"I find it ironic that the interest in film preservation has grown exponentially precisely at the time when film as a medium is about to be replaced by digital technology. In other words, cinema is being taken seriously now that it's almost dead," says Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator at the George Eastman House, a film archive and school of film preservation in Rochester, N.Y.
The Library of Congress estimates that only 20 percent of feature films made in the United States in the 1910s and '20s survive today; of those features produced before 1950, only half exist. The loss of these countless shorts, silent features, and documentaries not only deprives us of our past, but also denies us the chance to experience the artists and stories that once filled theater screens.
One example: We know actor Emil Jannings won the first-ever Academy Award for best actor in 1929 for the film "The Way of All Flesh," but we'll never see his performance because copies of the film no longer exist.
The challenges of preserving film are many: Many studios kept poor records of films they produced, making it difficult to document which films need scouting. Nitrate film, the standard before 1950, was not just combustible, a characteristic that led to several infamous studio archive fires, it also contained silver, which made it more valuable than the images it contained.
One reason more than half of Méliès films are gone: The French Army confiscated and melted his prints during World War I to retrieve the silver. The rest ended up as raw material for boot heels.