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Taking Stock of Film Research: How to Find-and License-Archival Footage

By Barbara Gregson

Barbara Leigh Gregson researching archival footage at the Grinberg Film Library. Photo: Rafael Madrigal

Unless your documentary consists entirely of original footage you've shot, chances are you're going to use archival footage and stock shots to help tell your story. You then have to search for suitable material, obtain permissions (if required) and pay that all- important license fee. How and where do you find this footage? And how much is it going to cost? 

The use of archival footage and "stock shots" has been around since the early days of filmmaking. Rick DeCroix details much of the rich history of archival film in his well-researched article "A History of Stock Footage" for Footage, the tome of film research professionals, which lists over 3,000 footage sources around the world. (For more information on this resource, go to; the article can be found at

The search for the right image to help tell your story can span the world; indeed,  there are "stock footage libraries" all over the planet. But how do you find this material?  Film research is very logical and very basic. A person or company that is the subject of your film may have archives of home movies, corporate films, newsreels or news stories.

I was one of the researchers on The Kid Stays in the Picture (Dirs.:Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen; 2002). Although I went to various sources for news and archival footage, and to the movie studios for their material, Robert Evans, the subject of the film, had a treasure trove of material. It included his appearances on local news broadcasts and talk shows and in corporate films. We still had to track down the copyright owner of this footage to license it for use, but in many cases, Evans had the only copy we could find. Utilizing this material in the documentary made it a richer production and confirmed my belief that one should first look to the subject of one's film when researching footage. 

In another case, I worked on a television special, I Love Lucy: The Very First Show (1990), which told how I Love Lucy came to be and included the pilot for the program that had been lost for 40 years. A copy was found under the bed of one of the guests—Pepito Perez. So dig through closets and garages; you never know what you'll find. In addition, trade associations and organizations, museums and libraries, visitor and convention bureaus and historical societies are also good sources

 For the most part, the network news and global news entities have formalized licensing and researching material from their libraries for filmmakers to use.  Many of these resources have their own websites for quick and easy location of stories on your topic.

A word of caution, though: sometimes many of the original card catalogues, which have been transferred to digital records, used terms and locations that are no longer in use, or that no longer exist. You need to know the proper term that may have been used at the time. For example, a search for "UFOs" may bring up current or relatively recent stories, but when searching older newsreels, the term "flying saucer" may bring up other items. In older newsreel collections, you'll find stories under "Peking," but not "Beijing." In addition, many countries have had name changes over the last century; several of the former Soviet bloc countries went back to their original names or have taken their names from their respective regions. Many countries that have become independent from colonial rule also have different names. If looking up a story about a particular location during a particular time in history, make sure you reference the name used at that time.

The National Archives ( is a great source for US Government films and donated collections, many of which are Public Domain and require only payment of lab charges for use. Other items that need special permission are identified. 

For global searches, London-based Focal International was formed in 1985 as an international professional trade association to represent commercial film/audiovisual libraries, professional film researchers, producers and others working in the industry. Focal's website,, offers details, contact information, website addresses and searches of approximately 120 footage library members in 20 countries on six continents. ( ) is a US-based resource, where advertisers and film and TV producers can search over 25 archival and news footage databases in many countries all at once.

Several of the IDA trustees—ABCNews VideoSource (, Discovery Communications ( ), ITN ( ) and National Geographic ( ) have their own film libraries offering "outtakes" and actual production footage for license in outside productions. The Imperial War Museum, the recent IDA Preservation and Scholarship Award honoree, was founded in 1917 to collect and preserve footage documenting the world war that had began in Europe in 1914. The archives contain approximately 120 million feet of film and 10,000 hours of videotape dating from the Second Boer War in the late 1890s and extending through today.

Once you've found the material you want to include in your documentary—from news libraries or archival footage houses—you'll need to pay a license fee, unless the material is Public Domain. The license fee is determined by the following conditions: the term (length of license— i.e., two years to in perpetuity); territories (i.e., from United States to Worldwide); distribution media rights (broadcast, cable, theatrical, home video, Internet streaming); the number of runs (or broadcasts) in some cases; and advertising and promotion rights. Special exclusive footage may have a premium price (the Zapruder film of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, for example), and the cost of licensing footage can range from "free" to tens of thousands of dollars. 

It's best to determine what distribution rights you'll need for your documentary so you can get a proper quote for the inclusion of archival footage. Many distributors and broadcast entities have certain specific requirements regarding term, territories and distribution media in order for them to distribute your film, so familiarize yourself with them.

Try to license as much as you can afford upfront. Sometimes going back to an entity for subsequent rights will cost as much, or even more, than the initial rights you obtained. Some entities will let you arrange for "options" for additional rights for a specific window of time or before the expiration of the initial contract. Other entities will not do such "options," so it's best to ask about fees when you make the initial contact. Then again, sometimes libraries are sold and rights to certain materials are no longer available. If this should happen, you then have to track down the new owner of the material, arrange for a "new license" and hope that the owner won't charge unreasonable license fees. 

If your film is to be distributed first to theaters, it makes sense to license not only for theatrical rights but later for broadcast, cable, home video and DVD, and you will probably want a longer term. For most theatricals, it's probably wise to license "Worldwide, All Media, In Perpetuity." Make sure that your license clearly covers home video, DVD and Internet streaming if the entity is licensing them.  

Some broadcast and cable entities may only need the film for a limited term, so you retain the rights of ownership to the film. This means that you can then distribute your completed documentary to other broadcasters in other territories and also via other media, like home video and DVD.

Another caveat: just because you're licensing this material for use in your documentary, it doesn't mean that you can subsequently sub-license these archival clips from your film to someone else. But you can be helpful to other documentary filmmakers by letting them know the source and letting the licensor know that you've done so. 

Also, you may be required to obtain additional permission to include footage. Perhaps you want to include an exclusive interview with a famous person who also has to give permission before the licensor will agree to license the material; or, the person who has a copy of the footage doesn't own the copyright, but is giving you access to the material and you have to locate and pay the owner/distributor a license fee. In any case, make sure these points are discussed and clarified early on.

Whether it's a formal archival library, a news entity or an individual, it's important to have a contract agreement spelling out these licensing points. They are for your protection and usually part of the deliverables to the distributor. That way everyone can enjoy seeing your masterpiece.


Barbara Leigh Gregson is an internationally known researcher with hundreds of television, documentary and motion picture credits. A specialist in film research and clearances, she has worked with nearly every major network, studio and production company. She can be reached at