Film vault closure creates reel dilemma

Reels of American pop culture � old Abbott & Costello and James Bond movies, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," even the original copy of the 1968 horror classic "Night of the Living Dead" � are stranded in a Pennsylvania laboratory that was suddenly shuttered last month when a Canadian bank foreclosed on the property.

The celluloid treasures are among 750,000 canisters of film inside the climate-controlled vault of WRS Motion Picture & Video Laboratory, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh.

Major Hollywood studios, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. and Turner Broadcasting System Inc., and scores of East Coast independent producers have film at WRS, where it is duplicated, restored or safeguarded in a massive vault.

But since Aug. 3, no one has been able to take film from the company's vault; its finances first will have to be untangled by a court-appointed trustee.

WRS Chief Executive Jack Napor declined to comment on the company's woes, and the court-appointed trustee, Stanley Makoroff, could not be reached.

Some of the films stored at WRS are the master negatives needed to make the best prints and duplicates or for transfer to other formats, such as DVD. Studio officials declined to discuss the situation or identify films they stored at WRS. Court papers, however, say copies of "Raging Bull" and the James Bond and Pink Panther series are among those archived in the massive vault.

'Horrendous' accounting

The lab was processing $300,000 in orders for MGM, Paramount Pictures Corp., Sony Pictures Entertainment and Universal Studios when its doors closed, according to court documents. WRS handled much of Hollywood's film transfers to formats used by airlines to show movies on long flights.

Business had increased at WRS in recent years as studios and producers withdrew old films from the vault for restoration so they could be made into DVDs. One WRS manager said WRS made prints of old Charlie Chaplin movies and "King Kong," and restored "Bonanza," "Starsky and Hutch" and "Hart to Hart" episodes.

But officials at the National Bank of Canada, which precipitated the bankruptcy filing Aug. 24 when it foreclosed on $4.4 million in loans, say WRS' financial troubles started two years ago.

The company's financial records were "horrendous," court papers say, and balance sheets showed more than $1 million in cash when WRS' accounts were actually overdrawn.

In the dark

Since Aug. 3, the lab and its satellite facilities, including one in Los Angeles, have been idle, leaving companies and film producers in limbo and, in the case of some, angst-ridden.

"I've had many a sleepless night thinking of three years of work locked in that vault," said Bernie Wodzinski, an independent filmmaker in Pittsburgh who was months away from finishing his first project. "None of us saw this coming."

Late last week, in an emergency federal court hearing in Pittsburgh, General Motors Corp. agreed to finance the lab's operations for 10 days. GM, which posted a $265,000 bond, hopes that will be enough time to retrieve its footage of car crash tests and videotapes needed for product-liability cases, according to court papers.

"I don't worry about the big studios; they've got resources," said Charlie Humphrey, executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, a nonprofit media arts center. "But for some of these independent producers, this is going to be really hard."

Russ Streiner, co-producer of "Night of the Living Dead," said all of his valuable materials are stored in WRS' vault.

"The camera negatives have been stored there, as well as all of the subsequent printing materials since we shot the picture in 1967," said Streiner, who lives in Pittsburgh.

Nearly two years ago, the film was converted for release on DVD. "And all of the new digital materials are stored there as well," he said. "Although we don't have any immediate need, you cannot tell when you are going to have a request for prints. That film is still being shown."


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