It has been estimated that 90% of silent films made in the United States were lost while it was estimated that 75% of all silent films were lost, and it's been estimated that half of all movies made from 1927 to 1950 were lost. Valeska Suratt, pictured to the right, made eleven films in her career, all of which are now lost.
Though extremely rare, a lost film can still be rediscovered years later, though sometimes footage is lost or is incomplete. The reason some silent films and early talkies still exist today were because some actors, such as Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, became early champions of film preservation allowing for most of their work to survive, although a fire near Harold Lloyd's mansion destroyed one of his film vaults, destroying a large number of his silent films.
Reasons For a Lost Film
- Intentional Destruction: This was the largest reason why most silent films are lost today. In 1927, the first talkie, The Jazz Singer arrived and by 1930, most film companies concluded that silent films no longer had any monetary value at all and destroyed the prints for vault space. In addition, because television and home video were not created yet, it was widely believed that most films would lose value once their theatrical runs ended so many talkies were also destroyed.
- Nitrate film: Before 1952, nearly all 35 mm and prints were made of nitrocellulose, which was a very flammable material. In poor conditions, this film could easily catch fire and even destroy a vault full of films which have occurred. In addition this material was highly unstable and could decay into a powder similar to gunpowder. Some nitrate films are still in very good condition while others decayed within twenty years.
- Separate Soundtracks: Some of the early talkies required a sound-on-disk with separate soundtrack that played on special phonographs. If these sound-on-disks could not be found, it was believed that the film's chance at success would be less successful and would be scrapped.
- FoodFight!: The film began development in early 1999 then it was originally going to be released in 2003, but the hard drives containing the film's files were reportedly stolen in an act of "industrial espionage" in 2002, forcing the filmmakers to start over from scratch. The film was eventually released in 2012, but it was near universally panned.
- Shrek (original version): Well-known SNL comedian, Chris Farley, originally voiced Shrek in an early draft of the film. Unfortunately, with about 95% of the film's dialogue finished (his role included), Farley died from a drug overdose on December 18, 1997 at the age of 33, still working on the film just a week before his death. There were talks of having a vocal impersonator brought in to record the remaining lines, but ultimately, fellow SNL cast member Mike Myers was hired and the script was re-written, becoming the Academy Award-winning film we all know and love.
- Toy Story (original version): Then at-time Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted the movie to be more cynical and adult, including making Woody a bigger jerk (like purposefully knocking Buzz Lightyear out of Andy's room and being rude to Andy's other toys). Then, when it came to its screening, known as the "Black Friday reel", it was a total disaster, with at-time Disney president Peter Schneider calling it the worst movie he had ever seen. The production of the movie was shut down and Pixar was given time to rewrite the screenplay into what they wanted, including making Woody a more sympathetic character and making the movie more family-friendly. The final movie was a huge hit at the box office and successfully launched Pixar as a dominant animation studio.
- Different from the Others (also known as Anders als die Andern in its native Germany) is a 1919 film that is probably one of the saddest cases of a (almost) lost film, as it was one of the first films to portray homosexuality sympathetically (which was rare for its time). A majority of the film's prints ended up being destroyed by the Nazis and was thought to be lost. However, it turned out that one of the film's prints indeed survive Nazi persecution in 1970 with a 50 minute print that still had a majority of the film's plot intact. It was soon restored as a found film with a significant cult following praising the film for being way ahead of its time, much to everyone's relief.
- Some films have scenes that were removed before the final cut after negative reactions from test audiences. A large number of these scenes have yet to see the light of day.