Although it may seem that films are now more accessible than ever, it’s simply not the case for independent film history.
“The truth is that movies are simply not as available today as they were during the heyday of VHS when some brick-and-mortar video stores carried tens of thousands of titles,” the manifesto for indie film preservation group Missing Movies states. “Now, with a few giant companies controlling the most popular streaming services and trying to outdo one another with original content, many older movies are being left behind.”
A collaborative effort between filmmakers and cinephiles, Missing Movies sets out to “empower filmmakers, distributors, archivists, and others to locate lost materials, clear rights, and advocate for policies and laws to make the full range of our cinema history available to all,” as IndieWire can exclusively share.
Founding Missing Movies filmmakers include Mary Harron, Shola Lynch, Nancy Savoca, Ira Deutchman, and Richard Guay, along with entertainment lawyer Susan Bodine and archivists and distributors Dennis Doros and Amy Heller.
Missing Movies began after directors Savoca and Guay discovered that their 1993 film, “Household Saints,” could not screen in a retrospective at Columbia University because of ownership issues.
According to Savoca, “We began an extensive research project, and with the help of our lawyer, Sue Bodine and the original distributor of the film, Ira Deutchman, we were finally able to create a scenario where the film could be made available again. In talking to other filmmakers about our journey, we realized that many other films — particularly independent films made in the 1980s and 1990s — were in similar straits.”
Savoca and Guay organized a panel discussion with the Directors Guild of America in November 2021 to share their concerns with other filmmakers, which led to the creation of Missing Movies.
“It’s super personal because we make our movies out of passion and there’s a story that we want to tell, and we want people to see them,” writer-director Savoca exclusively told IndieWire. “In the ’90s, there was this incredible opportunity where people — streamers or distributors — needed content and they funded these sort of unusual projects. You make a movie like this as a filmmaker in the ’90s, and when you get it done, you’re just relieved that it exists. You don’t think too much down the line; you’re exhausted. And then technology started changing. Our movie was made for home video, although it had a theatrical release. And then DVDs came out and our movie didn’t make it being transferred to DVD. We really thought it was out of our hands, and that’s kind of what’s heartbreaking because you spend all this time hoping it’s there and then it disappears on you, it disappears on the audience.”
Hopefully, with Missing Movies’ mission, there will be no such things as “lost” films in the future, with movies no longer unavailable because of a confusion around rights and ownership, or difficulties locating the original prints.
Savoca encouraged filmmakers to ask: “Do you have the rights? Who are the people who have the rights? Are they still alive? Does the company still exist?”
She added, “Each movie has its own story. We all have a problem. We’re some of the ’80s, ’90s people and we know this problem exists going way back and is going to become a problem way forward. It became a big, universal problem, and if it’s that big, maybe we can do something about it. We want to be a resource to let people know maybe there is something you can do.”
The priority to maintain “mainstream” films is also something Missing Movies hopes to challenge.
“Really this is about especially appreciating the works coming from the non-mainstream filmmakers, the non-mainstream stories,” Savoca said. “Today we’re really recognizing how huge and how valuable these stories are, whether they are LGBTQ+ films, African-American or African diaspora films, films from Latin America. We have a lot of movies to take care of.”
Even award-winning films like Victor Nuñez’s “Gal Young Un” or Muffie Meyer’s “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” are unavailable to watch today.
“It’s pretty clear that a lot of these movies need to have support from people who understand the value of them,” Savoca continued. “The audience is there, but the audience goes looking for it and can’t find them.”
And the Missing Movies mission is equally as focused on smaller works: “We don’t know who in the future is going to want to see — or even now, we needs to see — a movie that didn’t get awards,” Savoca said. “It doesn’t matter. If you have a film and you want to preserve it, here’s how you begin to do it.”
The democratization of the preservation process is what Missing Movies hopes to achieve, so filmmakers can help “bend the system” and adapt.
“Every time you want to preserve a film, it takes tens of thousands of dollars to restore a movie and to digitize it, and then to make it available in whatever the latest technology is. If you don’t have that money, have those resources, or have those insider friends, what do you do? Where do you go? That’s where we want to help,” Savoca said, citing the goal of a “how to” guideline for filmmakers.
“We want to empower individuals so that they can join a group and figure out how to plug back into the audiences. We just know that we can’t wait to figure out this problem. We’re hoping to have a platform so people can share their stories.”
By advocating for revisions in copyright law, the Missing Movies non-profit hopes to create a fuller picture of American cinematic history through preservation. The Working Group includes Mary Harron, Shola Lynch, Nancy Savoca, Ira Deutchman, Richard Guay, Amy Heller, Dennis Doros, and Susan Bodine. The Advisory Group consists of Mira Nair, Maggie Renzi, Allison Anders, Maggie Greenwald, Dolly Hall, Allyson Nadia Field, Ruby Lerner, and Tanya DeAngelis.
A sample list of Missing Movies projects include:
“Eat the Document” (1972, directed by D.A. Pennebaker and Bob Dylan)
“The Heartbreak Kid” (1972, directed by Elaine May)
“That Rhythm, Those Blues” (1988, directed by George T. Nierenberg)
“I Shot Andy Warhol” (1996, directed by Mary Harron)
“Lanton Mills” (1969, directed by Terrence Malick)
“True Love” (1989, directed by Nancy Savoca)
“Baby Face Nelson” (1957, Don Siegel)
“Angela Davis: Portrait of a Revolutionary” (1971, directed by Yolande DuLuart)
“Angelo My Love” (1983 directed by Robert Duvall)
But that’s just the “tip of the iceberg,” according to Savoca.
“I think that everyone who wants to work on this is on fire about getting stories back, connected to people,” Savoca said. “I feel so optimistic about how we’re going to help each other do this.”