The Reclusive Collector, or How Films Become Lost

Film people are a different breed.  It’s a necessity.  Some of you have heard the legends about some guy who has discovered the only print of Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight (1927).  The story goes that he’s just waiting to cash in on the bonanza when the film’s copyright expires.  Well, there isn’t a bonanza.  The potential market for a video release of London After Midnight is so small that the money probably wouldn’t even cover the costs of transferring a nitrate print to video.

Film collectors don’t collect films because we want something rare and valuable (there are a few, but not many, who do that).  We collect films because we love them.  We collect films because they look beautiful on the big screen.  We collect films because we know that many will be neglected and thrown away unless we keep them.  Most of us would like to do more public shows, but the way the laws are written makes it difficult.  (See my other post on “The Marx Brothers Explain Copyright Law” for a more detailed rant on this).

The rules for public performance of music are much more civilized than they are for film.  I can even bend the artist’s intent and still get by with it.  If I decided that I wanted to become Hitler Elvis, and that I wanted to sing Elvis songs in German while doing a “Sieg Heil,” I could probably do it.  I’d have to pay the BMI/ASCAP fees and keep a record of which songs I played, but I could do it.  I use this example not because I’m advocating it, but because artistically it’s about as far from what Elvis did as I can imagine.

But for film it’s different.  Say I wanted to run a retrospective of Walt Disney movies, and I wanted to do it respectfully using quality prints.  Say I wanted to pay the proper royalties and contacted the people at the Disney corporation.  They’d file charges against me!  Sure, I can be disrespectful to Elvis for a price!  But even paying proper respect to Mickey Mouse gets the Feds at your door.

It’s much easier for a collector to sit on his collection and not let anyone see the films he has.  No hassles, no effort.  It avoids all kinds of issues.  I’ve been called evil and greedy by people who want me to release a copyrighted film on video (I won’t).  I’ve been called evil and greedy by movie studios who are upset that I saved something they threw out.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s a real story…

A number of years ago I was in an old film exchange in Vincennes, IN.  They were going to close it and throw out all the films that no one wanted.  Down in the guts of the building was a 35mm print of a film listed as Going All the Way.  I recognized the title. It was based on a best-selling novel by Dan Wakefield, and much of it was shot near my house.  The owner of the building wanted $50 for the print, so I figured I could watch it once and trade it.  At least I’d see it on a big screen.  Remember, I have 35mm projectors at my house.

How, you may ask, did a print end up here?  It happens all the time.  The studio makes a decision: “Are we going to make enough money off a future show to justify paying for return shipping on this print?”  If not, they just leave it for the owner of the theater or film exchange.  This is a long-held tradition in the film industry.  Dawson City, Alaska became the last-stop dumping ground for hundreds of silent films, and they were miraculously preserved due to the low temperatures.  The practice of dumping continues to this day, which is how I found this print.

A few years later I happened to meet the author of the book Going All the Way, Dan Wakefield, at a poetry reading.  Knowing that there’s an audience for personal appearances, I asked him if he might be willing to appear at a screening of the film if I could arrange it.  He was very nice and told me that he’d be happy to do that.  Unfortunately, I had no idea who owned the film, and he apparently didn’t, either, so that made it doubly difficult.

Like many independent films, Going All the Way only barely got made.  Even though the book was a best-seller, and Dan Wakefield is a major author, it was a tough sell.  Since there’s a fair amount of sex in it, the major studios shied away.  Studios like to make films with explosions and not ones from character-based books.

Going All the Way got sweet revenge on the studios by being one of those rare independent films with a long shelf life.  Ben Affleck appeared in it (before he became famous), which suddenly makes an obscure indie into a marketable feature.  The copyright records indicated a complex web of finances and loans. Unfortunately, I couldn’t track down who owned it for a theatrical screening.  The rights history is online, but there are video rights and theatrical rights, and all sorts of other ancillary things.   After a while it looks like buckshot on a rural stop sign.

A buddy of mine tipped me off that the theatrical rights might be owned by a particular studio.  I won’t implicate them, partly because they’re generally pretty nice, but they’re known the world around.  I called my contact there, and he told me that it was owned by a studio sub-division, and he gave me the contact information.

