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Seven Reasons Why Documentaries Go Missing

By Melissa d'Lando

Photograph of  Susan Bodine, Mary Harron, Mira Nair, Ira Deutchman (L to R) at a Missing Movies panel at Tribeca.

Photograph of Susan Bodine, Mary Harron, Mira Nair, Ira Deutchman (L to R) at a Missing Movies panel at Tribeca.

In November 2020, a group of filmmakers met via a Directors Guild of America Zoom panel to discuss a harrowing commonality: missing films. On this panel—aptly titled “The Unstreamables”—were several acclaimed filmmakers, including Nancy Savoca, Ayoka Chenzira, and Ira Deutchman. Also present was Amy Heller, co-founder (along with Dennis Doros) of Milestone Films. Founded in 1990, Milestone has been an industry trailblazer in the restoration and distribution of films beyond the scope of mainstream Hollywood, frequently rediscovering films for general audiences. Its catalog is now being handled by Kino Lorber.

For Amy and Dennis, the urgency of the issues in the discussion spoke deeply to the ethos of their life’s work. Why and how were so many contemporary filmmakers losing their films? What were the implications of this loss? What could be done to combat it? Surprising evidence emerged that varied industry stakeholders—including filmmakers, distributors, academics, archivists, and attorneys—knew little about one another and, thus, how they could potentially ally to prevent missing movies. Thus, Missing Movies was born. 

Newly a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Missing Movies is an all-volunteer-run coalition established to call broader attention to the widespread loss of contemporary films. The coalition defines a missing film as one that “cannot be seen by the general public in the most accessible, legally available formats” for reasons that include missing materials, missing rights, and issues with distribution, all of which result in a lack of broad availability for purchase via streaming or home video formats. 

Missing Movies has amassed an exhaustive and ever-growing database of at least 1,400 films, which includes many works that used to be broadly available, including The Heartbreak Kid (1972) and I Shot Andy Warhol (1996). Documentaries appearing on the list include award-winning and Oscar-nominated works by acclaimed filmmakers including Albert Maysles (Christo in Paris, 1991); David Bradbury (Academy Award–nominated Chile: ¿Hasta Cuando?, 1986); Marco Williams (In Search of Our Fathers, 1992); Penelope Spheeris (We Sold Our Souls for Rock ’n Roll, 2001); and Barbara Margolis (Are We Winning, Mommy?, 1986).

Why Do Documentaries Vanish?

To date, roughly 10% of the films cataloged by Missing Movies are documentaries, a percentage Amy believes could be significantly greater. For example, My Architect (2003), Nathaniel Kahn’s Oscar-nominated love letter to his renowned architect father, Louis Kahn, experienced a near decade of unavailability after its distributor went bankrupt. The film is now available, but this anecdote underscores the frequency with which these issues impact less-resourced documentarians. Conversation with Amy and Dennis revealed the following seven factors that uniquely and urgently impact why documentary films may go missing:

1. Rights Issues With Archival Materials

Documentary film is far likelier than fiction to incorporate outside footage, which, along with the use of music, can pose a challenge in regard to fair use and obtaining rights. Fair use, which permits the use of copyrighted materials for certain purposes without the need for payment or permission, is now a widely accepted practice within the documentary ecosystem. However, this was not always the case, and the end of the 20th century saw a sharp increase in licensing fees, placing a burden on documentary filmmakers. Even after the films were finished, these filmmakers faced subsequent legal challenges or difficulties with distribution. During the past 20 years, as documentary filmmakers grew increasingly vocal about these challenges, legal experts, including former IDA Board President Michael Donaldson, successfully battled the issue. The landmark 2006 release of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a documentary critically detailing the MPAA’s ratings system, successfully deployed fair use law in its usage of more than 300 clips from other films.

Though legal issues have arisen since (notably, the filmmakers of Room 237 [2012]—which examines the ardent fandom of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining—were unsuccessfully sued by Kubrick’s estate), fair use law has been working in favor of documentary filmmakers. However, prior to its widespread adoption, films were not licensed for perpetuity, and the renewal of rights to certain pieces of footage or music was prohibitively costly, which condemned many documentaries to obscurity.

2. Mass Closures of Film Labs

Kodak’s 2005 discontinuation of several key types of film stock, wrought by the rapid adoption of digital, resulted in the broad closure of film labs. This resulted in stored materials being sent elsewhere, donated, auctioned off, put hastily in storage elsewhere, or completely lost. Because the vast majority of documentaries are produced independently, they were more likely to be stored in smaller, more independent labs to begin with, resulting in a greater volume of loss. For example, the majority of soundtracks for films produced at DuArt, a New York lab frequently used by independent filmmakers that shut down in 2021, were stored at the Sound One lab. The hasty closure of Sound One in 2012 resulted in the disappearance of the original mag tracks for most of these films. 

