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What do Cinemas do With Old Film Reels?

By Mollee Shannon

Ah, the golden age of cinema brings to mind the handsome smoulder of Robert Redford and the striking beauty of Marilyn Monroe.

In those days, movies had a short intermission so the projectionist could change the film reels.
Now that theaters have gone digital and film reels are relics of a bygone age, what happened to those reels that contained movies like The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and An Affair to Remember? Some of the answers might surprise you! 


One of the largest producers of film in the golden age was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc., or as you probably know it MGM. MGM produced favorites like Singin’ In the Rain, Gone With the Wind, and a number of Judy Garland films. Who could resist the roguish behavior of the handsome Rhett Butler, the incredible musical numbers starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, and the musical talents of the young Judy Garland?


The popcorn crunching audience crowded theaters and eagerly awaited the pure cinematic delight! Movie theaters, however, never actually owned their own film reels. The studio rented the reels to the theaters, and the reels were returned to the studios when they were no longer screening. MGM, being the cinema mogul it was, took some pretty interesting measures to protect their precious collection of what would become Hollywood classics. 

Surprisingly, MGM didn’t just store their films out of state, but also 650 feet...underground? The Underground Vaults & Storage Co., a still functioning salt mine in Hutchinson, Kansas held MGM’s archives for decades. The cool temperatures and dry air made the mine the perfect place for storing the reels and protecting them from the elements! It wasn’t until 1993 that a team was sent in to catalogue the 26 acres of storage vaults containing MGM’s precious cinematic gems! Among the team’s findings were original recordings of The Wizard of Oz and unproduced scripts written by Woody Allen and Samuel Beckett. It was a cinema aficionado's dream! Before you rush out to Kansas to dig for Hollywood gold, you might want to know you’ll find nothing but salt, as the archives have since been moved. Bummer!

These days, you’d have better luck mining through the history of the golden age of Hollywood visiting the Bison Archives in Los Angeles, California, a far more fitting location for Hollywood’s greatest treasures. The head archivist, Marc Wanamaker is the country’s leading archivist in film history, and the institution is affiliated with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’s there that you’ll find some of Hollywood’s most precious history!

As a kid, I remember looking back at the projectionist’s window and seeing the reels moving. As technology improved, projectionists were able to splice reels together before a screening, so intermission became a practice of the past. In fact, about half of all movie theaters were still using film reels until 2015, when the majority of them went digital. Next time you go to the movie theater, you might even wish for an intermission when you need to refill your popcorn for the second half of the movie! And just like Hollywood, Legacybox can turn your old film reels into digital video, creating your very own personal archive. You might not have the collection at Bison in L.A., but you will have a meaningful chronicle of your family’s golden years!

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