We love lost and orphaned films, like an early Orson Welles picture that was recently uncovered, but this isn’t something we should have to get excited about. Films are important cultural objects, and it’s a shame if they go missing or are destroyed.
Unfortunately, the prospects for early film preservation appear grimmer than expected. A new report from the Library of Congress estimates that 10,919 silent films were released by major studios, but only one in every four of those films still exists in any format. Even accounting for reprints and rediscovered foreign releases, these are cataclysmic numbers. Over 7,000 feature films – again, whole films – have been likely permanently lost to the ravages of time or neglect. As the Library of Congress points out, the audio limitations of silent films make them nearly a separate form of expression from current movies. It’s hard to comprehend that nearly an entire art form has been lost, but it greatly increases the cultural value of the ones that are left.