In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Exhibition and Distribution

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Periodicals
  • Local Case Studies
  • Operating a Movie Theater
  • Movie Theater Design and Technology
  • Sound Era, 1930–1950
  • Exhibition in the Age of Television, 1950–1980
  • Post-1980
  • Distribution

Cinema and Media Studies Exhibition and Distribution
Gregory Waller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0026


The operation of movie theaters, the dangers and appeals of the social experience of moviegoing, the combination of film and live performance, the need to legislate screening sites, the splendor of the picture palace, the possibilities of showing film outside the confines of a commercial theater—these topics have long attracted the attention of fans and journalists, studio executives, and diehard reformers. But the academic study of film exhibition did not fully take off until the 1980s, with revisionist studies of the silent era and a new interest in the broader cultural and social history of film beyond the production process. Much of this research, understandably, has focused on the movie theater, from the first storefront nickelodeons screening continuous programs of short films accompanied by and interspersed with some type of live musical accompaniment, to the freestanding megaplex, often marooned somewhere on the edge of town. But as the items listed in this bibliography attest, there is more to film exhibition than the movie theater and even the long tradition of the home as a site for watching movies. Exhibition has always been a key economic aspect of the movie industry, a target of legal battles, a site where racial, gender, and social class distinctions have been played out, and a zone through which nationally and internationally available, mass-produced entertainment enters specific localities. Not surprisingly, then, the works cited here examine film exhibition from a variety of scholarly perspectives, analyzing it as a modern business enterprise, cultural symbol, global system, local institution, and significant aspect of film history over more than a century. The emphasis is primarily though not exclusively on the situation in the United States. Particularly within the last fifteen years, the nontheatrical branch of film exhibition (e.g., in schools, churches, museums, and homes) has also begun to receive academic attention. However, distribution—the circulation of film from producer to exhibitor, another major source of profit and power in the film industry—has received nowhere near the same scholarly interest, though the works on distribution cited here suggest important lines of inquiry and point toward the range of new research still to be done.

General Overviews

Gomery 1992 remains the standard one-volume history of film exhibition in the United States and offers a useful introduction to this scholar’s influential industry-oriented approach to film history. Stones 1993 is much more of a “house” history, sponsored by an interested party, the National Association of Theater Owners, which also means that Stones had access to a rich archive of visual material. Stones’s accessible, chronological account offers a notable contrast with Allen 2006, a polemical essay that reflects points he has made in several recent publications (see Maltby, et al. 2007 and Fuller-Seeley 2008 under Anthologies) about the direction of film studies as an academic field of scholarship, which has, Allen claims, been limited in its scope and particularly weak in empirical research regarding film exhibition and moviegoing practices.

  • Allen, Robert C. “Relocating American Film History: The ‘Problem’ of the Empirical.” Cultural Studies 20.1 (2006): 48–88.

    DOI: 10.1080/09502380500492590

    Challenging certain theoretical approaches to spectatorship in film studies, Allen argues for empirical research on moviegoing and exhibition, particularly areas (like the American South) that are outside the orbit of cities like New York and Chicago.

  • Gomery, Douglas. Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States. Wisconsin Studies in Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

    Still the best single-volume history of film exhibition in the United States over most of the 20th century, Gomery’s volume includes discussions of sound, color, and wide-screen processes as well as of movies on television, national theater chains, and ethnic theaters and other “specialized” venues.

  • Stones, Barbara. America Goes to the Movies: 100 Years of Motion Picture Exhibition. North Hollywood, CA: National Association of Theatre Owners, 1993.

    Profusely illustrated with a host of invaluable photographs, this book—written for the National Association of Theater Owners—is a celebratory, uncritical survey of the broad history of American film exhibition.

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