The National Film Registry: Its History and Importance

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Emmy Perryman

Professor Ziebell-Mann

The National Film Registry and the

Under-representation of Films by Female Directors

December 15, 2006

The National Film Registry: Its History and Importance
In the wake of a public controversy over colorizing black-and-white classic films, the United States Congress passed the National Film Preservation Act (NFPA) of 1988. This legislation prohibited the alteration of theatrically released feature films, either through colorization or major editing, and created the National Film Registry and the National Film Preservation Board (NFPB). The mission of the Registry is to collect “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” American films that were at least 10 years old. The Act ensured that the 25 films that would be added to the Registry each year would receive the highest level of preservation and archival care at the Library of Congress. The intent was that a broad range of films be represented on the Registry (Ziegler, 1995).

In an interview with Stephen Leggett, program coordinator for both the Film and Recording Preservation Boards of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division (MBRS) of the Library of Congress, he said that the responsibilities of preservation and monitoring for altered films were too great on a budget of $250,000 a year. As an agency of the legislative branch of the federal government, the Board is not permitted to apply for grants from the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Endowment for the Humanities. Thus, in 1992, when Congress reauthorized the Board for four more years, preservation was made the Board’s sole focus. At the same time, the Registry changed its eligibility requirements—opening the door to films other than “theatrically released features” and greatly expanding the number of productions that could be considered.

Movies named to the Registry are, arguably, national treasures worthy of preservation because of their social value. Because of the additional exposure and greater public access, movies once forgotten can find a new life on the Registry (Ziegler, 1995). Once the annual list is chosen, which will be on December 27 this year, the news goes out via the Associated Press wire service and is typically picked up by trade papers such as The Hollywood Reporter and Variety as well as the Los Angeles Times and New York Times.

The studio that owns a movie named to the Registry often provides for its preservation (Leggett, 2006). For all movies named to the Registry, the Librarian of Congress endeavors to obtain an archival-quality copy and the best surviving materials, including preprints. For educational and research purposes, the Library seeks out additional materials related to the films named to the Registry such as production reports, shooting and continuity scripts, and promotional products. The Librarian, with permission of the copyright owners, also arranges or encourages public screenings of the Registry films (LOC, n.d.).

From the Screen to the Registry: Understanding the Process
According to Stephen Leggett, the selection process for the Registry includes: (a) the collection of nominations, (b) a first-round vote, (c) a meeting to discuss the vote, and (d) a confidential vote. The final decision is based on that confidential vote. Leggett receives nominations, which number in the thousands, throughout the year—until a cut-off point a few weeks before the first NFPB meeting at which the first-round vote is taken. The Board consists of 44 members and alternates who represent different facets of the film industry ranging from filmmakers to scholars and archivists. They come from organizations such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, American Film Institute, American Society of Cinematographers, and the International Photographers Guild represented by Caleb Deschanel.

The Association of Moving Image Archivists is represented by New York University Professor Dan Streible; the Directors Guild of America by Martin Scorsese and his alternate, Curtis Hanson. Other groups with representatives on the Board include the Motion Picture Association of America, National Association of Theater Owners, National Society of Film Critics, and the Department of Film and Television of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University represented by Robert Sklar. The Screen Actors Guild is represented by Melissa Gilbert.

Other members represent the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the University Film and Video Association, the UCLA Department of Film and Television of the School of Theater, Film and Television, and the Writers Guild of America. Mary Lea Bandy of the Museum of Modern Art and Susan Oxtoby of the Pacific Film Archive represent the U.S. delegation to the International Federation of Film Archives. Ten at-large members include actors Alfre Woodard and Edward James Olmos, critic Leonard Maltin, and the NFPB chair Fay Kanin.
The Listed vs. The Unlisted
Consider the breakdown of movies on the National Film Registry. To date, of the eighteen films for which women directors were involved, eleven are documentaries, five are features, and two are shorts. One of the features, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, directed by Amy Heckerling, is a recent addition to the Registry, added in 2005, Fast Times was an interesting choice, said Leggett. The Board was focusing on “high school” themed movies, among which Leggett preferred the 1989 Cameron Crowe directed Say Anything, the Board chose Fast Times, which was written by Crowe and was his earliest work. Crowe’s eventual status as a director apparently made the addition of Fast Times more of a nod to Crowe than to Heckerling.

The National Film Registry, now in its eighteenth year, has added a female-directed movie in twelve of the last seventeen years. But this has not matched the pace of women’s progress in the film industry. In 1990, the second year of the Registry, the first women to be included were directors Maya Deren and Barbara Kopple. The Board selected Deren’s 1943 avant-garde short Meshes of the Afternoon and Koppel’s Academy Award-winning 1976 documentary, Harlan County, USA.

