David Shepard, Silent Film Preservation Giant, Dies at 76

David Shepard - Publicity -sq 2017
Courtesy Photo

He restored most of the silent films in today's DVD and video collections.

David Shepard, a silent film preservation giant and archivist, has died. He was 76.

Shepard died Tuesday night in a hospice in Oregon after a long illness, Shirley Hughes, director of the Toronto Silent Film Festival, confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter.

"He was extremely important for film preservation, restoration and advocacy. He was an intelligent and generous man with his time, his expertise and unfailingly enthusiasm for silent film," Hughes said in a statement.

U.S. distributor Kino Lorber, who collaborated with Shepard on a host of silent film releases, also paid tribute to the film preservation champion. "It is with much sadness that Kino Lorber bids farewell to one of its longtime collaborators, film preservationist David Shepard," Lorber said Wednesday.

A lifetime silent film preservationist, Shepard, through his company, Film Preservation Associates, restored most of the silent films in today's DVD and video collections. His restoration credits include Abel Gance’s La Roue (1922), Chaplin at Keystone (1914) and Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 production of Chicago.

These and other silent film titles like Georges Melies: The First Wizard of Cinema and Landmarks of Early Soviet Film were produced through Flicker Alley, with whom Shepard worked closely over the last 15 years.

"Shepard has done as much as anyone to both preserve and promote our film heritage, especially the silent era," Thomas Gladysz, founder and director of the Louise Brooks Society, said in a statement.

Born in New York City in 1940, Shepard started out in the 16mm and 8mm market by acquiring and expanding the Blackhawk Films library. He later expanded to video releases via Kino Lorber, Image Entertainment, Flicker Alley and other companies.

Through his efforts, Hollywood's best-known silent films have survived to be viewed by modern audiences. In 1992, Shepard transferred to NTSC video a 16mm color negative of D.W. Griffith's silent film Birth of a Nation made from a tinted nitrate print. That classic film restoration was later released on VHS, LaserDisc and DVD.

Shepard was also a key supporter of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, Calif., having provided films and projected with his own equipment for the museum's first Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival in 1998. He donated thousands of film prints to the institution after it exhibited silent films with live musical accompaniment every Saturday night, starting in January 2005.  

"The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum would not have existed without his support. We will miss him," David Kiehn, historian at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, told THR. Shepard more recently worked with Lobster Films in France to release classic silent films.

"One important thing to note about David: He was not a hoarder. He shared his collection generously, and his guiding beacon was always the films themselves — doing whatever he could do just to get the films seen," Kino Lorber said in its Facebook tribute.

Shepard's work with Kino Lorber included the original VHS release of Fritz Lang’s The Spiders; works by Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and John Barrymore; and titles from the Griffith Masterworks collection and the Red Silents Soviet film collection.

He taught cinema at the USC Film School, joined the American Film Institute in 1968 as an early staff member and co-authored or edited about a dozen books.

Shepard has been recognized by the San Francisco International Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Denver Silent Film Festival, International Documentary Association and the National Society of Film Critics, among others.