Matt White recently passed away due to cancer. Here, his friend and colleague, David Royle, pays tribute to the passionate archivist, producer and longtime active member of documentary community.
Few people have made a more important contribution to the world of non-fiction program-making than Matt White, but his name seldom appeared in the credits and there are no Emmys or Peabodys for people in roles like his.
His work benefited countless films — in fact some could not have been made without his diligence, determination…even obsession. But many filmmakers may not even be aware of the debt we owe him.
Matt (pictured) was an archivist and a champion of lost or decaying films. It wasn’t just a job for him. He was like a conservationist fighting to save extinct species or threatened habitats, or the anthropologist fighting to prevent languages from going extinct. He had that same passion and sense of urgency. He knew that huge amounts of visual and audio records were vanishing all the time, largely unnoticed, and that their loss would make it harder for the storytellers of tomorrow to bring the past to life.
At the World Electronic Media Forum, held in Tunis in 2005, he helped form the Inter-Organizational Group on Archives at Risk to raise awareness of this problem and solicit funds for the restoration of materials. He later wrote: “The danger is resident in the imagery held in distressed archives, and there are thousands upon thousands of such archives throughout the world: an African programme exchange in Kenya; a series of Jamaican cultural programs now in a British warehouse; a cache of 8mm police videos shot at Beatles concerts in Japan. In short, most of the imagery that documents how we really lived, worked, and played throughout the 20th century will be gone.”
It would be wrong to suggest that Matt was a doomsayer. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was an enthusiast who radiated excitement for new ideas. As producer and digital strategist Gil Pimentel recalls: “One of the very first things one noticed about Matt White was that his hands were in constant motion. His resonant bass-baritone could slice through a foghorn, his shirt was often untucked, and his hair was generally tousled, all of which suggested a man caught in a whirlwind. And in a way, he always was. Matt was a visionary, and the distance between his astonishingly fertile mind and his mouth was short. To spend any time close to him was like watching—and listening to—a computer programmed to make brilliant strategic decisions in real time.”
I first met Matt when he was recruited to manage the film and video archives at National Geographic Television & Film in 2000. He had come from the WPA Film Library which he founded and which eventually grew into one of the world’s leading footage sources. And he had just won an IDA Documentary Award for his film The Murder of JFK: A Revisionist History. He brought a burst of energy to National Geographic, not only growing the archive until it managed over a million hours of film and video but creating strategic alliances with global companies and constantly suggesting creative ideas for how the archives could be turned into programming. And he helped many people to advance their careers. Mark Bauman [current CEO of Virtual Wonders and former SVP of Smithsonian Media -ed.] recalls: “He welcomed others. He gave a lot of people their careers. He was an ideas guy. He liked to dream, and he didn’t give up on ideas very easily. He always had these little treasures that sparked ideas.”
He went on to become executive vice president for digital markets, developing the Society’s digital media strategies – including a push into video games, mobile content, and a worldwide top 10 podcast. His deals were international in scope. He brokered agreements with the leading broadcasters and archives of the world, including the BBC, NHK, ZDF, and the National Film Archives of France. In China he worked with Kristian Kender and Anke Redl at China Media Management, who told me jointly: “He was ahead of his time in many ways, and it’s inspirational to see how many of early ideas around digitization of archives and their great value for educational media have become reality.”
Later we would hire him at the Smithsonian Channel for the daunting task of plunging into the Smithsonian Institution’s myriad archival collections – spread across 19 museums — to assess what material had potential for film projects and then sleuth out the rights holders to access it. He was perfect for the job, as he could move seamlessly between the curatorial world and commercial media.
Although he went on to serve as executive director of the American Archive at the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, there’s little doubt that the project that gave him the most satisfaction is one that he had nursed since his time at National Geographic. In early 2003 he had started talking with Neil Aspinall, the legendary CEO at Apple Corps in London, about making a feature film on the Beatles’ tours told through amateur fan footage. Whenever I would see Matt, this was always the project he wanted to talk about. His excitement would grow, his eyes wide, his hands making those expressive movements, and at the back of my mind I would wonder “Is this just a pipe dream?” I should have known better.
He kept at it until 2012 when Apple agreed to sponsor a global search for video, sound and photos, and in 2014 Ron Howard was commissioned to direct the film. When the film had its premiere in London’s Leicester Square in 2016, co-producer Matt walked the red carpet – along with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, among a host of other celebrities. It was a huge success, winning a Grammy Award, nominated for a BAFTA and an Emmy; and listed as one of the Top 100 most successful documentaries of all time on IMDB.
As Alex Vo of Rotten Tomatoes aptly summed up in his critical consensus: “We love them, yeah, yeah, yeah – and with archival footage like that, you know The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – the Touring Years can’t be bad.”
It was a triumph that Matt richly deserved. Peter Hamilton recalls participating in Matt’s fascinating panel at Sunny Side of the Doc 2017 with Apple Corps’ Jonathan Clyde. “When the panel came to an end, Matt called on everyone in the packed room to stand, and he conducted us in a rousing chorus of ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ The Beatles song and the laughter that it set off seemed to echo around the conference center for hours.”
I think that’s how Matt would like to be remembered.
David Royle is a media executive and filmmaker. He was a founder of the Smithsonian Channel where he was the Chief Programming Officer, and former Executive Vice President of National Geographic Television and Film. He is a nine-time Emmy winner.
Photo: Catherine Murphy
Matt was a great friend of my Documentary Business newsletter.
Here is a link to his inspiring case study The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – the Touring Years