The lady yelled at me and screamed that I was an evil film pirate, and that they would sue me.  I thanked her and told her that I’d suddenly lost the film and I wouldn’t be showing it.  Normally, I’d offer to let the studio borrow the print or use it for remastering, but not with an attitude like that!  She confirmed that they didn’t have a negative or print material on it.  (It’s not surprising… I think I counted twelve ownership changes since the film was released.  Studios just bought rights in bulk and didn’t check to see if film shipped on every title.)

I point out that this explains why there isn’t a legitimate DVD or Blu-Ray of Going All the Way.  With the film masters missing, no one has material good enough to reissue the film.  It’s not exactly lost, but it’s the next thing to it.  We’ve got the low-definition master tape made for cable release and VHS.  That’s it.  Amazon has some bootleg DVDs made from the VHS tapes.  I’m sure they look terrible.

Let me interject here that projecting 35mm is a lot of work.  You have to change reels every 20 minutes.  It’s heavy, and everything needs to be rewound afterward.  I don’t do it unless I really need to.  So this film had been sitting in my basement, unseen, for all this time.  I will also interject that it was on Agfa stock, important because Agfa is an undated stock that a lot of independent films used, because it was pretty cheap.

Fast forward another year or two.  A film festival wants to run Going All the Way.  They want to get Mr. Wakefield to attend the screening.  They’ve heard I have a print.  They contact me and ask what I know about it.  I tell them that the owner studio is hostile, but if they can get a legal clearance, I’d be happy to let them use the print.

But first, I’d need to watch it to make sure the print is in good shape.  In all these years I hadn’t seen it.  I figured it was time.

I put in the first reel.  It was ratty and brittle, but runnable. A couple of splices made with masking tape.  Ick.  The credits came up with the title, and a 1950s car.  Looked OK.  As  I let it run, I realized that Ben Affleck wasn’t in the movie, nor was anyone else I knew from the cast.  This wasn’t the right film!

What I had gotten was a soft-core drive-in film called Goin’ All the Way (no g—that’s the key).  I hadn’t known it because it was on undated film stock. I never had the film that I thought I’d had.  The festival ran the correct movie from VHS (gag). All that work to track down the owners and the rights, threats of lawsuits, and nothing!

And still, it’s possible that Going All the Way will never be recovered on film.  It was made in 1997!  If this film were a person, he wouldn’t be old enough to drink yet!

This is how films become lost.  It’s also how collectors, people who want to play the rules, will say, “I don’t have that.  I don’t know anything about it.”

No wonder that 50% of all films made before 1950 are said to be lost today.

18 thoughts on “The Reclusive Collector, or How Films Become Lost”

  1. And this is a SHAME! One wonders why films are not accorded the respect that other arts enjoy–indeed, why film is scarcely considered one of the arts at all.
    I read the novel of which you speak, given that it has a fact-based Indianapolis setting, and had very much wanted to see the film. It looks as if I never shall.
    Keep trying, Dr. Film. Don’t horde your valuable films, share them with us. Of course, sadly, they are worth very little from a monetary point of view, But from a historical and artistic standpoint–priceless!

  2. It is a shame. The good news is that there’s a paper trail on this, and if someone really wanted to, he might be able to trace back who bought what from whom and find the film negative. So many films aren’t even as fortunate as this one. A brief moment of glory in theaters and then consigned to the great nothing.

    This is what the blog is about, and the Dr. Film show (when and if it hits the air) is about what makes the movies tick, especially the neglected ones. Stick with us, and bug more people to come to the site!

    1. I’ve been trying to get Lombard shows off the ground for years. I even have a print of her appearance in a rare short called Smith’s Pony from Sennett. On those rare times I get people to do a Lombard show, I introduce it this way: Carole had the career that Bette Davis wanted. Different roles, different genres, control over what she did, etc. One of the reasons it’s so hard to see some of her work is that she worked at different studios at different times, whereas people like Davis were always at Warners. I’ve never seen a good print of Swing High, Swing Low and I had to give up trying to get a theatrical booking for To Be or Not to Be.

