Roger L. Mayer, a longtime advocate for film preservation and former executive at Columbia Pictures, MGM, and Turner, has died of a heart attack. He was 89.
Mayer became the chairman of the National Film Preservation Foundation in 1996, an organization that works to rescue orphan films—films that have been neglected or abandoned by their copyright holders. Because these films lack clear copyright holders or commercial potential, there’s no set figure responsible for paying for their preservation. Mayer was that figure for over 2,100 orphaned films. In a parallel role, Mayer also served on the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, which selects 25 “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films” to be preserved each December. This role, Mayer assumed in 1992.
Martin Scorsese is another leading figure in the film preservation industry, and was a friend of Mayer, presenting him with the Hersholt Award at the 77th Academy Awards. In a statement Wednesday, Scorsese mourned the film industry’s loss, as well as his own: “I’m deeply saddened at the passing of Roger, for whom I had an enormous amount of respect, affection, and admiration. To say that he will be sorely missed is an understatement.” Scorcese also said:
I met him early on when he was working for Ted Turner, and though we disagreed at that time about colorization, we shared the core belief that film libraries were of vital importance to our culture. Throughout his successful career in the industry, Roger consistently put the care and preservation of collections at the forefront.
He was absolutely key in helping the Library of Congress establish the National Film Preservation Foundation in 1996, and over the years, he gave tirelessly of his time and expertise.
Mayer’s passion for preservation began when he was working at MGM in the 1960s, and was shown the vaults where the studio’s negatives were stored on the lot in Culver City. When Mayer learned that the heat was causing the film to physically deteriorate, he spearheaded the development of the first refrigerated and air-conditioned storage vaults.
Mayer, a New York native, started his career in 1961 at MGM, eventually becoming president of MGM Laboratories. In 2004, he won an Emmy Award for the American Masters presentation Judy Garland: By Myself.