In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Film Theory

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Early Film Theory
  • Formalism
  • Auteurism
  • Cognitive Psychology and Philosophy
  • Critical Race Theory
  • Postcolonialism
  • Genre
  • Sound and Music Theory
  • Spectatorship and Subjectivity
  • Postmodernism

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Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Cinema and Media Studies Film Theory
Krin Gabbard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0030


Film theory came into its own in the late 1960s and early 1970s, thanks primarily to essays published in journals such as Screen in the United Kingdom and Cahiers du cinema and Communications in France. The first American journal to sign on to the cause was Camera Obscura, which carried the subtitle “A Journal of Feminism and Film Theory” on its first cover in 1976. But thoughtful attempts to make sense of movies appeared almost as soon as the first feature films. Although not included in this bibliography, the cinema aesthetics of Vachel Lindsay and the psychological analyses by Hugo Münsterberg might be called the first wave of film theory. But the argument between Sergei Eisenstein (montage creates meaning) and André Bazin (cinema and reality are ontologically related) represents the beginnings of film theory as we now know it. Shortly after it developed as an academic discipline in the 1970s, cinema and media studies established an affinity for “grand theory,” the exhaustively explanatory theses rooted in the work of Sigmund Freud, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Karl Marx and subsequently developed by French philosophers and critics such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Louis Althusser. Before the advent of theory, cinema study had been historical, formalist, and naively evaluative. Theory brought a level of professionalism to the discipline and helped it gain academic legitimacy. The reign of theory, however, was contested even as it was emerging. Many of the critics of grand theory looked to less ambitious modes of theorizing, most notably cognitive psychology. Meanwhile, scholars insisting on the importance of gender, race, social class, and nation have developed new modes of theorizing that bear little resemblance to the paradigms of grand theory. Regardless, in the early years of the 21st century, few areas in cinema and media study have not been thoroughly theorized and re-theorized.


Several film and media scholars have published books—some of them hefty—that collect significant writings from the history of cinema study. Stam and Miller 2000 and the several editions of Braudy and Cohen 2009 have found a large audience among students and scholars. Earlier, Nichols 1985 and Rosen 1986 collected crucial texts in the traditions of grand theory. Easthope 1993 has tried to pare down the large bibliography on theory to its essentials, while Gledhill and Williams 2000, Miller and Stam 1999, and Palmer 1989 have commissioned new essays that take a metacritical stance toward the material.

  • Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory and Criticism. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    The first edition of this book, edited by Cohen and the late Gerald Mast, appeared in 1974 and was the first significant survey of the subject. The various editions of the anthology have included work by early commentators such as Erwin Panofsky, Walter Benjamin, and Kenneth Tynan, who anticipated film theory. More recent editions have paired essays both for and against grand theory.

  • Easthope, Anthony, ed. Contemporary Film Theory. New York: Longman, 1993.

    A streamlined collection of essays introducing readers to some basic texts of film theory along with foundational essays by Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. For graduate students and advanced undergraduates.

  • Gledhill, Christine, and Linda Williams, eds. Reinventing Film Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Commissioned essays engaging with the technological, cultural, and social developments of the last years of the 20th century. Many of the essays address the idea that we are now in a “post-film era.”

  • Miller, Toby, and Robert Stam, eds. A Companion to Film Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999.

    Intended as a complement to Stam and Miller 2000, a variety of commissioned essays interrogate and expand the reach of film and media theory. Would work for an advanced undergraduate class.

  • Nichols, Bill, ed. Movies and Methods. 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

    Still useful for its thoroughness, even if some of its content is duplicated in other anthologies.

  • Palmer, R. Barton, ed. The Cinematic Text: Methods and Approaches. New York: AMS, 1989.

    Commissioned essays on topics in cinema study with special attention to theory. Many of the most important contemporary scholars contributed.

  • Rosen, Philip, ed. Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

    The most complete anthology for scholars interested in psychoanalysis, semiotics, and ideological criticism. Includes accurate translations of several essays originally written in French.

  • Stam, Robert, and Toby Miller, eds. Film and Theory: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.

    A thorough, well-annotated collection of important essays in both film and media theory. Perhaps the most up-to-date and relevant of the large, inclusive anthologies.

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