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All The Movies You’ll Never See

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at USFSP chapter.

From the early 1910s to the late 1920s, silent films in America were at their peak. During this period, theaters were at an all-time high and movies were in high demand. By the end of the 1920s, there were around 20 film studios, with five major ones cranking out productions. Those studios being, Warner Bros. Picture, Paramount, RKO Pictures, MGM, and 20th-Century Fox, along with various others like Universal and Columbia.  

These film studios were developing over 800 movies a year during this decade. Many producers, directors, writers, actors, and others on set put their blood, sweat, and tears into these movies. Yet, despite thousands of silent movies being created and distributed throughout the United States and the world, many people today can never view them.  

The American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films estimates that 10,919 American silent feature films were released from around 1912 to 1930. Of those films, only 14% are preserved in their original American formatting on a 35mm film reel, with only another 11% complete in either a foreign version or in a low quality copy. An estimated 70% of these 10,919 movies made in the span of two decades are missing.  

The biggest factor that confuses most people is: how does this even happen in the first place? Well, there are two main reasons why. One is the nitrate 35mm film that was used to produce all films at the time and the other is the general disposal of films by the studios.  

Nitrate film is extremely flammable and requires intense care to ensure the film reels stay in good condition. Two of the most famous examples of the dangers of nitrate film were the 1937 Fox Vault Fire and the 1965 MGM Studio Vault Fire. These fires broke out because nitrate film reels were being improperly cared for. Thousands of the sole copies of many films were stored in these vaults, resulting in major losses for movie preservation.  

The MGM fire was more impactful, considering MGM was the only one of the big five studios that actually sought out to preserve their early movies. Approximately 68% of the studio’s entire film catalog is preserved in completion, much higher than any other studio.  

The other reason for movie loss is just studios disposing of their movies early on. Robert A. Harris, a film preservationist and restorer, said, “there was no thought of ever saving these films. They simply needed vault space and the materials were expensive to house.” Many studios just threw away films that no longer served the studios any benefits, whether it be that they didn’t perform well at the box office, or the studio simply no longer had storage to hold onto them.  

Despite the very minimal chance of films being found after over a century, it has happened. Just this past month, a film preservation enthusiast, on Reddit, restored old 35mm reels that he purchased off eBay. He had discovered brand-new footage from the 1917 film Cleopatra that had never been seen before. Cleopatra has long been considered one of the most sought-after lost films of all time.  

While there is still a long way to go, and it is highly unlikely that all lost films will ever be found, discussing these lost films sheds light on the importance of film and media preservation.  

Riley is writer at Her Campus: USFSP. She focuses on writing about music, movies, books, and culture. She is a senior at the University of South Florida: St. Petersburg studying Digital Communications and Multimedia Journalism, with a minor in English Literary Studies. She hopes to work in magazine editing or book publishing in the future. Outside of Her Campus, Riley uses Letterboxd and Goodreads more than any other social media site. Her favorite movies are Knives Out, Chungking Express, and Before Sunset. Her favorite books are The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Secret History.