The ultimate film scavenger story is the one about the man who found an complete print of Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in the broom closet of a sanitarium. Though modern-day collectors can't hope for a find of that magnitude, they can at least be proud of the forgotten gems that they have launched back into circulation. Many of today's finds come from videotapes of old television broadcasts. Otto Preminger's notorious Skidoo (1968) -- with images of Groucho Marx toking up -- for example, has been unavailable for years, and now it can be had from Don Hicks' Subterranean Cinema.
Author Jack Stevenson (Land of a Thousand Balconies: Discoveries & Confessions of a B-Movie Archaeologist) is one such "archaeologist," and he describes scooping through rotted cardboard boxes in a flooded San Francisco basement to save a collection of trailers for triple-X gay porno films. Stevenson makes a meager living touring with his collection, showing films like Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965). "There is nothing definitive or encyclopaedic about my collection," he says. "It's chaos. I run the original prints at shows and I don't store the prints in a temperature-controlled vault. One thing I hate about proper archives is that they preserve the films, often putting them in a deep freeze, but never show them. Films should be shown."
Copyright issues become a gray area. Some collectors believe that, since the films are not officially owned and distributed by anyone, they're fair game. Others claim to follow copyright law, and still others operate through legal loopholes. Some of these renegades believe in keeping the film experience pure, while others wish to make the film widely available. Still others operate like detectives, tracking down films for individual customers. Hicks believes rare-film collecting can only flourish in the internet age. "Internet file trading is the real future, now that broadband speeds allow films to be transferred in less time than it takes to actually watch the film. I believe it will spell the end of conventional movie theaters."