3. Disbanded Ownership and Tax Loopholes

Because documentaries are often made by small production companies, they are more vulnerable to changes in legalities. Documentary films were more likely to have multiple investors, resulting in temporary LLC entity partnerships. These entities, which were typically created for a single production and then dissolved, held copyright to the final product. Decades later, this nebulous ownership increases the likelihood of rights issues because of difficulty in vetting who—or what—has final say or holds the original paperwork.

In addition, tax laws evolved in the 1980s and 1990s, removing a loophole wherein films that didn’t make money could be considered a tax write-off. The loss of this loophole resulted in many smaller production companies immediately ceasing production and the subsequent loss of the opportunity to create small multiple-investor LLC entities. Conflicting interests, in which there is involvement from multiple stakeholders, persists. 

4. Obsolete Media Formats

Rapidly evolving technology means video masters must be regularly migrated and updated as formats quickly become outdated. Those without the means to do so might find their work relegated exclusively to obsolete forms of media. Documentary filmmakers in particular were early adopters of video formats including BetacamSP, DigiBeta, U-matic, Portapak, and Pixelvision due to the flexibility these formats offered for filming in lower-light situations, tighter spaces, and unusual locations. Now, the best or often only existing master for many of these films is in a format too low-resolution for distribution. Moreover, equipment that can successfully transfer these video formats to digital is either challenging to come by or nonexistent. This issue will accelerate in coming years, as a rapid uptick in digital creation has resulted in a vast amount of documentary digital masters being stored on hard drives and cloud services, which will also require future migration and updates.

5. Challenges of Archival Restoration

Because documentaries frequently incorporate varied sources of footage, restoration and preservation needs can be greater in terms of time and financing, often prohibitively. A 2022 Hollywood Reporter profile on the recent rise in documentaries’ streaming popularity specifically noted the “extensive and expensive picture and sound restoration” required of archival documentaries. 

6. Limited Educational and Broadcast Rights 

Many documentaries have an educational slant. For this reason, educational distributors have accumulated a vast catalog of documentaries that have costly educational licenses and result in a widespread loss of accessibility for the general public. For example, nontheatrical distributors such as California Newsreel, Third World Newsreel, and Women Make Movies typically charge several hundred dollars for DVD or digital licenses. These fees, structured for libraries and classrooms who will screen a single title multiple times, are not suitable for individual or private use like home video sales, and are priced accordingly.

Similarly, many documentaries were originally produced for TV broadcast, such as on PBS. These films are simply not as widely available, as the only licensed rights are broadcast. Despite documentaries thriving on streaming services, there is less diversity regarding the content seen by audiences. Broadcasters such as HBO, who formerly released their films on theatrical and home video circuits, have scaled back their operations and slates.

7. Subversive Content

Documentary film is likelier to tackle controversial, subversive, and niche issues—all elements that cause films to either fall into obscurity more easily or, in certain cases, be intentionally buried. A noteworthy example is Fredrick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967), which exposed inhumane conditions in a correctional institution in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Though it won awards, the film was swiftly condemned due to its harrowing material, with all copies of the film being ordered destroyed by the Massachusetts Supreme Court. It was not seen again by the general public until it aired on PBS in 1992. 

Let’s Save These Docs

The reasons a documentary may go missing are many and complex, but under-resourced artists are likeliest to find that their work has been lost. And because documentarians are overwhelmingly likely to be working in the independent sector, struggling to make a living from their craft, they have been overwhelmingly impacted by this loss.

Broadly, the work being done by Missing Movies aims to not only call attention to the vast number of films that are presently unavailable but also arm today’s filmmakers with the tools they need to avoid the same fate.

Resources currently available or being developed to continue broadening the Missing Movies community and combat the epidemic of missing films include:

  • A website (currently in development) with a step-by-step guide to aid both film audiences and filmmakers in their search for missing films, including both materials and rights.
  • Outreach events designed to inspire community growth and cooperation. To date, panels have been held at NYFF, SXSW, Tribeca, and TCM Film Fest, with an upcoming one planned for DOC NYC. A webinar has also been held with the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA).
  • A repository for information on proactive steps filmmakers can take to ensure their films are protected from loss in perpetuity. This will include methods for ensuring proper storage of contracts, rights clearances, and film masters, in addition to tips on planning for the future through the creation of preservation masters and sharing that information with any archives that may be storing their materials. Also available will be continuous updates on the chain of copyright and distribution statuses, so filmmakers can stay abreast of important changes that may impact their work.
  • Volunteer opportunities that range from legal to website-building to promotion. As a small, grassroots, all-volunteer-run initiative, Missing Movies relies on volunteers and welcomes the involvement of anyone in the business with expertise to lend.

Dennis noted that he hopes the Missing Movies initiative will gradually connect with more people who have worked on lesser-known works, including regional, independent, and student films, many of which are documentaries. For those in the greater IDA community who have been impacted by the loss of their own work, you are encouraged to reach out

Melissa D’Lando is IDA’s Grants Manager. She has worked as a grant writer for the Association of Moving Image Archivists, and has an academic background in history and film, and experience working as a film archivist.