A recent study commissioned by the Library of Congress found that, of the more than 11,000 silent films produced by American movie studios between 1912 and 1929, just 14 percent (1,575) survive today in their original domestic release. Another 11 percent are still technically complete, according to the study conducted by film archivist David Pierce, but only in imperfect formats. Some are repatriated foreign release versions that lack the original English title cards and may have been edited to appeal to foreign audiences, which Pierce compares to imperfect retranslations of novels, where the story remains the same, but nuances may be lost. Others may be preserved on smaller format, 16 or 28 mm film stock, which can negatively impact image quality.
The report underscores some of the difficulties faced by archivists dedicated to preserving the world’s cinematic heritage, from full length features to educational filmstrips. Some of the films may remain intact in archives where harried film technicians have not had time to identify, much less restore the work. Others, though, are likely gone forever, lost to an early Hollywood culture that saw no value in maintaining movies they couldn’t sell tickets to anymore.