Lost and Found

July 04, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

The recent discovery of footage from Metropolis, previously thought to be lost, is encouraging news for film historians and lovers of old movies alike. It promises the near-term opportunity to view the movie as director Fritz Lang intended. This find, however, reminds me of how much has been lost over the years. We tend to think of an appearance in a movie as offering a kind of immortality, but this is only the case when proper care is taken to ensure that the film endures. Today, with many movies being shot and preserved on high-def video, there's a reasonable assumption of long-term endurance. That, however, is a new technological development. For the majority of film history, preservation depended on care being taken to protect the original film elements, and that was not always done.

Of the movies made before 1930, an estimated 70% are gone, having deteriorated beyond recovery or having been destroyed or discarded. The loss of so many silent films probably doesn't cause many of today's generation of multiplex-goers to weep from frustration but, taken in context, it is a shocking loss. Even more disheartening is how many post-1930 movies are also gone. While efforts have been undertaken to ensure that many of the great movies of the 20th century have been protected, there have been close calls. Some readers may recall that when George Lucas went to "clean up" Star Wars for its theatrical re-release in 1997, he discovered that the movie's elements, despite having been preserved in a temperature-controlled vault, had deteriorated badly. Similar stories exist for many of the classics that have undergone recent restoration. Preserving and restoring movies is expensive, however, and many "lesser" productions are bypassed for financial reasons. 50 years from now, some of the movies I have seen in theaters will no longer exist in any form.

Inattention to preservation as a result of a lack of foresight has resulted in some painful losses, and the problem is not confined to the motion picture industry. Consider an example from the world of television. On November 23, 1963, the U.K.'s BBC-TV debuted a weekly 30-minute TV drama called Doctor Who. A dozen years later, the BBC's vaults were filling up so, in order to create space, it destroyed thousands of hours of video - including many of the early black-and-white episodes of Doctor Who. This became an issue when, in the early 1980s, the series became a hit for PBS stations across the United States. The American appetite for the Doctor's exploits was without bounds, so the BBC sold the rights to all the available episodes, but the holes created by the purge not only deprived fans from the '80s of seeing many of the '60s classics, but lost the BBC uncounted revenue. Sometimes, shortsightedness comes with a price tag.

Admittedly, most of the lost films would not bring in large amounts of dollars if found. Many of them would, in fact, be of interest primarily to historians and fans of obscure cinema. But not all. There are much sought-after variants of popular movies that are as lost to time as the silent films that no one remembers. Were these films to be assembled, they could make money for their studios - but the critical "extra footage" needed was deemed disposable and no longer exists in its original form. As a result, barring a major restoration effort to convert grainy, taped-from-TV video into a high-def "master," these variants will never make their way to video store shelves.

Back in the '70s, it was popular for longer theatrical blockbusters to be re-packaged for TV broadcast. This was in an era before VCRs were popular, so the networks put effort into these TV "events." Two notable examples were Superman (on ABC) and the 1976 version of King Kong (on NBC). Networks took one of two approaches to theatrical movies that ran over two hours. Depending on how much "bonus" footage was available to be added back in, the movie could be broadcast in a single three-hour block or divided over two nights and stretched out to four hours. Both Superman and King Kong received the two night treatment, with more than 45 minutes of material being added to the theatrical version to create a TV-only extended edition. No attempt was made to preserve the TV version. By the time DVD arrived and there was a thirst for this sort of long version, the elements had been discarded, lost, or destroyed. This was not the case for all TV versions - the additional footage for Star Trek: The Motion Picture was preserved and the only DVD copy of the movie includes it.

Today, of course, every scrap of unused footage is typically preserved with as much diligence as the final print. Only on rare occasions - such as topless scenes featuring Kirsten Dunst in Crazy/Beautiful and Natalie Portman in Closer - does material travel from the cutting room floor to the incinerator. There's a real sense that, going forward, one need not worry overmuch about movies being lost. But the concern is for the past and the pieces of it that are disintegrating without anyone noticing.

There's another kind of lost movie, as well - one that is "lost" only because it is being kept from audiences by rights battles or the pernicious DVD region coding plan. But that's a topic for another column on another day.