When the former Pittsburgh Filmmakers sold the Regent Square Theater in 2018, Steven Haines found himself in possession of boxes of films. Most of them were 35 mm movie trailers from the 1990s and 2000s, but one unlabeled reel prompted further inspection. What Haines held was a nearly 100-year-old silent film, a (motion) picture into Pittsburgh’s past.
Discovering the film was not remarkable — Haines, the director of programming for Pittsburgh Sound + Image, finds new films every day — but the film itself is.
“I immediately said, ‘Oh, this is significant and important!’” he says. “I did a little bit of research and could tell that it was incredibly rare, if not entirely unique. But then I just set it aside, because I knew I wasn’t going to project it, and I knew I didn’t have the money to digitize it. I put it in the back of my mind as a project for the right grant opportunity.”
Titled “Spang’s First Century,” the film depicts labor in the Etna-based Spang, Chalfant and Company iron and steel manufacturing factory. According to Haines, the film “paints “portraits of labor” and reveals an “industrial form that doesn’t exist anymore.”
“Pittsburgh as a city built on labor and industry is a universally recognized archetype,” Haines says. “While the types of labor have changed dramatically since the time, ‘Spang’s First Century’ was made, I think there’s still a pretty widespread understanding of the history of Pittsburgh as the ‘Smoky City.’ ‘Spang’ takes us behind the smoke, so to speak, by recognizing the people, places and processes that were the backbone to our city once upon a time.”
Haines has been working to preserve “Spang’s First Century” as a co-founder of Pittsburgh Sound + Image, a nonprofit that preserves and screens films while simultaneously educating filmgoers.
At least once a month, Pittsburgh Sound + Image screens films by individual, often marginalized filmmakers to crowds of 40-50 people at Eberle Studios in Homestead. The screening events can often sell out, Haines explains.
The preservation and screening of “Spang’s First Century” is a perfect fit for the type of public service the organization provides, according to Pittsburgh Sound + Image Executive Director Steve Felix.
“The film’s focus on process dovetails with a theme of what we’re doing with our shows — bringing the human labor and process of film handling back into practice and view, after so much of it has been squeezed out of the film industry,” Felix says.
Preserving a film is an expensive process, Haines says. In 2022, Pittsburgh Sound + Image secured a $20,000 grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation for work on “Spang’s First Century.” Still, it was $3,000 short and turned to community support through a Kickstarter campaign.
“The Kickstarter went live on July 11,” Felix says. “Ten hours later, we had surpassed our goal. It showed there is a lot of support for what we’re doing. We’re really grateful for that and are going to keep doing it.”
Support has continued to roll in. On July 31, Pittsburgh Sound + Image officially launched their stretch goal of $9,000, which will end on Thursday, Aug. 10 at 9 p.m. The excess funds will be used to commission multiple local musicians to adopt individual, 10-minute stretches of film to score. The scores will then become the background music for the theatrical premiere of “Spang’s First Century,” and for a free-to-view version, which will be uploaded to the internet.
Haines explains that, luckily, “Spang’s First Century” was found in good condition for a film that is nearly 100 years old, allowing for higher quality copies. Normally, film is chemically copied, which can lead to minor degradations. Pittsburgh Sound + Image opted to digitally scan the film with a 4K resolution camera and then have it reprinted onto film.
“99.999% of people will see no difference between this and the original,” Haines says.
Creating and storing a 16 mm copy of the film is both more cost effective and permanent, as each new electronic storage technology necessitates another purchase and time spent on transferring the data. Hard drives themselves do not store well, Haines adds, and their data is easily corruptible.
“Every time I hear someone say that ‘It’s on the internet forever,’ I cringe,” Haines says. “People don’t understand how fragile the internet is.”
Film, on the other hand, simply requires a dry, cool space and will remain in pristine condition.
“This film even existing is proof of that,” Haines says.
Pittsburgh Sound + Image took up the torch of creating a community for Pittsburgh film buffs and makers in 2021. Its programming promotes the accessibility of video archives and theaters, and introduces the region to both local and global artists, intentions that, according to Haines, have not been prevalent in the city since the decline of Pittsburgh Filmmakers.
“In the 1970s, Pittsburgh was seen as a ‘third city’ for avant-garde film, coming in behind New York and Los Angeles,” Haines says (avant-garde referring to a film that is experimental or outside of normal cinematic conventions). “Pittsburgh Filmmakers was a big part of that, but they sadly closed their doors just shy of 50 years.”
Aside from Filmmakers, part of what made Pittsburgh’s film scene so impressive was the Carnegie Film Series, which screened the works of local, independent filmmakers from 1972 to 2003.
Around the same time as the sale of the Regent Square Theater in 2018, the Hollywood Theater in Dormont, which was “another of the city’s most important hangouts for film folks,” according to Haines, changed ownership.
Haines says that the film community moves in waves and the community found itself in a downward spiral after years of marked success.
“It really felt like rock bottom. And then Covid hit a little over a year later,” Haines says. “From there, I suppose there was nowhere to go but up.”
Pittsburgh Sound + Image held its first event in May 2022. A year later, Carnegie Museum of Art announced the return of its film series for the first time in 20 years, which will run through December 2023.
In the midst of the current upswing, Haines and Felix hope Pittsburgh Sound + Image remains a positive force in the Pittsburgh film community. Roused by the success of the Kickstarter campaign, the two hope the nonprofit can eventually construct its own theater, one that can host screenings, provide a workspace for local filmmakers and act as an archive for enthusiasts, historians or anyone who is interested.
“That’s not within this year,” Felix says.
The screening of “Spang’s First Century” is, though. Although there is no set date, Felix and Haines say the screening will most likely occur in November. The date — when chosen — along with tickets will be available on the website. Pittsburgh Sound + Image can also be supported through a monthly subscription to its Patreon page, which earns supporters free screening tickets.