  3. Hi Eric:
    I know only too well what you’re talking about. We’re still trying to work something out on “Ghost of Sierra de Cobre” with CBS & MGM, but who knows if it will ever happen. I’m afraid it might cost us more than we could ever recoup, & there’s no way of knowing how many dvds would sell to make it worthwhile. The public has no idea how complicated contracts are, & how little rights can mean.

    1. Oh, Marilyn, this is one of the saddest cases I know, because “The Haunted/Ghost of Sierra de Cobre” is so WONDERFUL! This was a pilot made by the great Joseph Stefano for CBS. I’ve seen one version of it. It’s absolutely fantastic, and it can’t be shown. A tragedy.

      I give Ms. Stefano a big hand for trying so hard to get the show out there. Let’s hope more people can thank you and Joe someday when they actually see it.

  4. Well, the woman who called you a pirate was an idiot who in fact sabatoged the interests of her employer. Hopefully she reported her conversation at the next staff meeting and was unceremoniously sacked. Surely there must be enlightened studio employees that understand that working with the holder of a potentially marketable print in no way compromises their rights. Had it been an early Ben Affleck appearance, might have generated some small amount of income. There are morons in positions of power in every field. I once worked for Warner Amex of Dallas at a time the CEO publically vowed to sue his way to profitability if need be. The company quickly went into the dustbin of business history. Does Warner Amex still provide cable service anywhere in the US?

    1. When you get bullied by an 800 pound gorilla (like a movie studio), it doesn’t really matter whether the bully is right or wrong. You just have to wait out the pounding. The bully is stronger than you are and will prevail.

  5. Absolutely fascinating story, Eric. I’m glad I found your blog! Haven’t seen you since Usenet, which I think blew up, fell over, and sank into a swamp back in 2002.

  6. By the way, Eric, is there an email address you can be reached at? Drop me a line at glitterninja (at), I have a question for you.

    1. Yes, there is. It’s all over the web page that hosts this blog. You’re telling me that I’ve been unsuccessful in my attempt to get people to look at my web site by having a blog here. I’m trying to sell a TV show, Dr. Film, which would feature lost and not-quite-so-lost films.

      1. Truly great and informative post that tells it like it is (and in your way, trying to shed light on this problem as Kevin Brownlow did recently using his Oscar glory as a soapbox.) Oh and by the way, I TAKE THIS WOMAN was discovered, saved and preserved via the only known existing 16mm print by film collector and preservationist, Tom Toth. I’m really amazed that it wasn’t at all mentioned in that piece.

        1. Thanks, Bruce. The sad part is that probably a huge majority of those films that have been recovered in recent years have come from collectors. It’s not particularly hard to find a lost film. Most collectors I know have one or two. The question is whether anyone cares to see them, and worse still, whether anyone wants to preserve them. Brownlow’s comments are wonderful and it is my sincerest hope that they fall on receptive ears. If anyone reading this hasn’t heard what he said, I encourage you to click here to see the speech.

        2. By the way, for anyone reading through the comments, Bruce is referring to Carole Lombard’s I Take This Woman, which was only recovered because Toth found a print that Mary Roberts Reinhart had owned. A major film from a major studio, with big stars, almost lost.

          1. So maybe somewhere, someday, _London After Midnight_ will really be found. It could happen, maybe? For myself, besides that, I’d love to see the lost Theda Baras, Clara Bows, etc.
            And yet, I’m horrified to think how many much more recent films from the 1950s-70s that I hope someday to see again may be no more. I just don’t understand the whole attitude about films. It’s like Bogdanovich said, comparing the art of film to the art of music–let’s just throw out this OLD Mozart stuff. That sounds ludicrous to us, and yet the studios (largely) are responsible for the loss of some of their greatest works of film, never to be seen again.

          2. If London After Midnight is ever found, it will be in a foreign archive under a weird alternate title. I wouldn’t hold out much hope, although these things do happen. It’s probably more likely to find a Theda Bara or Clara Bow. Many more films from the 50s-70s are dying of the Curse of Eastman Color, and that’s a sad problem. Films make more money on first release than most other art forms, but they are also viewed by the public as completely expendable. We still all love and revere The Beatles, but the movie stars of the 60s are fading already…

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