Harlan County is a good example of the boost a film can receive as a result of listing Registry. It has been restored and preserved by the Women’s Preservation Fund and the Academy Film Archive. It was featured as part of the Sundance Collection at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. This year Harlan County, USA came out on DVD from the Criterion Collection (, a major DVD distributor noted for additional special features. In this case, the DVD version of Harlan County was restored through high-definition digital transfer. Kopple and her editor Nancy Baker provide audio commentary and there’s also a documentary entitled The Making of Harlan County, USA. Other DVD extra include outtakes, an interview with director John Sayles, and a panel discussion from the 2005 Sundance Film Festival featuring Kopple and Roger Ebert. Criterion also included a booklet with new essays by film scholar Paul Arthur and music journalist Jon Weisberger and the original theatrical trailer.

By contrast, the only DVD sold on Amazon that is attributed to the innovative and pioneering director Dorothy Arzner is one that she edited, entitled Blood and Sand (

In 1993, the 1916 Lois Weber/Phillips Smalley film Where Are My Children? was added to the Registry. The following year, the Film Preservation Board added independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke’s 1963 art house film Cool World, and, in 1996, two films by women were selected: Caroline and Frank Morris’s 1973 documentary Frank Film and Connie Field’s 1980 documentary The Life and Times of Rosie The Riveter.

In 1998, Ida Lupino’s 1954 noir feature The Hitch-Hiker became the first contemporary feature added and marked the beginning of an eight-year run for female directors on the Registry. From 1999 to 2005, 12 movies from female directors were added to the Registry: the 1936-39 documentary Trance and Dance in Bali from anthropologists Margaret Mead and her husband Gregory Bateson; Dorothy Shore’s 1912 short Land Beyond the Sunset; Esther and Raymond Dowidat’s 1939 Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther; the 1968 Elaine and Saul Bass film Why Man Creates; and the 1966 series Through Navajo Eyes, for which three of the seven parts were directed by women: Navajo Weaver and The Second Weaver by Susie Benally and The Spirit of the Navajos by Mary and Maxine Tsosie.

A documentary and a silent feature were added in 2003: the 1974 Judy Collins and Jill Godmilow film Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman and pioneering filmmaker Alice Guy Blaché’s Matrimony’s Speed Limit from 1913.

Julie Dash’s 1991 documentary Daughters of the Dust was selected in 2004 and, in 2005, an unprecedented four films from female directors were chosen: Zora Neale Hurston’s documentary Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, South Carolina, May 1940. This choice, according to Leggett, was because of the very low number of religious-themed films on the Registry. Also chosen in 2005: the 1975 Mimi Pickering documentary The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act Of Man and the 1966 documentary A Time For Burning by Barbara Cornell and Will Jersey. As noted previously, the single, woman-directed feature, chosen that year was Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (LOC, 2005).

Future Prospects

Stephen Leggett suggests that many more women will be added to the Registry within the next five to ten years, and Melissa Houghton, executive director of the Washington chapter of the international organization Women in Film and Video, agrees. But she emphasized that a number of “important films directed by women” have been overlooked: for example, Yentl in 1983 for which Barbara Streisand became the first woman to direct, produce, and star in her own movie.

Houghton also cited as “culturally important” and worthy of the Registry, Penny Marshall’s 1992 historical drama A League of Their Own, about the all-women’s baseball leagues during World War II, and Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan, the 1985 breakout film with rising-star Madonna in a featured role.

When asked why Dorothy Arzner, who many consider to be the third major female director in cinema history (after Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber) is not on the list, Leggett says that Arzner has, in fact, been nominated almost every year and is high on the list. He said that he expected that one of her films would eventually be added, but that she has up to now lacked sufficient support on the Board. To complicate matters, he said, the members had gotten bogged down in a debate over which of the Arzner films to select. The 1940 film Dance, Girl, Dance was among those mentioned, but ultimately none were chosen.

Members of the Film Preservation Board apparently see the need to play a delicate balancing role in their choices for the Registry. On the one hand, Registry listing could be a means of ensuring the preservation of less known and endangered films. Leggett suggests that, even though it is unfortunate, the Registry is simply reflecting the reality of society, and the reality is that, in cinema’s history, there have not been many female directors. One might also argue that because female directors have been such a minority in the film industry, they should be at least proportionally recognized on the Registry. But, as Leggett suggests, the public needs reference points: that is, if they see a list of 25 films they have never heard of, the Registry loses meaning for all but the film scholars and historians. However, if movie-going public sees Guy-Blaché’s 1913 Matrimony’s Speed Limit alongside Clarence Brown’s 1944 National Velvet and George Roy Hill’s 1969 Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, the significance of the Blaché film will be heightened by comparison. This, in turn, will increase the likelihood of generating interest in the film and new audiences for screening.

If the need for public reference points is in fact necessary, perhaps a goal for the Registry might be to grow in importance among movie-goers—at least to the point where the presence of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 Goodfellas is not needed on the list to validate the addition of Dorothy Shore’s 1912 Land Before Sunset. Ideally, members of the National Film Preservation Board should feel free to select for the annual Registry 25 important films that actually need preserving—whether or not those titles are well known by the public.

