75% of American silent feature films lost


I thought their plan sounded promising. Although some of the films were lost in the US, they were able to attain them from foreign sources. It sounds like the Russians have the largest cache. I hope everyone gets on board. What good is a copyright for things no one will ever see?


Isn’t this one of the things the Library of Congress is for? Keeping a copy of everything so it isn’t lost even if the original publisher loses their copy? Is the copyright situation with movies so bad that not even the Library of Congress can get a copy?

Abysmal! …and not just limited to film.
The behaviour seems endemic to the generation after the generation that made the thing you would like to have been preserved.

A good place to mention that Netflix has just released some Charlie Chaplin shorts.

Potential upside: if the ratio of good films to bad films has remained consistent through today, 75% of the films made before 1930 were forgettable trash.

If someone actually wants these films and they’ve been lost then that really sucks, but I’ve never been convinced that preserving every mote of humanity’s effort is a worthwhile endeavor.


This would seem to be one of the things that copyright is actually good for. Film restoration is quite expensive, and there is very little incentive for corporations to restore public-domain films. For a long time it was surprisingly difficult to get a decent transfer of Charade, or His Girl Friday, especially in comparison to films of a similar vintage that were/are still under copyright. Does a good version of His Girl Friday even exist yet? Some early Hitchcock films are only now being restored due to the combined efforts of several institutions; one can imagine the situation for films by lesser directors.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
If only a tiny fraction of the NSA’s budget and storage room was diverted … we could store digital copies of everything.

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The problem crops up if the copyright holder doesn’t see an ROI in doing anything with it: they still maintain a veto over anybody else who wishes to do so.

I agree that, for the limited set of old films that seem likely to sell well, once cleaned up and stamped onto disks, being copyrighted is what would make that happen.

However, if the commercial appeal isn’t there, the copyright remains as veto power over anyone else who wants to try (whether they are merely charitable, more optimistic, or whatever). Perhaps worse, somebody else wanting to try is probably taken as a signal that the work is worth something, which creates an incentive to try to get some money out of them for the right to make their transfer.

I wouldn’t doubt that the available transfers are better-done for having been copyrighted; but the number of films that are shoved from meriting a mediocre transfer to getting nothing at all until they decay is likely increased, since only those blessed by the rightsholder can move to do one.

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“As we close in on 2018, the date at which materials from 1928 onward will begin entering the public domain again, …”
Ah, the exuberance of optimism. I feel it’s quite likely that the Mouse will roar again and push that date yet again further into the future.

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Plus, some movies age better, like cognac, where the later audience appreciates it more than the original audience.

That’s why I always tell people Back up your hard drive! They have no excuse. They had it coming. Tough shit.

Good point. I was going to say something mean about how 75% probably deserve to be forgotten, but then I remembered that the music of JS Bach was forgotten in obscurity until it was “rediscovered” more than 100 years after his death.

Films from before 1950 are particularly fragile because the standard film base was made from nitrocellulose. If the film isn’t stored properly it will chemically degrade and destroy itself. Even worse, it can spontaneously combust. Once lit nitrocellulose will burn vigorously and even underwater. Around 1950 nitrate film was replaced with cellulose acetate. This had the advantage of not being a low explosive, but it still can chemically degrade in what’s called the vinegar syndrome due to the resulting smell. Nice and stable polyester film didn’t become standard until the 1990s.

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One major contributing factor to the loss of early film and television is the fact that the people who owned and made it didn’t care at all about preserving it longterm. Countless studios literally just threw away their old film reels over the years.

Andy Marx, grandson of Groucho Marx, tells the story of how his childhood whims saved pretty much the entire archives of “You Bet Your Life”. The studio was getting rid of them, going to trash or destroy them, and the worker drone put in charge of doing so decided of his own volition to call up Groucho out of the blue to ask him if he wanted the originals. Groucho said no, why the heck would he want 'em? But his young grandson who had answered the phone said “Send them over to the house anyway” despite Groucho’s wishes.

He figured it’d be no big deal, that his grandfather wouldn’t really mind a box or two of old reels taking up space - and then multiple truckloads of film reels started showing up, and the house literally started filling up, and Groucho was not exactly amused at his grandson’s shenanigans. But nevertheless, the archive was saved from going to the landfill, and the rest is history.

Today we think of early television and film as being cultural artifacts worth careful preservation and future appreciation, but the simple fact of the matter is that the entertainer culture of Hollywood back in the day saw itself as chiefly concerned with creating and selling a commercial product, not with creating art or anything of lasting cultural value.

Consequently, when a show went off the air it was viewed by everybody as perfectly natural for the recordings to be held onto only as long there was a signficiant financial gain to be had from them. Given how many film and television archives were destroyed simply to spare their owners the cost of taking up storage space, you can begin to understand just how little value they placed in these recordings.


Maybe I’m mistaken but I thought copyright was for 95 years. Currently works after 1922 hold valid copyrights. In 2018 they will start entering the public domain.

The Fort Lee Film Commission of Fort Lee, NJ, America’s first film town, has the only existing print of Eclair Studio’s Robin Hood, produced in Fort Lee in 1912. We restored the film in 2004 and have screened it in Los Angeles, New Jersey and many other venues and our hope is to release it in a DVD set of Fort Lee produced silent films. Visit our web site www.fortleefilm.org and go to our upcoming events page to view the unrestored 1912 Mack Sennett Keystone film “A Grocery Clerk’s Romance” which was shot outside the historic Rambo’s Saloon which has just been saved from the wrecker’s ball and will be preserved with a historic marker placed on the outside of the building.

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