing the “browsability” of physical objects—books, periodicals, maps, pamphlets—on shelves over their digitalization, and open access over protective preservation. As Megan has put it, “In Utopia there are no closed stacks.”

In 2002, the Prelingers sold the Archives’ jazillion cans of film at a fraction of their appraised value to the Library of Congress. Over 2,000 titles, however, have been transferred to beta formats and remain available for free viewing, downloading and reproduction at the Prelinger section of the nonprofit Internet Archive ( There one can appreciate such chestnuts as 1951’s recklessly reassuring Duck and Cover, a 2004 addition to the National Film Registry. Or the recent national news sensation A Trip Down Market Street, which had been thought to have been shot in 1904 or 1905—until research this year revealed that it in fact was photographed just days before San Francisco’s catastrophic 1906 earthquake and fire. (Some 5,000 broadcast-quality clips from the collection can also be commercially licensed via its sales rep, Getty Images.)

Rick Prelinger is Board President of the Internet Archive, which bills itself as “a web clearinghouse for free, public domain information”—something close to his heart, as we’ll get to soon—and has performed similar duties for SF Cinematheque and the National Film Preservation Board. The Natioal Film Preservation Foundation published his 2006 book (also available as a free download) The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, which spotlights 452 “historically or culturally significant motion pictures commissioned by businesses, charities, advocacy groups, and state or local governments between 1897–1980.”

Joining Internet Archive and Open Content Alliance founder Brewster Kahle, the Prelingers were coplaintiffs in a legal push to declare one aspect of copyright law unconstitutional. “In the old days when you took out of copyright, in the 28th year you had to file for renewal. That meant the Copyright Office knew where you were, and that you had an affirmative reason to go ahead and renew it,” Prelinger says, explaining that a vast majority of copyrighted materials are of only temporary worth. (Only about 15% got copyright-renewed after that first period ended.)

“But in 1992 they passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act—yes, that’s its actual name—which meant everything was automatically renewed for the full term of the author’s life plus 70 years. Or, if it’s a corporate work made by a company or studio, 95 years after publication. So what that means is that nothing is entering the public domain now.”

“The framers of the Constitution wrote that Congress has the power to grant authors a monopoly on their work for a limited time,” he continues. “Our contention, then, was the new law rendered that time no longer ‘limited,’ therefore infringing upon our First Amendment right to use and quote from materials.”

As someone whose collecting, scholarship, advocacy and multimedia creative projects rate among the building blocks on which remix culture stands, this fundamental shift in the U.S. Copyright system from “opt-in” to “opt-out” strikes Prelinger as market-driven privatization of our collective culture that “serves the middle men pretty well.”

Not so much the interests of authors and creators, whom he says are now realizing that other kinds of “visibility and sharing are integral to getting your work out into the world.” At present, orphaned works—those millions of properties in all media whose copyright owners can no longer be contacted or identified—represent a black hole, their usage risking legal action even though any possible commercial value may have long expired.

The lawsuit lost in district court, then the 9th Circuit, and in 2008 was denied a Supreme Court hearing. But Prelinger thinks it (as well as a prior case filed by Kahle) has “increased the public understanding of copyright law dramatically, and encouraged people to think about alternative ways to deal with material.”

Perhaps that’s one reason Rick Prelinger’s narrowed interests in film collection these days now focus largely on an area where copyright concerns have seldom tread. “I’m very avidly collecting home movies. They’re not corporate expression [like commercial entertainment] but personal expression—how ordinary people view the world, what they want to remember. That’s fascinating in itself.”

Such acquisitions would no doubt figure large in his current film project, one that like Panorama Ephemera will presumably take the form of an all-public-domain-material feature. “It’s about the pleasures of traveling, especially in the automobile,” he says, "and at the same time its impossibility—in the future we’re not going to be able to do that, yet Americans see that as a right and an entitlement.” Landscapes both external and interior are a personal obsession, as one might glean from his enthusing “I’m tremendously moved by Ozu. And James Benning.”

(One of his higher-profile projects, at least locally, is an annual “Lost Landscapes of San Francisco” show—“a beast I have to feed every year” with newly-found vintage imagery.)

Ask Rick Prelinger about ideas he’s more hazily formulating for the years to come, and they grow expansive to the point of abstraction. “I’m really interested in doing some books. What kind of books will survive the transition to digital books? They’ve got to be the kind you like to carry around with you. In pioneer days people had a Bible, maybe a book on cooking and another on farming. I’d like to make one of those [necessary] books.”

He’d also “like to make the essential documentary on the 20th century using archival footage that is contemplative. I really detest overpackaging, TV programming and movies born out from the sense that you’re competing for the channel-surfing attention span."

“That would be my crowning achievement, if I could elevate unedited material to the same level of sanctification—if that’s the right word—that people view footage that’s edited and packaged. It has what in anthropology they call ‘thick description,’ a density of information that is so deeply moving.”

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