Sunday, 18 July 2010

News Review - 80% of European silent films have been lost - this figure will increase...

“I read the news today, oh boy” sang John Lennon 43 years ago. Having researched the following story, I share his sentiments. It is not only estimated that 80 percent of European silent films are lost; poor preservation awareness may mean that this number increases significantly.

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...
This news comes as quite a surprise. As reported in an earlier News Review article, it had previously been suggested that fifty percent of silent films were missing. Now this article only concerns European films, so the Americans and Asian countries may have done a much better job than the Europeans, but surely not to such a large extent? Will the figure for global films now be revised to be closer to 80% than 50%? A quote from the Irish Times piece below suggests the problem, and perhaps figure, is indeed universal.

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...
Have Latvia and Denmark been able to develop ‘film digitisation strategies covering the whole national heritage’ because their archives only contain a small portion of the films the French or the Italians do, or can their strategy be shared with other European countries to aid them with their film preservation efforts.
It is shocking to learn that over two thirds of member states are not collecting digital material in the way they collect analogue material. A potential solution to both problems would be to establish a European centre for film preservation. This would allow the restoration process to be synergised, lower costs and hopefully provide film archivists a more substantial voice than they currently have.
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.
This piece of information seems incredulous. Given that many of the earliest filmmakers’ work survives (e.g. The Lumiere Brothers, Méliès and Edison), it seems strange that the early films of directors working twenty years later have all been lost. Was the problem specific to German film preservation or perhaps that particular era? Either way, it is quite distressing news to learn.
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...
Why do questions about storage and digital material remain unanswered? What are the current solutions being proposed, and what are their shortfalls? Is this problem unique to cinema, or can we look to America or perhaps India, with their promise to spend $140m restoring their classic films. Perhaps an annual conference involving film preservationists would kick start the process and ensure that such an important question does not 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.
How do we make this happen, and more importantly, how much will it cost if it was implemented throughout Europe?
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.
The solution again has to be scrapping the different regimes and agreeing on one system. And EU intervention is absolutely crucial to allow the importance of preservation to supersede film rights, administrative costs and other such unnecessary burdens.
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 Irish Times is the only major publication that I could find that reported the above matter and added some important pieces of information, such as the problem of nitrate and what the process would ultimately cost:
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.”
The studios’ short-sightedness was farcical. They destroyed the film rather than allowing it to be preserved, they would made a lot more money in the long term. Some may come to the defence of the studios by correctly pointing out that until the rental system began (around 1912); film was either recorded over or destroyed. However, any film that came after the rental system began would not be allowed to utilise this excuse.

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.
What are your thoughts on this matter? Does this news upset you as much as it upsets me? Do you have any potential solutions for this very expensive problem?


  1. You make a great point when you say that modern film owes more to its heritage. These are certainly tragic figures and is actually something that is very difficult to calculate. The number that is generally used for the amount of lost silent film is 80%. There are certainly bodies that are at the forefront of preservation, such as the BFI, and I certainly hope that the major film studios are investing in their own past films, but it seems like a battle that is very difficult to win. It is certainly unfortunate that the very material we are trying to save decomposes on it's own. In many ways film was the worst material to start with since it self-destructs. As you highlight this is a problem for all films, even those made today and digitisation is absolutely not the final solution. Formats change as time moves on, films get lost (the most recent BFI Most Wanted title is from 1983) and this is a continual process that the medium will have to contend with.

  2. Beautiful piece on very sad news... sad because inevitable in a physical medium (though digi archiving has its own set of problems).
    perhaps useful to tease out a couple of details...
    first, early silents were all shot on nitrate based stock, so even if they were archived, it doesn't mean they were preserved. Nitrate stock - except under very odd conditions of temperature and (lack of) humidity, absorbs water and becomes a mush. This can be teased out, but it's like doing surgery on molluscs... sad, then, because unless the initial storage in the 1910s was perfect, even a physical copy of the film will be unusable.
    Second, almost all restorations are from release copies of the films, sometimes scattered over the world, almost always a composite print (as films which have been through a projector are all damaged more or less severely (frames missing, ends of reels scratched any frayed, tinting and toning compromised over time and emulsion flaking).
    Again, all dependent on chance (perfect print of Metropolis found in Patagonia!) or an unusually caring prescience from the old movie theatre owners or (less likely) the distributors.
    Can things be done? Yes.
    But as the river runs on, each day, each film deteriorates and 'fixing' them is a slow operation.
    Do what we can, but embrace the fact that film is an ephemeral medium, suffering now from neglect in its childhood.

