Orphan film

Orphan film

An orphan film is a motion picture work that has been abandoned by its owner or copyright holder; also, any film that has suffered neglect.


The exact origin of the term orphan film is unclear. By the 1990s, however, film archivists were commonly using this colloquialism to refer to motion pictures abandoned by their owners. Before the end of the decade, the phrase emerged as the governing metaphor for film preservation, first in the United States, then internationally.


Historians and archivists define the term in both a narrow and a broad sense. A report from the Librarian of Congress, Film Preservation 1993, offered a first definition. As a category of so-called orphan works, orphan films are those “that lack either clear copyright holders or commercial potential” to pay for their preservation. However, a much wider group of works fall under the orphan rubric when the term is expanded to refer to all manner of films that have been neglected. The neglect might be physical (a deteriorated film print), commercial (an unreleased movie), cultural (censored footage) or historical (a forgotten World War I-era production).

This broader conception is typically illustrated by a list of orphaned genres. In Redefining Film Preservation: A National Plan (1994), the Librarian of Congress enumerated newsreels, actuality footage, silent films, experimental works, home movies, independent fiction and documentary films, political commercials, amateur footage, along with advertising, educational and industrial films as culturally significant orphans. To this the National Film Preservation Foundation adds animation, ethnic films, anthropological footage, and fragments. (See "What Are Orphan Films")

Within a decade the epithet was adopted by scholars and educators. In The Film Experience: An Introduction (2004), for example, Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White include a section on orphan films, defining them simply as "Any sort of films that have survived but have no commercial interests to pay the costs of their preservation."

Defined in this way, more films are orphans than not. Many are more accurately described as “footage,” recordings shot on celluloid but not intended to be completed works or theatrical releases. The millions of feet of home movies and newsreel outtakes alone outnumber the quantity of film stock used to make all of the feature films ever released by Hollywood studios.

Orphan film movement

The resurgent interest in these films is due to their rich value as cultural and historical artifacts. Documentarians, filmmakers, historians, curators, collectors and scholars have joined forces with archivists because they deem orphans not only historical documents, but also evidence of alternative, suppressed, minority or forgotten histories.

Since 1999, hundreds of these devotees have gathered for the biannual Orphan Film Symposium In 2001, members of these professions began referring to an “orphan film movement.” As archivist-scholar Caroline Frick has written, some of the most active participants identify themselves as “orphanistas,” passionate advocates for saving, studying and screening neglected cinema. In 2004, visual anthropologist Emily Cohen wrote that the movement's creative and intellectual ferment constituted an “Orphanista Manifesto.” More pragmatically, in the United States the group's rising influence affected discourse and policies about copyright reform, joining the broader media reform movement. Examples of this include the 2003 Supreme Court case Eldred v. Ashcroft and the 2006 Copyright Office Report on Orphan Works There is indication that current U.S.preoccupations with orphan film preservation and copyright reform may not necessarily translate internationally. The press reports of filmmaker Martin Scorsese's announcement of a World Cinema Foundation (WCF) at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival stated that "orphan" films were to be preserved by the WCF.By 2008, however, the WCF's mission statement makes no mention of orphan film preservation, using the euphimism of "neglected" films instead. World Cinema Foundation

Even so, on June 4, 2008, the European Union announced the signing of a new "Memorandum of Understanding" on orphan works. The EU's Digital Libraries Initiative produced the statement. Signatories from included the key institutions in moving image archiving and representatives of rights-holders: Association Des Cinematheques Europeennes (ACE), the British Library, European Film Companies Alliance (EFCA), Federation Europeenne Des Realisateurs De L'audiovisuel (FERA), Federation Internationale Des Associations De Producteurs De Films (FIAPF), and the International Federation Of Film Distributors (FIAD). EU Press Release on Orphan Works

See also


  • Boyle, James, et al. Access to Orphan Films, submission to the Copyright Office, from the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Duke University Law School, March 2005.
  • Cherchi Usai, Paolo. "What Is an Orphan Film? Definition, Rationale, Controversy." Paper delivered at the symposium "Orphans of the Storm: Saving Orphan Films in the Digital Age", University of South Carolina, September 23, 1999. Transcript at http://www.sc.edu/filmsymposium/archive/orphans2001/usai.html
  • Fishman, Stephen. The Public Domain: How to Find & Use Copyright-free Writing, Music, Art, & More, 3rd ed. Berkeley, CA: Nolo, 2006.
  • Horak, Jan-Christopher. “Editor's Introduction,” The Moving Image 6.2 (2006), vi-viii.
  • Horak, Jan-Christopher. “The Strange Case of The Fall of Jerusalem: Orphans and Film Identification,” The Moving Image 5.2 (2005), 26-49.
  • Libby, Jenn. "Foundling Films: Orphans 5: Science, Industry and Education", Afterimage (May/June 2006), 11.
  • Prelinger, Rick. The Field Guide to Sponsored Films. San Francisco: National Film Preservation Foundation, 2006.
  • Prelinger, Rick, with Raegan Kelly. “Panorama Ephemera,” Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular, vol. 2.

External links

  • Orphan Film Symposium websites at New York University (Cinema Studies Dept.), and at the University of South Carolina (Film Studies Program), , including "What is an orphan film?" http://www.sc.edu/filmsymposium/orphanfilm.html

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