A September report from the Library of Congress's National Film Preservation Board called The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929 [PDF] paints a dismal picture of the archival record of silent movies. In all, "14% of the 10,919 silent films released by major studios exist in their original 35mm or other format," although some of the missing items are extant in lesser transfers and foreign editions. But in all, "we have lost 75% of the creative record from the era that brought American movies to the pinnacle of world cinematic achievement in the 20th century."
It's a sobering reminder of the fragility of even relatively recent media, and the need for preservation. An appreciable slice of the missing archival materials are still in copyright, with attending difficulties in clearing them for the purpose of striking and circulating new prints. As we close in on 2018, the date at which materials from 1928 onward will begin entering the public domain again, this is an important reminder of what can happen if we let the profitability of a tiny slice of commercially viable ancient materials trump the preservation of the vast bulk of cultural materials.
Billington says the report finally confirms the anecdotal information about lost pics that has long been available, especially about films made by the most celebrated U.S. filmmakers. It enables the Library to authoritatively report that “we have lost 75% of the creative record from the era that brought American movies to the pinnacle of world cinematic achievement in the 20th century.”
The repatriation proposal is one of six recommendations offered in the study. It also suggests that studios and rights holders collaborate to acquire archival master film elements of unique titles. For example, many of the films preserved by MGM in the 1960s are not yet held by any American archive, it notes.
It also encourages the coordination among U.S. archives and collectors to identify silent films surviving only in small-gauge formats (particularly 28mm, 16mm and 9.5mm). It claims that the largest cache of unexplored surviving titles is the 432 U.S. silent feature films that survive only in 16mm.
Library of Congress: 75% of Silent Films Lost [Paul Harris/Variety]