The Fox Movietone News Donation:
A Brief History
The University of South Carolina's film archive began in December of 1979 when the Board of Directors for Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation unanimously voted to donate the entirety of its Movietone News library. At the time an independent appraisal valued the film and paper records comprised in the gift at $100,000,000. Twentieth Century-Fox and the University then mapped out a plan for a series of annual gift agreements to maximize tax benefits to the corporation and provide for the orderly movement of over 75,000,000 feet of film. Fox's announcement was the culmination of almost a decade of conversation among University faculty, South Carolina Educational Television (SCETV), Lowell Thomas (the voice of Movietone News), and Fox subsidiary Movietonews, Inc.
When Movietone News ceased publication in 1963, Fox retained ownership of the unique, irreplaceable, and widely diverse film library. The library provided an in-house resource for Twentieth Century-Fox, which later opened it to the industry for stock footage sales.
In the early 1970s, Jim Jackson, a faculty member at the University of South Carolina, began to develop a plan to have the entire library brought to USC for educational purposes. A friend of Lowell Thomas (they both belonged to the famed Explorers Club of New York City), Jackson believed strongly in the power of the moving image to educate and understood Fox's newsreel library as the film equivalent of a great manuscript and rare book library. A university entrusted with such a library would become a global center for study.
Working with SCETV, Jackson proposed a PBS series, narrated by Lowell Thomas, built around newsreel footage from the Fox library. The series, Lowell Thomas Remembers, launched in 1976 and ran successfully for several seasons on PBS stations nationwide.
Since SCETV produced the series with Jim Jackson, executives at Fox and the staff at Movietonews, Inc. developed a network of connections with key players in the University, SCETV, and state government. Fox was impressed with the University's proven ability to convert newsreel footage into educational products, specifically, and with its dedication to audio-visual and distance education in general.
Years of courting paid off. When on 7 December 1978, 12 million feet of irreplaceable Universal News footage held by the National Archives and Records Administration went up in flames (the nitrate film stock being highly flammable), Fox executives grew concerned about the health and future of its own nitrate newsreel library. Conversations with the University of South Carolina became more focused.
The original plan for the gift included the conversion of all nitrate film elements to modern safety film stock at Fox's expense. Fox would then destroy the original nitrate insuring that the University retained the only copy of the film. Fox would also convey to the University all copyrights associated with the film.
Two annual deeds of gift were signed (1980 and 1981) before the deal began to unravel. First, Fox determined that the expense of converting the nitrate film was too great and adjusted the gift agreement so that nitrate film elements were to be donated. Second, Fox's new owner, oilman Marvin Davis, had used the value of the Movietone News library as part of the collateral required for his hostile takeover of Twentieth Century-Fox. Davis had no intention of giving away any more of the company's assets to the University.
University President Holderman now had the enormous responsibility and expense of preserving one of the largest nitrate film collections in the United States without the academic and business advantages of holding the entire newsreel library. Movietonews, Inc. remained open for business in New York City.
When the deeds of gift ceased, the University had received 7 million feet of original nitrate elements and 4 million feet of safety film transfers made by Fox, for a total of 11 million feet. The collection includes:
- All silent newsreel elements (nitrate) from the original Fox News library (1919 - 1930) and the original paper records supporting that material.
- All outtake and unused film from Volumes 1 through 7 of Fox Movietone News (1928 - 1934) and the paper archive supporting that material. Although some of these film elements were converted to safety stock by Fox, most of the donated material is nitrate.
- The published newsreels as well as all outtake and unused film from Volumes 25 and 26 of Fox Movietone News (Sept. 1942 - Aug. 1944) plus the paper archive relating to this material. All of this material was converted to safety film by Fox.
Although not the enormous gift originally envisioned, the University of South Carolina's Fox Movietone News Collection is nonetheless extremely impressive. It is arguably the single most complete moving-image record of American culture in the 1920s extant anywhere in the world. The sound elements dating from 1928 through 1930 (the transition to sound period) constitute a unique set of early film-sound recordings made across the globe. While many important individual film clips from the collection have been seen and celebrated over the years, still other jewels await discovery.
In addition to the numerous videos now available to view online, there are also two curated digital collections highlighting materials from the Movietone Collection: Fox Movietone News: The War Years, and African Americans Seen Through the Eyes of the Newsreel Cameraman.
-- Greg Wilsbacher, Curator Newsfilm Collections