This week marks the 3rd anniversary of “The Horse’s Head”! Instead of celebrating movies already on the list, let’s look at what it takes for your movie to get inducted into the National Film Registry.
First of all, let’s make sure your film is eligible. To be on the National Film Registry your movie must be:
At Least 10 Years Old: The 10-year waiting period ensures that your film continues to be remembered long after its initial release. Only a handful of movies make the cut after exactly 10 years (“Raging Bull”, “Goodfellas”, other non-Scorsese pictures). As of this writing, the movies of 2010 are freshly eligible, meaning you could legitimately nominate “Despicable Me” if you so choose. Think about it: Haven’t those creepy little Minions proven their cultural endurance?
Culturally, Historically, or Aesthetically Significant: Is your movie quotable and prone to parody years later? Is it an encapsulation of a specific era in American and/or film history? Did it introduce the world to those unsettling sentient Twinkies known as Minions? If you can prove that your movie stands on a unique piece of ground, that’s half the battle right there.
Does your movie meet the above qualifications? Excellent, let’s continue (NOTE: I assume you said yes. If the answer is no, please stop reading this).
The first step is to Nominate Your Movie. Since 1997, the public has been able to submit up to 50 film titles for consideration via the Library of Congress website. It’s easy! Their website even gives you a comprehensive guide to movies not yet on the Registry (updated to include “Despicable Me”). Literally thousands of movies are submitted every year, and roughly 75 percent of the final list (18 or 19 movies) will come from these public recommendations.
After the submission deadline has passed (typically mid-September), the proposed films are then compiled and a preliminary ballot with 200-400 of the highest-polling titles is sent to the National Film Preservation Board. The board is comprised of 44 members: filmmakers, historians, critics, industry insiders, and drifters from all walks of life. Every October, these members meet to determine which movies will be seriously considered for inclusion. The first day of these meetings is typically reserved for films that are in serious need of preservation (i.e. your recently discovered silent movies). The following days are an open forum in which anyone can suggest any movie. Movies that receive a strong showing of public support are prioritized for consideration (“Back to the Future”, “Hoosiers”, and “Ghostbusters” all got on the list thanks to devoted fan campaigns). For the more obscure titles, many board members go the extra mile with their presentations, including screenings. On a related note, shoutout to Wendy Shay of the Smithsonian Institution for her tireless yet unsuccessful campaigning to get “Jane Fonda’s Workout” on the list. Keep fighting the good fight, Wendy!
The board’s goal is to create an eclectic roster of movies from a diverse group of filmmakers. In recent years, emphasis has been placed on including films by women and people of color (who collectively make up 11% of the Registry). On occasion, subcommittees are appointed to find student films worthy of NFR recognition. This is how we got such obscure yet preservation-worthy titles as “Time and Dreams” and “Growing Up Female”.
After much deliberation, each board member votes for their top 25 choices, ranked by preference. A short list of the biggest vote getters is presented to the head Librarian of Congress, who hand picks the final 25 behind closed doors. That’s right: one person is ultimately responsible for inducting your movie into film history. Currently, the Librarian of Congress is Carla Hayden, the first woman and African-American to hold the title. Appointed by President Obama in 2016, Carla is a lifelong librarian, meaning she is presumably more inclined to select films by people who speak quietly and have no outstanding late fees. Hayden’s librarian career was primarily in Chicago, so if you’re looking to sway Carla’s opinion, perhaps a Bears game or a deep-dish pizza will do the trick. Once the Librarian makes their decision, the final 25 are officially announced in mid-December.
Now that your movie has been selected, the Library of Congress will obtain the best possible print of the film for preservation in their vaults at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. For the better-known titles, it’s most likely that the Library of Congress already has a print from when the film was originally submitted for copyright approval (such is the case with “Star Wars”, despite what the rest of the internet has told you). If that print is not in good condition, a request is made to the copyright holder to donate a better print. For the more obscure titles, archives and private collections are scoured for the best possible print. Registry films must be preserved in their original format and in their original unaltered versions, so the extended Blu-ray cut of “Despicable Me” will be bypassed for the inferior theatrical release.
If you, the filmmaker, are still alive when your movie makes the cut, all you receive are bragging rights, as well as permission to use the official NFR logo when promoting your movie (designed by no less than Saul Bass!).
So there you have it, the quick and easy way to ensure the legacy of your movie. All you have to do is make a technologically innovative or zeitgeist capturing film, add a few Minions, wait 10 years, and presto! You’re on the list! What are you waiting for? Go make your classic I’ll be forced to watch sometime in the 2030s.
Interested in learning more about the process? I found these articles to be incredibly helpful in my research:
Film Comment: Choosing the National Film Registry
Hollywood Reporter: National Film Registry: The Politics Behind It
The New York Times: Which Movies are the Best? The Library of Congress Has a List
And don’t forget “These Amazing Shadows”, aka “National Film Registry: The Motion Picture”!