Narrowly defined, it's a motion picture abandoned by its owner. More generally, an orphan is any work that has been neglected. The term refers to all manner of films outside of the commercial mainstream: public domain materials, home movies, outtakes, unreleased films, industrial and educational movies, independent documentaries, ethnographic films, newsreels, censored material, underground works, experimental pieces, silent-era productions, stock footage, found footage, medical films, kinescopes, small-gauge films, amateur productions, surveillance footage, test reels, government films, advertisements, sponsored films, student works, and sundry other ephemeral pieces of celluloid.

For examples, visit the National Film Preservation Foundation, an institution dedicated to saving orphan films.




Dictionaries suggest at least three connotations of "orphan," each of which points to problems in the survival of films.

orphan 1. one deprived of protection or advantage (orphans of the storm).
His outtakes, like his mother's home movies, deteriorated because no archive would store or preserve them.

orphan 2. an item not developed or marketed because its limited use makes it unprofitable (an orphan drug).
Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep became an orphan film for twenty years because no distributor would pick up this challenging work.

orphan 3. a discontinued model (an orphan automobile).
The aviatrix recorded some remarkable aerial footage, but she found herself with a set of orphan films when no lab would develop her 9.5mm footage.


science films | home movies | newsreels | industrials | stock footage

found footage | surveillance footage | student films | government films

experimental films | underground works | small-gauge films | test reels

sponsored films | unreleased films | ethnographic films

silent-era productions | kinescopes





what is an ORPHAN FILM?