  3. Film Preservation Specialist22 July 2010 at 21:15

    First off, there IS an annual conference involving film preservationists where they discuss these types of things! The problem is not the lack of discussion, it's the lack of funding and the perceived importance of preservation.

    I worked on a project for Warner Bros where they set aside money to preserve a series of Vitaphone short subjects from the 1930's. In 3 years time, we preserved approximately 300 shorts - some were one reel, some were two reels. It was a huge project and took a lot of time and effort. Preserving film can be a very slow process. The important point is that Warner Bros put up the money to have it done. If studios worldwide had more active preservation goals for their own material, then there might less of an issue as described above.

    I know first hand of the necessity of preserving film but there are so many obstacles standing in it's way - money being the most obvious. If films can just be stored properly, their deterioration can be slowed and perhaps they can be preserved in the future. The Library of Congress accepts film donations. Potentially significant films can be donated to them where they can be properly stored in the LOC vaults.

    I have the hands-on expertise to preserve nitrate film and I do it well. And I don't have a job! I would gladly offer my services to help remedy the problems stated in the article, but no one is hiring.

  4. I found this post, and the detailed comments, fascinating and saddening to read. Whenever you start studying an early film director or star, it seems as if there are some films which are lost and others which are said to exist in archives but in reality might have rotted away too. It seems there are no easy answers to the problem of funding, especially in the current economic climate, which is very sad.

  5. @ Christian - It is interesting to learn that the youngest art form is also the most combustible! When we think of the significantly longer term, I wonder if we have the technology to ensure we can preserve the original film of early silent films so that they are accessible in a century's time.

    It is startling to learn that the most recent BFI Most Wanted title is from 1983. Is this an anomaly, or are there quite a few films that are missing from the 70's and 80's?

  6. @ Russell - Many thanks for your kind words and informative post.

    In regards to your first point - how successful have archivists been in managing to 'perform surgery on molluscs'? We have seen from films such as the 1903 version of Alice in Wonderland and The Story of the Kelly Gang, that severe damage has been done to the remaining print of these films.

    As for your second point - I did not know that most of the prints that survived are composite prints. One can only hope that more discoveries are made that are similar to the discovery of a perfect print Metropolis in Patagonia.

    I think you conclude by striking the right balance. Yes, we have to accept that much of early silent film as been lost because of the ephemeral nature of the medium; but we must also ensure that we do everything in our power to ensure that what we means we do have available to prevent further damage are taken.

    But it is clear that at the moment we are not doing enough, and more needs to be done to raise awareness of the importance of film archiving.

  7. @ Film Preservation Specialist - Thank you for providing us with extremely useful specialist information on this subject.

    I apologise for not being aware of an annual conference for film preservation. When does it take place, and are the conclusions it draws open to the public?

    I hope you read this response to your comment, as I would like to invite to write a guest blog on the subject of film archiving. The readers of Film: Ab Initio would love to hear more about your experiences of working on shorts for Warner Bros. and what ideas you have for the future of film preservation.

    You are right to emphasise the importance of money when it comes to the film preservation process. In our current economic climate, it is probably harder than ever to convince studios to invest their money in preservation.

    However, I think raising awareness of the importance of film preservation is of equal importance, as it is only when the 'consumers' put pressure on the big studios to ensure their favourite films are preserved ad infinitum that they will pay greater attention to the issue.

    Finally, I hope that somebody offers you work as soon as possible - we want all our film preservationists' hands full!

  8. @ Judy - It really is so frustrating to study and/or learn about an early director or star and then find out substantial part of their oeuvre is missing.

    Although there are no easy answers to the subject of film preservation, I only wish there was a more vocal debate about the issue. The fact that this story was ignored by the majority of the mainstream media is a great shame. I wonder what can be done to raise awareness of the issue?

  9. Film Preservation Specialist1 August 2010 at 06:41

    I had a significant hand in preserving 'The Life and Death of King Richard the Third" (1912). The print was in surprisingly excellent condition for it's age. Other than the actual shrinkage of the nitrate and deterioration of the tinting on some portions, the film was practically perfect. I have preserved original D.W. Griffith prints and negatives and they have been almost flawless. My point is, film WILL last over 100 years if cared for properly. It is not "ephemeral" at all! It can survive for a very long time - longer than videotape, DVDs, etc. I have preserved numerous film from the late 1800s to the early 1900s that have been in excellent condition.

