Has there been a case in which a widely famous Hollywood movie was lost and there is no longer a copy of it in existence (physically nor electronically)?

Edit: let's define "famous" as - known enough to make it to imbd's or any other large movie database.

Apologies about the confusion, I must have underestimated the extent of imdb as it indeed lists pretty much everything. What I was looking for is something that is famous enough to be remembered by a wider public and the Star Wars episode listed in one of the comments definitely makes the list!

  • 6
    Define 'famous'. Many early films were lost... Some, I'm guessing, were successful.
    – Walt
    Nov 16, 2015 at 18:07
  • 3
    Imdb catalogs everything
    – cde
    Nov 16, 2015 at 18:11
  • 4
    @Richard SWHS=Hollywood movie? It was a TV special that aired once. (Get the Rifftrax version, though. It's amazing.)
    – Walt
    Nov 16, 2015 at 18:34
  • 3
    Define "lost". There are several films that have been utterly destroyed by their studios because of scandals or because of rights issues.
    – user7812
    Nov 16, 2015 at 18:37
  • 3
    Are you just looking for cinematic films or must it originate from Hollywood, California?
    – Octopus
    Nov 17, 2015 at 20:49

4 Answers 4


Oh good lord, yes.

List of lost films (Wikipedia)

The Scorsese Film Foundation estimates that more than 90% of American films made before 1929 are totally lost. The Library of Congress estimates that 75% of all silent films are lost. Overall, 50% of American sound films made before 1950 are considered lost films. (film preservation)

Films may go missing for a variety of reasons. The big culprit is the use of nitrate film until the early 1950s. Nitrate films are highly flammable, and will decay into a powder or sticky goo that can spontaneously combust in the storage-shed conditions they were commonly stored. A fire destroyed the entire vault of pre-1935 negatives at Fox Pictures, and a fire in 1967 decimated MGM's early content. Kodak introduced a nonflammable film in 1909, but chemicals used to keep it pliable evaporated too quickly, making the film dry and brittle.

Until the preservationist movement fully kicked in, as much as half the 400,000 short sponsored films made in the US were lost, often thought of as simply disposable, or older versions were disposed of once upgraded. These are typically films made for educational, training, or religious purposes that were popular from the '40s through the 1970s. Many silent films were also simply discarded as "useless" once talkies took over entirely.

Most mainstream movies from the 1950s through today survive due to increased preservation efforts and more stable media, but even today films are lost.

Recent Losses

Some of Jackie Chan's and Sammo Hung's first roles, including Big and Little Wong Tin Bar, have been considered lost. Ed Wood's 1972 film, The Undergraduate, has been lost along with his 1970 film, Take It Out In Trade, which exists only in fragments without sound. Most of Andy Milligan's early films made between 1965 and 1988 are considered lost. Many adult films and low-budget B-Movies go unnoticed until the participants become notable, then many of their early works are simply gone.

Lost films are anything in which no part of a print is known to have survived. That does not include the much larger category of incomplete films where only bits and pieces remain.

  • 16
    The loss of early films is very poignantly represented in the recent film Hugo.
    – Catija
    Nov 16, 2015 at 19:53
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    Not exactly films, but many TV shows recorded directly onto magnetic tape have been deleted or recorded over at a later date. I believe most famously that happened to old "Doctor Who" episodes at the BBC. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Who_missing_episodes Nov 17, 2015 at 15:20
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    I expect other silent films might be lost due to legal action, though I expect such a thing would be considered unconscionable today. The studio that made Nosferatu, for instance, was ordered to destroy all copies; it only survived because they'd already shipped prints to theaters. I'm sure other films were not always so lucky. Nov 17, 2015 at 20:08
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    @KyleStrand: I wonder if the poor quality of an early animated Wizard of Oz is due to legal action having led to the destruction of the master?
    – supercat
    Nov 18, 2015 at 0:49
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    Hot Network Questions much? 49 upvotes in one day, I think thats more than all the other questions today combined ha.
    – cde
    Nov 18, 2015 at 3:46

The original version of Metropolis might count. Arguably it was completely lost (no copy exists), although there exist new restored versions of the movie from parts of it that remained. Keep in mind that new (restored) versions of the movie have had to completely refilm parts that no longer existed at all

The Wikipedia page on the film says:

Because of its long running-time and the inclusion of footage which censors found questionable, Metropolis was cut substantially after its German premiere, and large portions of the film went missing over the subsequent decades.

The original version dates from 1928 and had a running time of 153 minutes. It was the first full length movie of the sci-fi genre and at a cost of 5 million Reichsmarks was the most costly film at the time it was released.

Technically its not really a Hollywood movie as it originates from Germany, but I thought it was worth mentioning, especially since it is not listed in the List of lost films from the other answer.

  • 3
    While an interesting anecdote, this doesn't really answer the question.
    – CGCampbell
    Nov 17, 2015 at 23:27

Dead End (1985)

Emerson Bixby the director of the movie says:

"Dead End" was never released. I shot it on video with a budget of maybe fifteen hundred dollars, made several copies to send to small-time distribution companies, and nothing ever happened. None of the distributors responded, and the ten or so copies kept by myself and some of the crew are -- to my knowledge -- all that remains of "Dead End." My copy was lost in '87, and I have lost contact with pretty much everyone involved.

Not a hoax, dude, just a tiny little movie that's pretty much vanished. I've personally only met three people who have actually seen it. I've tried contacting the people who reviewed it several times, never heard back. I'd sell my spleen for a copy; of all the films I've done, this is one of the few I'm really proud of.


  • 2
    OP seems to be after a "widely famous Hollywood movie". And, I'm assuming, one that was released in theaters.
    – Walt
    Nov 16, 2015 at 18:43
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    @Walt check his edit: famous as known enough to make it to imbd
    – Pasta
    Nov 16, 2015 at 18:45
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    Fair enough. TBH, the edit just confuses me even more and I'm not quite sure what the OP is after at the moment.
    – Walt
    Nov 16, 2015 at 18:47
  • Sorry about the confusion, I have added an edit to address it.
    – eYe
    Nov 16, 2015 at 19:30
  • @Walt - I think that might be overly strict. Any movie that was released in theaters necessarily had to have hundreds or even thousands of copies made, and it's next to impossible that ALL of them were lost. Nov 17, 2015 at 15:38

There's actually a new documentary just on this very subject, Lost Emulsion (2016). Here is a link to the trailer.

A short answer is that nobody thought that people would be interested in most movies decades after they were made. Nitrate film, that was used for 35mm films up until about 1950, was very flammable, and there were disastrous film lab fires many times. A lot of early film studios went out of business and nobody wanted to pay to preserve their films. And when the sound era came in, nobody thought that anybody would want to see silent and early-sound era films. Since storing highly flammable films was expensive, many companies destroyed their old films and negatives to save money. It took TV, small guage film and later home video to make people interested in classic film. (The same thing happened with classic TV episodes of the 1960s and 1970s, as studios reused video tape to save money, erasing the only copies of many TV episodes that were recorded on video tape.)


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