According to the Library of Congress, of the nearly 11,000 feature films produced in America up to 1929 in the silent film era, only about 3,300 (or 30%) are known to have survived. Even though each film was released with anywhere from dozens to several hundred prints, the overwhelming majority of these prints wore out, burned in fires, were recycled for their silver content, or simply disintegrated when their cellulose nitrate plastic base decomposed. The survival percentage for short films produced since the 1890s is probably even lower, but is not known with certainty. While the survival rate of sync-sound films is much higher, a significant number of these, particularly from the early 1930s are also missing.
However even early American films were given worldwide distribution. As a result many U.S.-made films survive in the hands of foreign archives and collections.
IFE has created the International Archive Nitrate Triage (IANT) project for the purpose of finding lost films, in cooperation with the UCLA Film & Television Archive. This multi-year ongoing project, involves on-site visits to foreign film archives for the purpose of examining, describing and reporting on their collections. Many national archives are primarily tasked with preserving the film heritage of their own nation and do not have the resources to fully report on the prints and foreign negatives of American films in their collections.
In it’s first year, 2015, the IANT project visited 8 film archives in 7 different countries. Lost American films were found in 6 of those 8 archives. In addition to the lost films found, the IANT project was also able to obtain details on many more films that were known to survive, but only in foreign archives with few details available on condition, completeness and sometimes even film stock and format. Obtaining this information is valuable, as it can be used by American archives to find the best sources for future preservation projects.
While there are other valuable efforts to preserve American films from foreign archives that have voluntarily opened themselves up for large scale repatriation projects, the IANT project is able to visit archives that currently are only open to limited repatriation projects, thereby gathering information that can be invaluable for planning future work.
The IANT project has proven its value to the National Film Preservation Foundation, and has been lauded by archivists from the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film & Television archive and other organizations concerned with saving our moving image heritage.