What Is the National Film Registry? History and Selection Process

Orson Welles speaking to an audience as Charles Foster Kane in his 1941 film 'Citizen Kane'
Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) makes a stirring campaign speech before a larger-than-life portrait of himself in a scene from Citizen Kane.

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The National Film Registry was established by the United States Congress in 1988 “to ensure the survival, conservation and increased public availability of America's film heritage.” It was created by the National Film Preservation Board, a division of the Library of Congress, to preserve films that represent the cultural history of the United States.

Did You Know?

The oldest film on the National Film Registry is "Newark Athlete," a 12-second recording of an unknown young athlete filmed at Thomas Edison's Laboratory.

To that end, the objective of the National Film Registry is not just to preserve films that are universally recognized as the "best" films in American cinema by critics, but to also preserve movies that have had significant impact on American culture. This is why films that may not have won major awards or make critics' "best of" lists, like Cat People (1942) and The Breakfast Club (1985), have been selected for the National Film Registry, because of their popularity with audiences.

The National Film Registry also includes non-commercial films that are important artifacts of American history. For example, The Augustas (1930s-40s) is a montage of amateur footage shot by Scott Nixon, a traveling salesman who recorded film whenever he visited a town named “Augusta” throughout the United States. The Augustas amounts to some of the earliest film footage of these cities. It was selected for the National Film Registry in 2012. Another example is Disneyland Dream (1956), which represents some of the earliest amateur “home movie” footage shot in Disneyland. It was selected for the National Film Registry in 2008. Perhaps the most famous amateur footage selected for the National Film Registry is the Zapruder film (1963), which is the amateur footage shot by Abraham Zapruder of the Dallas assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. It was selected in 1994.

Selection Process

The National Film Preservation Board, which consists of 44 members and alternative members, including representatives of film industry organizations (like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Directors Guild of America, and Writers Guild of America), movie critics, and film historians, makes annual recommendations to the Librarian of Congress of films to add to the National Film Registry.

Starting in 1997, the National Film Preservation Board has given the public the opportunity to nominate up to 50 films a year to be considered for preservation on the National Film Registry online on the Library of Congress website. This voting influences the National Film Preservation Board’s ballots to select the 25 films that it will preserve annually. The only criteria for consideration is that the film must be at least ten years old and that it must be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Since the National Film Registry was established, over 700 films have been preserved by the Library of Congress, reflecting a diverse history of American cinema.

Films on the National Film Registry

Films that are selected for the National Film Registry represent a number of historical and cultural criteria:

  • Films that are considered among the greatest of all time, such as Citizen Kane (1941), Vertigo (1958), The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), and The Shawshank Redemption (1994).
  • Films that are among the highest-grossing movies at the U.S. box office, such as Gone with the Wind (1939), The Ten Commandments (1956), The Sound of Music (1965), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Titanic (1997).
  • Films representing technological milestones, such as The Jazz Singer (1927, first feature-length film with synchronized music), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1939, first feature-length American animated film), and Toy Story (1995, first feature-length computer-animated film).
  • Documentaries that serve as important historical records, such as newsreel footage of the Hindenburg disaster (1937), Why We Fight (1943-45), The Battle of San Pietro (1945), The Endless Summer (1966), Woodstock (1970), The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man (1975), and Hoop Dreams (1994).
  • Popular and influential comedy films, such as The General (1926), City Lights (1931), Duck Soup (1933), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Pink Panther (1963), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Young Frankenstein (1974), Blazing Saddles (1974), Annie Hall (1977), National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), The Muppet Movie (1979), Ghostbusters (1984), This Is Spinal Tap (1985), Back to the Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), and The Big Lebowski (1998).
  • Groundbreaking films created by diverse filmmakers, such as The Blood of Jesus (1941), Wanda (1970), Shaft (1971), Please, Don't Bury Me Alive! (1976), Hair Piece: A Film for Nappyheaded People (1984), Do the Right Thing (1989), Paris Is Burning (1990), Boyz n the Hood (1991), and Eve's Bayou (1997).