In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Audiences and Moviegoing Cultures

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Anthologies and Journal Special Issues
  • Formative Studies
  • Early Cinema Audiences
  • Sound Era Audiences
  • Transnational Movie Cultures
  • Case Studies of Individual Films or Genres
  • Ethnographies and Oral Histories
  • The Phenomenology and Materiality of Moviegoing
  • Cinephilia
  • Methodologies

Cinema and Media Studies Audiences and Moviegoing Cultures
Shelley Stamp
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0372


Scholars have studied movie audiences almost since the beginning of cinema, eager to understand the medium’s impact on its viewers. When movies first became the dominant mass commercial entertainment form in the early decades of the 20th century, social scientists, progressive reformers, and cultural theorists were drawn to study the audiences gathered for this new medium and the new culture surrounding moviegoing as a favorite pastime. By mid-century, the Hollywood industry commissioned serious “audience research” to understand its customers and bolster its bottom line. In the 1970s and 1980s, film historians began studying historical movie audiences, challenging monolithic theories of film spectatorship developing at the time. Studies of moviegoing, as opposed to film viewing, focus on the social experiences of going to the movies and the social dynamics within viewing spaces. They are attentive to the emotional investments of fan culture, dating culture, and cinephilia often attached to moviegoing. While much of the initial scholarly research on movie audiences focused on early cinema in the United States, scholarship has grown to encompass many global contexts and to consider factors like transnational film consumption, diasporic audiences, and colonialism. And many scholars are attentive to newer patterns of film consumption that include watching films on video or streaming services. The methodologies used to chart moviegoing and movie cultures vary enormously, with some researchers relying on ethnographies and oral histories, some drawing information from marketing campaigns and the popular press, while others mine business records, cultural geographies, and industry trade papers. Scholars study audiences and moviegoing cultures by looking at the varied sites where movies are consumed, including commercial cinemas, art house theaters, film festivals, museums, prisons, and private homes. Others study the materiality of moviegoing, considering food we consume at the movies and the chairs we sit in. In each case, scholars look beyond the screen to study the social and cultural dynamics of cinema and cinemagoing. Additional information related to audiences and moviegoing cultures can be found in the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Cinema and Media Studies articles “Fan Studies,” “Exhibition and Distribution,” and “Censorship.” See also the bibliography on “Television Audiences.” There is considerable research on the broader phenomenon of mass media audiences, which is not included in this bibliography.


These overview texts are good places to begin research on audiences and moviegoing cultures. Gripsrud 1998 offers a history of approaches to studying movie audiences in different international contexts. Austin 1989 provides a detailed overview of American movie audiences. Butsch 2000 places American moviegoing within a broad history of audiences for varied commercial entertainments. Stafford 2007 explains the value of considering audiences in film studies.

  • Austin, Bruce A. Immediate Seating: A Look at Movie Audiences. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1989.

    An overview of American moviegoing that includes information about varied screening venues (art houses, drive-ins), censorship and ratings, advertising and publicity, audience research conducted by Hollywood studios, and audiences for adjacent media including radio, television, and home video.

  • Butsch, Richard. The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, 1750–1990. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511619717

    A sweeping history of American audiences that places cinemagoing amid a host of other entertainments, including theater, opera, vaudeville, minstrelsy, radio, and television, to argue that audiences became more passive in the 20th century.

  • Gripsrud, Jostein. “Film Audiences.” In The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Edited by John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson, 202–211. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    An informative survey of approaches to studying film audiences, including social surveys of the 1910s, the Payne Fund Studies, German sociologist Emilie Altenloh, and British Mass-Observation studies. The latter half of the essay discusses the shift in film scholarship from “textually derived spectators to actual audiences” in the 1970s and 1980s.

  • Stafford, Roy. Understanding Audiences and the Film Industry. London: British Film Institute, 2007.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781838711832

    An introduction to studying movie audiences that includes attention to how the industry perceives its audience, film viewing cultures, audience behavior, and the increasing importance of virtual audiences online and on social media.

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