A recent study commissioned by the Library of Congress found that, of the more than 11,000 silent films produced by American movie studios between 1912 and 1929, just 14 percent (1,575) survive today in their original domestic release. Another 11 percent are still technically complete, according to the study conducted by film archivist David Pierce, but only in imperfect formats. Some are repatriated foreign release versions that lack the original English title cards and may have been edited to appeal to foreign audiences, which Pierce compares to imperfect retranslations of novels, where the story remains the same, but nuances may be lost. Others may be preserved on smaller format, 16 or 28 mm film stock, which can negatively impact image quality.
The report underscores some of the difficulties faced by archivists dedicated to preserving the world’s cinematic heritage, from full length features to educational filmstrips. Some of the films may remain intact in archives where harried film technicians have not had time to identify, much less restore the work. Others, though, are likely gone forever, lost to an early Hollywood culture that saw no value in maintaining movies they couldn’t sell tickets to anymore.
“For theater owners and studios, after sound came in in the 1930s, nothing had less value than a silent movie,” Pierce pointed out. “You had ongoing expenses to store and copy films that were producing no income and showing no prospect of producing income.” That meant that many films were simply thrown out, or recycled and harvested for the silver in the film stock.
Even well-intentioned attempts to maintain collections of older films regularly ended badly. “Until 1951, films were on nitrocellulose that was flammable and would decompose over time,” Pierce told Library Journal. “Many films that owners were willing and trying to preserve rotted on the shelf.” Some reels, stored under less than optimal conditions, would spontaneously combust, bursting into flames on the shelf and starting blazes that would consume whole vaults of films. Needless to say, this presented a challenge to early aspiring film archivists.
Though filmmakers today place a higher emphasis on making sure their work is stored safely and preserved for posterity, the attitude that only clear money makers are worth preserving and restoring remains prevalent in many Hollywood studios. Studios like Warner Bros. and movie channels like Turner Classic Movies have put an emphasis on preserving film collections and making them available to new audiences, said Pierce, however, “Other companies are more focused on each title paying for itself,” Pierce said. “If there’s no way it’s going to make its money back, it’s not going into archives.”
Studio reluctance isn’t the only difficulty that rights holders can present to preserving and restoring. For older, more obscure films, even finding rights holders can take serious work, pointed out Rachael Stoeltje, director of the film archives department at Indiana University’s (IU) Herman B. Wells Library. “With older educational collections, that information can be hard to track down. Some places no longer exist, and some others don’t even know they’re the rights holders.”
That can be a particular problem for libraries, whose mission includes not only preserving older films, but making sure they’re accessible to the public. To help drum up more interest among the public in the films they’re preserving, which include oddities like World War II propaganda films and educational film strips, Stoeltje has started presenting a film series known as Social Guidance Sundays, which lets her present some of the more entertainingly dated educational films in IU’s collection, like 1950’s “What To Do On A Date.” To help bring these forgotten gems to a wider audience, Stoeltje has made digitizing older films a major part of IU’s mission. “Digitization can dramatically improve some of our access issues, and provide access online to patrons everywhere,” Stoeltje said.
As with other media, though, digitizing old films is only one part of the larger preservation plan. While moving to digital is a helpful step, it’s by no means a solution to all the problems that confront film archivists. Maintained under proper conditions—cool, dry vaults—film reels can last for hundreds of years. That sort of longevity hasn’t been proven for digital copies yet, said Pierce. “You can convert the image to 1s and 0s,” he points out. “But whether you’ll have the ability to move them back to film one day is an open question.”
In a perfect world, archivists would be making film-to-film transfers of older movies, said Pierce. But those transfers are slow and expensive, he pointed out, and with limited funding and staff hours available, actually making transfers is a secondary concern. “Right now, the most important thing we can do is get archives to take new copies of films in private hands,” said Pierce. Identifying what’s on hand and making good copies, Pierce said, can come later, thanks to the stability of modern film stock when it’s properly stored. In IU’s archival storage facility, for example, which stores films at 50 degrees Fahrenheit and 30 percent relative humidity, Stoeltje said the best estimates are that archived reels will be stable for as long as 283 years.
That means once older films enter a proper archive, they have a little breathing room to ensure they’ll be preserved for future generations to enjoy. That should be welcome news for cinema lovers looking to broaden their horizons and get a sense of the medium’s history through silent films, said Pierce. “While these films are very old, their entertainment value is just as strong as [it was at] first release,” he said. “It would be a surprise for many audiences to see the high levels of technical and acting skill on display.”