- The Role of Orphan Films in the 21st Century Archive
At the end of the twentieth century, a virtual paradigm shift took place in the world of U.S. film preservation. The term "orphan film" emerged as the governing metaphor among archives and preservationists, replacing the "nitrate won't wait" slogan of the 1980s. Three dictionary connotations of orphan were analogous to what film archivists meant by the label: one deprived of protection (orphans of the storm); an item not developed because it is unprofitable (an orphan drug); and a discontinued model (an orphan automobile). The migration of the term from a colloquialism among archivists to federal legislation to actual preservation practices to copyright reform has had significant impact for archives. Indeed, the multivalent phrase has also entered scholarly discourse, but not just because researchers and educators have new access to neglected archival films. Media scholars' deep interest in the varieties of alternative or nondominant media resonates with the epithet "orphan film." In turn, the orphanage has broadened its nominating rules, taking in videotape and digital formats, as the field increasingly unites film, video, and digital artifacts as "moving images." In this respect, we can fairly say that in the twenty-first century all film [celluloid] is becoming an orphaned technology. Well beyond the study of film history, advocates for public rights in digital culture (publicknowledge.org) have also adopted the orphan rubric, seeing it as a key to moderating the excesses of copyright and intellectual property law.
The term "orphan film" has uncharted vernacular origins. In research for Rick Prelinger's Field Guide to Sponsored Films (NFPF, 2006), Alex Thimmons found it used in the October 1950 issue of Industrial Marketing magazine as a warning about the obsolescence of 16 mm industrial sales movies. An archive-specific use of it appeared as early as 1992 in the Los Angeles Times, which quoted film restoration doyen Robert Gitt on silent features, newsreels, kinescopes, and two-inch videotapes as at-risk, unpreserved objects.
In 1993 the phrase peppered the hearings that preceded publication of Redefining Film Preservation: A National Plan, which formally categorized orphan films as a problem child for archives.1 The publication's coauthor, Annette Melville, steered into existence the National Film Preservation Foundation, born in 1997 to fund preservation of and access to orphan films housed in American archives and libraries. The foundation's success—as a nonprofit funder, DVD and book publisher, and public advocate—has made it easier for everyone interested in cinema beyond the contemporary Hollywood feature to discuss, even to legitimize, their [End Page 124] work in wider forums. NFPF's broad valorization of films "outside the scope of commercial preservation," including "documentaries, 'silent' movies, newsreels, ethnic films, avant-garde works, home movies, animation, anthropological footage, industrial films, and other independent works" (filmpreservation.org), continues to have a salutary impact for scholars as well as archivists.
This eclectic listing of neglected categories of motion pictures informed the conception of the Orphan Film Symposium. Since 1999, this ongoing academic-archival gathering has brought together scholars and archivists, as well as media makers, curators, and technical experts, to screen and study previously forgotten or marginalized material. The discoveries and partnerships that have sprung from these meetings speak to the utility and flexibility of the term.
Among the lessons that may be taken from these symposia: (1) the orphan film concept has international resonance, (2) the professional boundaries between academic, archivist, and artist are best blurred, and (3) the term attracts both mainstream and outsider uses.
Although the English phrase "orphan film" came from American parlance, its equivalent is being used internationally. The Nederlands Filmmuseum, for example, has been doing significant research, preservation, and presentation of what Nico de Klerk has called "foundling films" via its "Bits and Pieces" series of unidentified film fragments. He has programmed material at each of the five Orphan Film symposia, sometimes in collaboration with contemporary media artists (Gustav Deutsch, Ernie Gehr, Bill Morrison). In 2001, archivist Ivo Sarría spoke about how he and his colleagues at the Cinemateca de Cuba had been using the same metaphor—huérafanos—to conceptualize the lost and abandoned works of Cuban...