In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Steven Spielberg

  • Introduction
  • Academic Overviews of Spielberg
  • Biographies
  • Magazine Collections and Interviews
  • Hollywood in the Age of Spielberg
  • Craft
  • Thematic Studies and Dissertations
  • Colleagues
  • Websites

Cinema and Media Studies Steven Spielberg
Frederick Wasser
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0236


Steven Spielberg is both a phenomenon and a film director. He is without comparison in American film history, combining a feeling for audience and genres that resembles the moguls of the classic period, such as Zanuck and Selznick, with an attention to craft as formidable as Ford and Hawks. Spielberg studies can have many different motivations, ranging from an auteur analysis of his craft skills; to using his films’ popularities in order to understand his audiences; to understanding his career as a guide to four decades of immense changes in the American and global media landscape. He is still making films, and the academic literature has just started to outline all that we learn from his previous achievements. Hopefully, this article will be useful as a suggestion for future studies. Spielberg first gained critical attention in 1972 when discerning critics noticed the absurdly young director as someone with a remarkable sense of style. No one could ignore him after the industry-changing success of Jaws in 1975. At that time critical literature treated him more as a phenomenon than as an auteur, with both journalists and academics portraying Spielberg and his collaborator/rival George Lucas as the catalysts for the morphing of “New” Hollywood into the blockbuster era. However there were nuanced responses to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. (1982). Spielberg’s dominance was complete in the mid 1980s with the popularity of his protégés, such as Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante, and others. This inspired a backlash of journalistic essays. Spielberg drew more positive academic attention as he tried racial and historical themes in The Color Purple (1985) and Schindler’s List (1993). The first flowering of Spielberg scholarship came in the 1990s with the appearance of surveys of his entire career to that point. This work is highlighted in this article. It is interesting to note that many of the revisionist scholars work in Great Britain. Several explored a new direction in film studies that emphasized understanding the industrial base of filmmaking. The industrial approach inspired a few Spielberg studies and legitimized undergraduate and graduate classes on the relation between his films and the audience.

Academic Overviews of Spielberg

Spielberg studies, as a topic of scholarship, has emerged with several key books—either written or updated in the early 21st century. In addition, a short chapter and a collection of essays are included in this section since the shorter pieces share the ambition of the book-length studies in using Spielberg to model a distinct approach to critical film studies. The authors share a relative appreciation of Spielberg’s themes and a desire to place his career in a film history context. Wasser 2010 tries to understand Spielberg’s career as a political evolution, while Krämer 2010 uses him as a fulcrum on which Hollywood’s history turns. Gordon 2007 uses a psychoanalytical approach to Spielberg, and Friedman 2006 makes a strong claim for Spielberg’s artistry in a variety of themes. Morris 2007 also makes this strong claim, with an emphasis on current critical theory, and McBride 2011 provides the most encyclopedic biography.

  • Friedman, Lester D. Citizen Spielberg. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2006.

    This book is organized thematically. Friedman comes to Spielberg for a variety of reasons, including issues of Jewish identity. This is an important academic attempt to include Spielberg in the pantheon of American auteurs, and Friedman defends him against every line of criticism. Thus the book becomes valuable not only for its own arguments, but also as a compendium of critical arguments to which Friedman describes and responds.

  • Gordon, Andrew. Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007.

    One of the few books that isolates a unified theme within Spielberg’s work. Gordon groups together films defined by their genre conventions and discusses how Spielberg uses the genre conventions of fantasy to reexamine the family from psychoanalytical perspectives. Certainly the most important is the director’s own experience of growing up in a family where the parents are about to divorce. Gordon astutely connects personal life, general social conditions, and art.

  • Krämer, Peter. “Steven Spielberg.” In Fifty Contemporary Film Directors. 2d ed. Edited by Yvonne Tasker, 372–380. London: Routledge, 2010.

    Krämer is a leading expert on combining analysis of film aesthetics with the industrial context of film production. Therefore his various writings on Spielberg warrant our attention. Here, he carefully positions “New” Hollywood as a prior condition to the release of Jaws, a movie that he continues to praise as one of Spielberg’s most complex efforts (even compared to the later, more overt attempts at sophisticated storylines).

  • McBride, Joseph. Steven Spielberg: A Biography. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.

    DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781604738360.001.0001

    This is an update of the 1997 definitive academic biography of Steven Spielberg. McBride combines an in-depth, behind-the-scenes knowledge with critiques of individual films of Spielberg. The original edition inspired the waves of early-21st-century academic appreciations of Spielberg’s filmmaking. McBride’s writing bears traces of his previous career as a critic for Variety (the movie industry journal) and has the effect of making a less ideological and theoretical approach to Spielberg respectable again in the critical literature.

  • Morris, Nigel. The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light. London: Wallflower, 2007.

    A long look at the films, organized both thematically and film by film. This book spearheads early-21st-century academic rehabilitation of Spielberg, by looking at him as a sophisticated director who merits auteurist analyst. Morris marshals the many perspectives of film studies in order to give the reader very useful tools with which to analyze the film director. Morris is the foremost advocate of Spielberg studies and his work is not afraid to link Spielberg with general intellectual discussions.

  • Morris, Nigel, ed. Special Issue: Steven Spielberg. New Review of Film and Television Studies 7.7 (2009).

    Morris put together a “Spielberg at 60” conference at the University of Lincoln in 2007. The international gathering itself was a landmark in the emerging field of Spielberg studies. In this special issue of the journal, he published nine of the conference papers. They reflect eclectic concerns ranging from career studies to archetypical analysis of sharks and alien invasions.

  • Taylor, Philip M. Steven Spielberg: The Man, His Movies, and Their Meaning. 3d ed. New York: Continuum, 1999.

    Written by an academic whose expertise runs to diplomacy and propaganda studies, this was one of the first academic surveys of Spielberg when the original appeared in 1992. The later edition extends the survey through Saving Private Ryan (1998). Taylor sets up a discussion of Spielberg’s academic reputation and Spielberg’s reflection of his generation, but is aimed at a general audience (thus eliminating notes and sources).

  • Wasser, Frederick. Steven Spielberg’s America. Malden, MA: Polity, 2010.

    A succinct overview of Spielberg’s entire career, in the context of other films being made at the same time as well as changes in the politics and in the economy of media. Wasser builds upon Buckland’s description of Spielberg’s pioneering blockbuster techniques. The book argues that Spielberg wishes to continue the populist themes of classic Hollywood while other directors turn away from those earlier values. This book shows Spielberg dealing with his own ambivalence, as well as America’s ambivalence about itself and the world. It pays relatively more attention to the films made during the Bush era, when coincidentally Spielberg relied more on foreign audiences for profits.

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