291: Missing Movies

Archival Spaces 291

The “Missing Movies” Manifesto

Uploaded 18 March 2022

Missing Movies Poster

Recently, film director Nancy Savoca and screenwriting partner, Richard Guay realized that their 1993 film, Household Saints, could not be screened at Columbia University, because of copyright problems. Nancy eventually worked with her lawyer, Susan Bodine, and Ira Deutchman, the film’s original distributor, to make the film accessible again. But in the process, she realized that many independently produced films from the 1970s through the 1990s were similarly unavailable, often due to legal issues. She organized a panel discussion at a Director’s Guild of America event in November 2021, resulting in the creation of a new advocacy organization, “Missing Movies,” which has now published a manifesto  (https://missingmovies.org/the-missing-movies-manifesto/), and has begun fundraising.

Nancy Savoca

Missing Movies” was founded by Nancy Savoca, Richard Guayu, Ira Deutchman, Susan Bodine,  filmmakers Mary Harron and Shola Lynch, and Dennis Doros and Amy Heller. The last-named, parents of Milestone Films, who have for decades been a major force in film distribution and film preservation. Besides being a filmmaker, Shola Lynch is also the curator of the New York Public Library’s Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture.  According to their new website, an advisory board has also been formed that includes Mira Nair, Maggie Renzi, Allison Anders, Maggie Greenwald, Dolly Hall, Allyson Nadia Field, Ruby Lerner, and Tanya De Angelis.

Mississippi Masala (1991, Mira Nair)

In the film archival world, there are always two issues confronting film preservationists: 1. Who has the original negatives or other pre-print material to produce new digital masters and 2. Who owns the copyright for public exhibition. In some cases, the film material itself has been lost, or only degraded versions are available, in other cases, the rights have been lost. This is especially true for independent features from the last forty years because such films were often sold to distributors for a limited period of time, e.g. ten years, with the rights then reverting to the original owner. But finding the owner can be tricky because rights are often bought, sold, or inherited by parties who are not necessarily in the business. Without rights from an owner, a film preservationist cannot legally make copies or preserve a given film title.

Annihilation of Fish (1999, Charles Burnett)

The “Missing Movies” Manifesto begins provocatively: “Movie audiences are being told that streaming has made the entire history of cinema available for a simple subscription fee – or at least a couple of dozen subscription fees. This is not true.” In fact, “Thousands of movies are either completely lost or are deemed too small to warrant the expense and are thus completely unavailable. This is especially true of work created by women and people of color.” The issue is that third-party rights-holders of independent feature films fear the cost of preservation and access. Today that means making digital masters and storing them in a safe environment, which because of the cost of computer storage and maintenance is a very expensive proposition. BTW, the cost of storage has not dropped significantly, despite the industry’s assurances that it would.

I also believe it is a truism that the number of commercially accessible films keeps shrinking. Of all the films made in history, only a percentage was even transferred to analog video technology, either from 35mm or 16mm. Given the relatively low cost of analog VHS tape, smaller companies could afford to bring older historical films into the market. Already the shift to DVDs drastically limited access, while the streaming market has further reduced access to film history’s riches.  

True Love (1989)
True Love (1989, Nancy Savoca)

In any case, Nancy Savoca has cause for concern. Her debut film and a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, True Love (1989), made Annabella Sciorra a star, but is now on the organization’s list of “missing films.” Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1991), a Venice Film Festival winner and another indie hit by a woman of color, and Mary Herron’s I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) also make the list, which includes numerous classics:  Ali, the Fighter (1975, Bill Greaves), Annihilation of Fish (1999, Charles Burnett), Black Girl (1972, Ossie Davis), The Cool World (1964, Shirley Clarke), The Heartbreak Kid (1972, Elaine May), The Kiss of the Spider Woman (1986, Hector Babenco), Memory of Justice (1976, Marcel Ophuls), Nothing but Common Sense (1972, St. Clair Bourne), The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1972, Gordon Davidson), Union City (1980, Marcus Reichert). Dennis Doros tells me that the actual list is already much longer than the thirty-plus titles on the “Missing” website, probably already in the hundreds of titles.

Heartbreak Kid (1972, Elaine May)

To begin the process of resolving this challenging situation, the “Missing Movies” Manifesto states that they “will work to demystify and help decipher the economic, legal, and practical hurdles that filmmakers face when they want to make their older works available.” Those challenges include: researching contractual rights, deciphering underlying rights, locating master materials, and making new digital masters. However, this is a very ambitious, long-term plan that will be predicated on financing. In the short term, “Missing Movies’” goals are much more modest and doable because they involve volunteer help:  1. Publicize the need to filmmakers, other stakeholders, and the public; 2. Identify “missing films” and create a database. 3. Create a guide for filmmakers to help them research films. 4. Create FAQs for common issues. 5. Create case studies of success stories involving renewed access. 6. Create a website for all the organization’s activities.

This program reminds me of very similar efforts we undertook with our Sundance film preservation partners when I was Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive. To get filmmakers screening their work at Sundance to think about making sure they have a plan for the long-term survival of their work was daunting. We held events at Sundance, put together brochures with an easy step-by-step guide, but filmmakers were usually more concerned with their next film. It is probably no accident that many of the participating filmmakers in the present endeavor are of an age when they actually do start thinking about their legacy and are therefore involved in what is a very admirable effort.   

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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