650 feet under: A Kansas wonder
The classics are down here: early celluloid reels of “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz” and Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1940s and ’50s.
Behind a locked sliding door in Hunt Midwest’s Subtropolis, a scene ripped from the ending of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” stretches out. Row upon row of boxes and tin canisters stacked high, it’s the history of old and new Hollywood in a meticulously maintained mine.
The original reel of “The Dark Knight” shares shelf space with “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” at Underground Vaults & Storage, which boasts three Midwest locations for film preservation. The warehouses are off-limits to the public. No private tours, either.
The movie industry has concluded that, refrigeration wise, the sweet spot for keeping film is 45 degrees and 25 percent humidity. Warmer conditions will lead to “vinegar syndrome,” in which celluloid develops a pungent odor and starts to rot, said Underground Vaults vice president Jeff Ollenburger.
“We have a team of people that monitors for vinegar syndrome,” he said. “The whole purpose of environmental control is to keep film as stable as possible.”
Los Angeles lacks the expanse of underground conditions of the limestone-laden heartland, so studios stack their precious reels here for a price dependent on the size and conditions of storage. Hundreds of thousands of reels fill the 45,000-square-feet locker at Subtropolis, with the inventory in recent years shifting from spools to square, digital cartridges.
Ollenburger said the studios constantly remaster films to suit changing technologies, keeping the storage at Underground Vaults busy. A boxed order heading out last month included the odd pairing of an Italian-language version of GWTW and the Japanese sci-fi flick “The Green Slime.”
And just for safe keeping, the film industry spreads its treasures around.
“Most of the studios want a geographic separation of their assets,” Ollenburger said. Early versions of “Gone With the Wind” are sequestered in various underground vaults, so a disaster at one site doesn’t wipe out the collection.
The idea here is to keep a stockpile of films as close to the original reels for 100 years or more.
“After all,” as Scarlett O’Hara famously declared, “tomorrow is another day!”