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Ascent Adds Restoration to Its Repertoire With Cinetech Deal

Ascent Media, Liberty Media Corp.’s giant post-production outfit, has collected a raft of Academy Awards for its technical achievements.


Film restoration and preservation shop Cinetech Inc. has worked on the negatives of numerous Oscar winners.


So when both were looking to expand their offerings Santa Monica-based Ascent to become a one-stop shop and Cinetech to offer enhanced digital functions getting together seemed like a logical step.


The recent acquisition of Valencia-based Cinetech gives Ascent access to one piece of the film production chain where it doesn’t have a presence and offered Cinetech’s founder, Sean Coughlin, an entr & #233;e to a wider array of services.


“If someone is going to restore film, it’s a signal that they will do something with it, there will be distribution in some other form, like DVD,” said Tyler Leshney, Ascent’s vice president of operations, media management division, who said the major film studios had been pressing Ascent to provide consolidated services as a way to manage content.


“It allows us to say, ‘We’re restoring your film, and we’ll have all these other services down the line,'” he said.


Ken Williams, Ascent’s chief executive, said another part of the appeal is in the ability to control more of the post-production process and better guard against piracy.


“The ability to tighten up the supply chain reduces the number of handoffs in post production,” Williams said. “You open yourself up to risk every time you hand off your content. You’re creating unnecessary opportunities for pirating, so there’s added value in providing a single place for post production.”


Coughlin, who founded the company in 1990 and stayed on after selling it to Costa Mesa-based Westar Capital, had wanted to add digital processes to Cinetech’s core business of restoring aging and deteriorating celluloid.


Cinetech now has a parent with the wherewithal to spend the $3.5 million Coughlin estimated it would take to retrofit the company’s 40,000-square-foot lab for digital processes, such as scanning in film to do computer-driven color adjustment.


Cinetech’s lab, which Coughlin built in 2000, will function as Ascent’s primary restoration and preservation facility. Coughlin will oversee that lab and Ascent’s small Burbank laboratory.


Cinetech’s core business is preserving new films and restoring old ones primarily through non-digital processes. It has restored more than 8,500 titles, including “The Wizard of Oz,” “Easy Rider” and “On the Waterfront” for the film libraries of the Library of Congress, George Eastman House, the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Museum of Modern Art. It has also worked on the collections of MGM/UA, Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures Entertainment.


For films produced between 1896 and the 1970s, Cinetech uses proprietary software to inspect and diagnose the film’s color fading, physical damage, dirt and nitrate decomposition. It cleans the film and reprints it to a new celluloid version, a first step to transferring it to DVD or videocassette, or broadcasting it on television, cable or satellite TV.


Restoration costs can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. After diagnosing a film, Cinetech uses machines to reprint film that has shrunk or is crooked. Touch-up devices are used to hide scratches and ultra-sonic cleaners dislodge dirt.


“Old films are history, it has a picture of how we were,” said Mardik Martin, a senior lecturer in screenwriting at USC’s School of Cinema Television and a film preservation advocate.


Ascent had a limited pool of restoration house candidates to choose from. Few shops do what Cinetech does, and each tends to provide specific types of services.


Camarillo-based Technicolor Inc., is one of the world’s largest film processors and distributors and manufacturers of CDs, DVDs and videocassettes. But its film restoration business constitutes a tiny slice of its business.


Another competitor, Lowry Digital Images in Burbank, restored and digitized the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” films along with 20 James Bond pictures.


John Lowry, its chief executive, sees a philosophical divide between digital and celluloid restoration.


“We are a strictly computer-based business,” Lowry said. “We scan films in and do all the work internally for complete digital restoration. What Cinetech does is make a film duplicate. We don’t consider Cinetech a competitor.”


But Cinetech will be a competitor once its digital transformation, already under way, is complete.


“The cost of us going full-blown digital would have been millions of dollars,” Coughlin said. “It was obvious to us that with the consolidation of the studios there would also be a consolidation of vendors, and only the strongest will succeed.”

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