Cinema and Media Studies Orphan Films
Dan Streible
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0064


Although of unknown vernacular origin, the term “orphan film” emerged in the 1990s within discussions among archivists, referring to motion pictures abandoned by their legal owners. A decade later, the term entered scholarly cinema studies, where the concept expanded to refer to films that had suffered neglect. Archivists identified orphan films as a preservation problem. If a Copyright holder could not be identified or located, archives typically left the material untouched, rather than invest resources to preserve a film owned by others. As this problem has become better known, preservationists and archivists have lobbied for legislative relief, with limited success. The introduction of the archival term to scholarly circles has had a significant impact. For media studies, identification of the orphan film phenomenon has meant a historiographical shift: what does it mean to study the millions of obscure and neglected celluloid recordings that were not theatrical movies or art films? What does cinema history look like if the hundreds of thousands of nontheatrical films or millions of feet of home movies and newsreel outtakes are taken into account? For both historians and archivists, the broader concept of an orphan is often demonstrated by listing the variety of categories that fall under the umbrella term: sponsored films, silent shorts, home movies, scientific and experimental works, ethnographic footage, newsreel outtakes, training and educational films, medical studies, experimental and uncompleted works, and other ephemeral motion pictures. Because such productions record or create a much broader and tangibly different world than conventional moviedom does, subject specialists outside of cinema studies also study orphaned films. Since 1999, the biennial Orphan Film Symposium has convened a mix of archivists, scholars, and artists to screen and discuss neglected film and video, much of it newly preserved. Begun at the University of South Carolina, since 2008 the symposium has been supported by New York University, which continues a Web presence for symposium documents and digital viewing copies of some of the films presented, NYU Orphan Film Symposium. The symposium has led to substantive publications and DVDs; however, scholarly writing on Categories of Orphan Films comes from many sources. Note that while the medium-specificity of motion picture film is crucial to the phenomenon, increasingly the term “orphan film” has been expanded to include videotape and digital moving images.

General Overviews

Comprehensive overviews of the orphan film phenomenon remain unwritten, however several documents offer essential definitions and analyze archival applications of the term. As its title suggests, Cherchi Usai 1999 identifies the connotations of the term as it was emerging in film preservation discourse. Key to understanding that discourse is a pair of lengthy government reports published by the Library of Congress. Melville and Simmon 1993 condenses the findings of congressional hearings on film preservation, in which orphan films were first named as a key challenge. The Librarian of Congress’s ensuing national plan, Melville and Simmon 1994, prioritized work to preserve orphan films and laid out recommendations. Treasures from American Film Archives (cited under DVDs) and Farnsworth 2001 were significant in introducing the concept of orphan films to the general public. Streible 2007 examines the challenge of integrating the study of orphan films into a revisionist historiography of cinema. Like Cherchi Usai 2009, Streible also contextualizes the preservation of motion pictures on celluloid film in a digital era. Campt 2012 offers an excellent interpretive meditation on the orphan metaphor, while Frick 2008 offers a global perspective on the significance of orphaned media artifacts for traditional preservationists.

  • Campt, Tina M. Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.

    Although its subject is vernacular photographs, Campt gives an apt summary of the orphan film movement and connects her meditative historical interpretation to both its philosophical inclination (as characterized in Cherchi Usai 1999 and Cohen 2004, cited under Politics) and its valorization of home movies and amateur works. See especially chapter two (pp. 84–140), “Orphan Photos, Fugitive Images.”

  • 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, 23 September 1999.

    At the first symposium devoted to orphan film preservation, Cherchi Usai pushed the metaphor to argue that the “mother” of all films is the negative from which prints are struck. All subsequent copies over time risk becoming orphaned as they get further away from the matrix. He asserts the orphan metaphor is productive in understanding preservation in general. Edited transcript.

  • Cherchi Usai, Paolo. “Are All (Analog) Films ‘Orphans?’ A Pre-digital Appraisal.” The Moving Image 9.1 (Spring 2009): 1–18.

    An updating of Cherchi Usai 1999, in which the author considers how a lack of historical awareness about the material differences among moving image technologies—film, videotape, digital files, and pre-cinematic experiments—has led to a condition in which the survival of all recordings captured on celluloid (orphaned or not) is at risk.

  • Farnsworth, Elizabeth. “Saving Orphan Films.” PBS News Hour. Air date, 15 January 2001.

    Transcript of a segment from a News Hour episode on the American television network PBS. Farnsworth begins “They’re called ‘Orphan Films,’ old movies hidden away in archives all around the country.” Scott Simmon, curator of the first Treasures from American Film Archives DVD set, discusses excerpts from preserved films of typically orphaned genres: silent, amateur, experimental, government, and newsreels.

  • Frick, Caroline. “Beyond Hollywood: Enhancing Heritage with the ‘Orphan’ Film.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 14.4 (2008): 319–331.

    DOI: 10.1080/13527250802155828

    Not only an excellent conceptual overview of the orphan film phenomenon, this essay by archivist, curator, and scholar Frick also connects ephemeral moving image artifacts to global “heritage” preservation (traditionally concerned with sites, architecture, and landscape). Frick calls for the use of archival media to “explicate the shifting understanding and packaging of heritage sites” (p. 321). Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Melville, Annette, and Scott Simmon. Film Preservation 1993: A Study of the Current State of American Film Preservation: Report of the Librarian of Congress. Washington, DC: National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, 1993.

    The study concludes that, for preservation, there are two types of films: those with “evident market value” (with “owners able to exploit that value”) and all others, which can be collectively called “orphans,” with no “commercial potential” to fund their preservation (p. 6). The latter outnumber the Hollywood moneymakers and are at greater risk of disappearance.

  • Melville, Annette and Scott Simmon. Redefining Film Preservation: A National Plan—Recommendations of the Librarian of Congress in consultation with the National Film Preservation Board. Washington, DC: National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, 1994.

    A shift in preservation philosophy arrived with this plan’s call for federal support of orphan films, principally through “a federally chartered foundation to raise funds” (p. xiii) for their preservation. (The National Film Preservation Foundation began operation in 1997.) Invoking the testimony of scholars affirming the cultural importance of these works, the plan advocated “public responsibility for orphan films” (p. 25).

  • Streible, Dan. “The Role of Orphan Films in the 21st Century Archive.” Cinema Journal 46.3 (Spring 2007): 124–128.

    DOI: 10.1353/cj.2007.0031

    This short essay summarizes arguments for further research collaboration among moving image archivists and media scholars. Describes successful examples, particularly among interdisciplinary-minded researchers concerned with neglected and non-canonized works. Available online by subscription.

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