Hollywood's Transition Away from Physical Media Means Thousands of Movies Go Missing

'Mississippi Masala'Credit: The Samuel Goldwyn Company
It's nice to have movies at the click of a button, but lots of movies have no digital imprint and are lost now. 

One of the things I was most wrong about was the idea that with digital libraries, every studio would transition their films over so audiences could have immediate access, and their catalogs for streamers would be more vast. But that actually hasn't happened. Older and even newer but less popular movies have fallen by the wayside. In some cases, we're losing the ability to ever watch them again, as they get buried or just lost through time.

And these aren't titles you're never heard of either! The original Elaine May The Heartbreak Kid, Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol, and Julie Taymour's Titus are among those titles. 

So what are people doing to get them back? 

Hollywood's Transition Away from Physical Media Means Thousands of Movies Go Missing

Now, an advocacy group called Missing Movies is assembling a list of all the titles that are being swept away. They're determined to preserve them and make sure they're not lost forever.

They have a manifesto on their website, which reads, "Movie audiences are being told that streaming has made the entire history of cinema available for a simple subscription fee—or at least a couple of dozen subscription fees. This is not true. As an ad hoc group of film lovers and professionals, we have come together to create Missing Movies to empower filmmakers, distributors, archivists, and others to locate lost materials, clear rights, and advocate for policies and laws to make the full range of our cinema history available to all."

So how big is this problem? Well, in 2017, film archivists at Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation said that basically half of all American films made before 1950 are lost, and none of the major distributors are looking for them. Even worse, they said that more than 90% of films made before 1929 are lost forever.

“The popular conception among film fans is that 70-80% of silent films are missing, and that’s true,” Dennis Doros of the Missing Movies group told The Guardian. “I would say that with the digital tsunami that’s coming, that could be just as viable a percentage of total films unavailable in the world.”

How Does a Movie Go Missing? 

Mary Harron, director of I Shot Andy Warhol, told The Guardian how her film went missing. 

“Most [indie films] are produced by small companies, and most of them go bankrupt,” Harron said.

When those places go bankrupt, no one is there to scoop up what's left behind. Now the rights to the movie are lost behind lots of red tape. And many places just don't want to dig around trying to get after an arthouse film. 

If a movie doesn't become a hit right away, then it can fall by the wayside. Toss in these legal battles, studios changing who owns them, and then latent misogyny and racism inside the system, and you have stories lost to the annals of time. I mean, look at the three movies I listed at the top, all made by women! And those are mainstream female directors at that.

Amy Heller, the co-founder of Milestone Film and Video, told The Guardian, “When you look at the kinds of films that are not available, you see documentaries about poor people, Native Americans, queer people, disabled people. These images are part of our world, and we can’t afford to lose them.”  

This art and these images are a crucial part of who we are as human beings. The older movies are the foundation for everything we have now, and the diverse titles tell us a coming of age story as an industry from a point of view we've relegated to the back or all but lost. Check out their list of missing movies and mark the titles down. As they're restored and found, make sure you see them and share them. And if you know of more titles, add them to their list. 

Let us know what you think in the comments.     

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