    A significant problem in film preservation has been the people who've had control over the films. Much of film history that is lost is not due to the medium's stability, it's due to it being thrown away or poorly handled by it's owners and/or caretakers! A majority of the studios never had the foresight to save their work for historical reasons, they just saw it as taking up space, so they burned it. Even some more modern archives have not cared for film the way they should have and it has been lost. Film history has not disappeared because of the actual media it was on, it has disappeared because it wasn't considered important and/or the wrong people were in charge!

    Jumping forward to modern times, there are some who work in preservation have an unfortunate view of their work ethic. When I pursued my career in film preservation, I remember one individual specifically asking me, "Why would you want to get into this line of work? It's awful!" Unfortunately, from my experience, this is the attitude of a large number of people working in preservation in the USA. I have witnessed individuals destroy portions of films because they didn't feel like putting forth the effort to preserve the film properly. Aside from the obvious money issues with preservation, there is this additional problem of having people working on films that actually CARE about what they are doing. There are quite a few individuals that have no business being employed in film preservation and couldn't care less about what they are doing. They might as well be working in a slaughterhouse. Surprisingly, this abundance of "film preservationists" come to it from years of typical motion picture laboratory work (in addition to some who have not!) and they DO NOT have the expertise or mindset to look at film from a historical preservation standpoint and do the work correctly. They only see it as another paycheck and do not actually care about what happens to the film or care about what they are doing. This is not something that can change overnight either. It is one of the biggest frustrating factors about film preservation in US for me.

    My hope in this particular period of the planet's financial woes, that film is just put away in proper storage and not subjected to the existing problems of the current preservation climate. There are many people interested in film preservation, they just don't have the opportunities and there are too many factors working against preservation right now to make it a wise choice.

    As I have stated, money is the obvious issue, but there is also the issue of having the right people do the work. There are too many uneducated, poorly qualified individuals employed in the field that add to the problems of film preservation.

  10. Film Preservation Specialist1 August 2010 at 06:59

    No need to apologize about being unaware of the annual preservation conference. It's really focused on industry people and there is not much interaction with the public.

    I agree that raising awareness is important. The US cable channel AMC used to have a film preservation month every year where they pushed for preservation and took contributions from viewers for the cause. I don't know if they still do that since they have moved away from old films. Turner Classic Movies is still going strong but I am not sure how much they promote preservation. Other than the AFI list that comes out every year, the American public doesn't get much exposure to film history/preservation. The most recent big news was the discovery of the additional 'Metropolis' footage.

    I would be happy to write a piece for Film: Ab Initio. I've often considered writing about my work on the WB Vitaphone project and other films in the past. It might take a little time, but I'd be interested in doing it.

  11. @Film Preservation Specialist - Many thanks for another hugely informative and interesting post.

    We need a person like you to dispel the myths attached to film preservation. For example, like the earlier poster, I too thought film was ephemeral, but you have clearly demonstrated that it is not. If you can untangle the facts from the excuses, I think it would put as all in a far better position of understanding in terms of how we need to go about preserving classic film in the future.

    It is exciting to see the Indian Government put up $140m dollars or so to preserve a whole host of classic film. Do you think other countries' governments will follow suit?

    It is saddening to learn that it is the way we have looked after film rather than film's intrinsic physical qualities that is the main reason for so many films being lost. I really do hope you can put together a guest blog for Film: Ab Initio, as many readers would love an opportunity to gain knowledge from your extensive knowledge of the industry.

    The attitude of certain film preservationists can only anger film enthusiasts, and one can only hope that such figures will be exposed. Are there any viable solutions for removing such figures from the industry?

  12. To confirm what I said in an earlier post, we would love to have you write a piece for this blog. The topics you mention sound fascinating, whenever you feel ready to post an article, please let me know.

  13. I was initially drawn into the world of silent films by the concept that films could be 'lost'.  It's a mindblowing concept that something which was at one point groundbreaking could be gone forever.  The first werewolf film was destroyed in a fire (film being highly flammable).  The first movie in Technicolor is also gone.  How can these movies just be erased from the public consciousness like that when they form the basis of modern cinema today?  It's astounding and very sad.


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