Unfortunately, the story has been ignored by the majority of the mainstream media (who clearly needed to write 10,000+ pieces in Inception this week), and there are only two sources for this depressing story.
Please tweet, facebook or email this story to any friends or colleagues who have a fondness for classic film. Only with greater awareness of the matter can the necessary solutions be reached.
The EU Observer tells us (I am going to dissect the article paragraph by paragraph, as there is a lot to digest):
Some 80 percent of European silent films are estimated to have been lost, and, due to legal challenges, even modern digital technology may not be sufficient to prevent something similar happening to other types of film, the European Commission has warned in a new report...
Given that up until World War One, France was the global city for film, it would be helpful to know how many French silent films are estimated to have been lost.
Only Latvia and Denmark have so far developed film digitisation strategies covering the whole national heritage. Hungary has decided to digitise only a hundred of its movies. Less then a third of member states currently collect digital material in the way they do analogue material, the report shows...
All early films by Fritz Lang, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau or Georg Wilhelm Pabst are believed to be lost, along with hundreds of others from the end of the 19th century.
According to the commission, the problem with rescuing the films lies in the lack of a new approach to preserving ageing movie tapes. Conservation of old film in sealed boxes cannot guarantee preservation for future generations. In the digital age, a new access model is needed, the commission says. However, questions about how to store and preserve digital material remain unanswered...
Simple digitalisation is not enough, according to Mr Koerber.
"We need to keep the analogue masters intact in case one has to come back to them. The need for this is certain, as distribution channels and technologies are changing rapidly, and re-digitalisation with better resolution and better technologies in the future should be allowed as a option," he said.
Beyond the technological issues, legal difficulties also constrain the effective use of and access to old films. There are several different regimes under which EU member states collect, preserve, restore and share their national film collections.
Simple administrative costs and the time needed to clear the rights often prevent the institutions from providing access to archive material. Some member states would welcome EU intervention on the question of copyright, the report from the commission says.
Film industry professionals themselves can also present an obstacle, Mr Koerber thinks.
"Many producers, especially the smaller units, have no means, no understanding of and no strategy for long term archiving," he said, adding: "It is an important political task to bring producers and archives closer and make them work together."
The loss of silent movies was not confined to Europe and most American films from the same era have also disappeared, Mr Koerber says.
“It’s universal. It has to do with the fact that there were no archives,” he said.
“It’s a fact of life. People don’t keep things. They get lost. It’s not only true for silent movies. The early 1930s is very bad because it was before the first archiving.
“The early 1950s is a problem period because not everything was well organised, for obvious reasons.”
Research cited in Ms Kroes’s report says the biggest cause of the disappearance of silent movies was systematic destruction by studios, who feared piracy and considered films to be of little value beyond their theatrical run.
Neither did studios want to bear the expense of storing nitrate, the standard film stock until the introduction of acetate-based film in 1949.
Nitrate film was susceptible to fire – and decomposed if not stored in the right conditions.
Ms Kroes said digital technology can help rescue Europe’s “fragile” film heritage, adding that the preservation process needed to be improved to achieve optimum results.
Legal issues and administrative costs prevented the full exploitation of films and related material for educational and cultural use, she said.
But digital archiving is expensive. Mr Koerber suggests it would cost €500 – €600 million to save the entire backlog of German film and television, and as much as $2 billion (€1.58 billion) to safely secure the backlog of global film.
“That’s high enough to deter anyone from thinking further about it.”
What is of fundamental importance now, is that we find a way to raise the money necessary to preserve silent film. This article suggests that $2bn is required to safely secure the backlog of film. Mr. Kroeber suggests that this deters anyone from thinking about it, but as previously mentioned, the Indian government is going to spend $140m to restore classic Indian films, 2,500 of which are silent films.
As we are in the midst of a global recession, it is highly unlikely that over governments will follow suit. This becomes depressingly obvious when we see the BFI having to ask the public to raise £1m to preserve nine of Hitchcock’s earlier films .
The public alone will not come close to raising the necessary money. Therefore, my suggestion would to get the major governments to agree to a 1% tax on all film revenue. I unfortunately have not been able to track down a specific figure for cinema’s global revenue – but I am sure that such a tax would help raise the money sooner rather than later. Modern day film owes a great deal to classic film, both artistically and technologically, and this is the least they could do to ensure that we do not unnecessarily lose any more films.