Aside from the advantages of preservation and public access to long-lost important works of the past, a listing of the National Film Registry offers tangible benefit of professional recognition for many contemporary filmmakers. It connotes individual distinction and suggests future potential. Indeed, not to recognize more women sends a negative message, according to Gina Kowerko, president of the Los Angeles chapter of CineWomen, an organization founded in 1990 to support women filmmakers and help them to get their projects made. “The most unfortunate reality of this void in our modern storytelling mediums is the lack of diversity and experience represented,” said Kowerko. “When certain voices are not given a chance to speak, it signifies a great illness in our society.”

In some ways, the Film Preservation Board’s under-representation of women directors on the Registry is easier to understand than the failure of women’s professional and advocacy organizations to continuously nominate and support women’s films.

Organizations and Individuals

Over the years, members of the National Film Preservation Board have chosen a number of films for the Registry based largely on the support of the organizations and the general public, said Stephen Leggett. He noted that of the nominations for consideration for the Registry that arrive on his desk every year, at least one thousand come from individuals. This makes an organized effort potentially meaningful. He pointed out that individual nominations alone had resulted in the film Hoosiers being placed on the Registry in 2001.

According to Leggett, many films on the Registry owe their Board selection to the work done by organizations that promoted them: for example, in 1996, the Japanese American National Museum lobbied for and succeeded in promoting Topaz, the secretly filmed footage shot from 1943 to 1945 at the Japanese American Internment Camp named the Topaz War Relocation Authority Center.

Similarly, the Minnesota Historical Society got the 1939 film Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther on the Registry in 2001. In 2002, the Northeast Historical Society was successful in getting From Stump to Ship, a 1930 documentary film highlighting the culture of the logging community of the state of Maine, placed on the Registry.

Action Plan: Women in Film and Video
“[Hollywood screenwriter] Francis Marion attributed her success to other women. Marion said that whenever she needed a helping hand it was a woman who provided it” (Beauchamp, 1997). With that sentiment in mind, Melissa Houghton concedes that her organization, Women in Film and Video of Washington DC, has not as of yet made “a concerted effort” with regard to the under-representation of women on the Registry. But she is new in her position and plans to make this a major initiative and her signature project. She confirmed that her chapter will take on the task of lobbying the National Film Preservation Board with helpful information and worthy nominations of films directed by women. “We are both in Washington,” she said. “This is something we should be doing.” Houghton mentioned also that, as important as it is to have female directors recognized on the Registry, it is also important to not overlook films that were written or edited by women.

As Houghton sees it, the road to the Registry has already begun with the notification and raising of member support within her own organization. Houghton is also looking, eventually, to involve other women’s and film oriented organizations and is currently compiling a list of prospective allies.

Initial discussions have taken place at the chapter level, and on March 7, 2007, all of the national chapters of the Women In Film and Television International organization (an umbrella organization which includes Ms. Houghton’s organization) will hold a panel discussion, in Washington DC, on the current status of women in the film industry.

The issue of under-representation of women on the Registry was recently added as a topic of discussion based on the research done for this paper. The panel discussion will be followed by what Houghton describes as a “mini-summit” in Toronto later in the year. The summit will include representatives of both the national and international chapters of the organization, Houghton does not expect the international chapters to share her interest in the American Registry. But she suggests that her chapter’s involvement be may be a catalyst for other chapters to do similar work in their own countries.

“There are equivalents to our Registry in other countries,” Houghton said. “I hope to raise awareness of not only of ours but of other such lists.” A testament to Houghton’s commitment to the issue, Houghton said she expects to make this a five-year project. Gina Kowerko in Los Angeles agrees that such an effort is needed. “All I can say is that we will only fight harder to be heard.”

Bibliography (2006). Harlan County, U.S.A.: Criterion collection (1976). Retrieved December 11, 2006, from Harlan-County-U-S-Criterion-Collection/dp/B000E5LEVU/sr=8-1/qid=1166041903/ref=pd_ bbs_1/104-3259240-0639112?ie=UTF8&s=dvd
Beauchamp, C. (1997). Without lying down: Francis Marion and the powerful women of early Hollywood. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Cabin Creek Films. (n.d.). Barbara Kopple biography. Retrieved December 11, 2006, from main.html
Kowerko, Gina. (2006). Personal e-mail received on October 25, 2006.
Houghton, Melissa. (2006). Personal interview conducted at Women in Film and Video office, Washington, D.C., December 8, 2006.
Leggett, Stephen. (2006). Personal interview conducted at Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., December 8, 2006.
Library of Congress. (n.d.). Public law 100-446: National Film Preservation Act of 1988. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from summ2=m&

Library of Congress. (n.d.). Public law 102-307: National Film Preservation Act of 1992. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from

Library of Congress. (2005). The National Film Preservation Board. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from film/filmabou.html

Library of Congress. (2005). Films selected to

 the National Film Registry, 

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Ziegler, A.R. (1995). The National Film Registry: Acquiring our film heritage. 1- 48. Retrieved November 9, 2006, from ERIC database.

[Created for NYU-MIAP

Access to Moving Image Collections, H72.1803 / Assignment 4

Instructor: Sarah Ziebell Mann

Created: 12/15/06

Modified: 3/5/07]

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