How Film Restoration Works

Miriam Piorno, who works in the restoration department of the German Federal Film Archive, examines a film reel.
© Patrick Pleul/dpa/Corbis

Some movies shouldn't be revisited. Johnny Depp fans and other poor, unfortunate souls who sat through "Mortdecai" will never get those 107 minutes of their lives back. The best thing they can do is embark on a Paul Revere-esque mission to warn the moviegoing masses off from the depraved beast marching through their towns from theater to theater. Sure, there are certain flicks that are so bad that some might actually get a kick out of them. Why else would so many frat bros still have "Boondock Saints" posters tacked up on their dorm room walls?

On the other end of the spectrum are films that advance the art form and tell the story of the world in which we live. These are the "Citizen Kanes," the "Casablancas," the "Godfathers" and the "Graduates" of the film industry. When aliens descend on what's left of planet Earth thousands of years from now, these are the movies that we should want them to find. That's not to mention a whole slew of flicks that are worth hanging on to because they inform us about the world, are entertaining or are just plain fun. I don't know about you, but I certainly wouldn't have realized that there's no basement in the Alamo if it wasn't for "Pee Wee's Big Adventure."

Unfortunately, many films have been left by the wayside over the passage of time. According to the U.S. Library of Congress, less than 20 percent of American feature films from the silent era remain intact. Meanwhile, half of the movies produced in the U.S. before 1950 have already been lost.

The good news is that researchers and film buffs are working to restore and preserve the movies that we still have.