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"Movie": how a single word shaped Hollywood Cinema.

"In America we make movies. Leave the films to the French."

--Sam Shepard, True West (1980)

It is commonplace to accuse corporate Hollywood of manipulating its audiences, of generating, rather than pandering to, "vulgar" tastes. But the early history of film production and marketing suggests that audiences have wielded more power than Hollywood has ever been able to control or contain, and that power can be glimpsed in the history of a single word: "movie." W. W. Hodkinson, one of the founders of Paramount Pictures, called the word "movie" the "greatest single retarding influence in the history of the motion picture." (1)

There are no departments of "Movie Studies" at American universities or colleges or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world. New York University offers a degree in "Cinema Studies," whereas both the University of Texas and the University of Wisconsin opt for the term "Film Studies." Other academies employ the same or similar words; for example, the campus of Florida State University houses a "College of Motion Picture Arts." Similarly, no scholarly organizations devoted to the subject area use the word "movie" in their names. instead, there are groups like the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, the University Film and video Association, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The same could also be said of academic publications, which include the likes of Cinema Journal, Film Comment, Film Quarterly, the Journal of Film and Video, the Journal of Popular Film and Television, the Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and this publication itself. The singular exception would be Movie, the journal edited by Ian A. Cameron from 1962 to 2000, and its successor, Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, in which the term "movie" was specifically chosen to be provocative.

By contrast, a number of scholarly books do feature the word "movie" in their titles, including (but certainly not limited to) Douglas Gomery's Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States (University of Wisconsin, 1992); Richard Maltby and Melvyn Stokes' American Movie Audiences (British Film Institute, 1999); Tom Stempel's American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing (University of Kentucky, 2001); and Richard Abel's Americanizing the Movies and "Movie-Mad" Audiences, 1910-1914 (University of California, 2006).

The consistent feature of these monographs is an emphasis on audiences, exhibition, and culture, as opposed to, say, production or criticism. Moreover, the particular geographic focus in these books is usually the United States, the country where the term "movie" originated as slang for "moving picture." When discussing issues relevant to historically-situated film exhibition or viewers, scholars will, indeed, sometimes use the term "movies" because it refers to the low-brow experiences of what otherwise might be referred to, from an auteurist or formally analytical perspective, as "films" or "cinema." "Movies" refer, that is, to a form of reception--usually "American"--and thus to a form of culture (again, usually American) as much as they refer to particular aesthetic objects. As Frank P. Tomasulo has said, "Like it or not, the term 'cinema' (or, as Hitchcock pronounced it, cinuhMAAH) has high-class connotations, no? And 'film' is in between in this hierarchy: movie--film--cinema." (2) In another example of this hierarchy, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's university textbook is entitled Film Art: An Introduction, not Movie Art: An Introduction. (3)

By contrast, some film critics speaking have embraced the term, in some measure because they are speaking to everyday moviegoers. Pauline Kael (1919-2001), the voice of popular American criticism during the academic development of "film studies" during the second half of the twentieth century, published books using the word "movie" almost to the exclusion of other "cinematic" terms, emphasizing the lust and liminality of the movie experience (e.g., I Lost It at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Taking It All In, Deeper into Movies, Movie Love). Roger Ebert (1942-2013), the other dominant popular critic of the art, made "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" (the terms he used, with Gene Siskel, in his television show, At the Movies) into household expressions and likewise titled his books generally against the academic grain (e.g., The Great Movies series, Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook series, Your Movie Sucks).

As for the film industry, the choice of terms varies. If playwright Samuel Beckett is directing, the product is "Film" (Evergreen; US, 1965), an avant-garde motion picture starring the austere comedian Buster Keaton. If Richard Donner is directing, the product is Superman: The Movie (Warner Bros; US, 1978), a motion picture about a comicbook hero. Oliver Stone has argued that he makes "films," whereas in his view Quentin Tarantino makes "movies." (4) David Fincher, who directed both Zodiac (Paramount; US, 2007) and The Social Network (Columbia; US, 2010), considers the former a "film"--because it is a "deep, dark, obsessive, demanding, challenging, uncompromising work"--and the latter a "movie"--because it was not "ripping the lid off anything" or "trying to turn a mirror on a generation." (5) (Yet both productions would likely be screened at a "film festival," not a "movie festival.") The cultural hierarchy is made clearer when television enters the picture, a popular medium in which a feature-length production is called not a "film" but a "made-for-television movie."

The Quest for Nomenclature

During the early cinema period, preferred nomenclature became an important issue. Published in Great Britain and read by some industry members in America, the Optical Magic Lantern and Kinematograph Journal noted in 1906 its preference for the generic term "kinematograph," the word having originated with the Lumiere exhibitions in Europe. The trade also bemoaned that the letter "k" was rapidly being replaced with a "c," as in "cinematograph," a corruption they viewed with contempt, as the "correct" use of the "k" followed such Greek terms as "Kinema," "Kinematic," and "Kineo." (6) However, the use of both letters continued, with the Moving Picture World, one of America's leading trade publications of the nickelodeon era, complaining in 1913 that English and Australian newspapers used the letters c and k "indiscriminately," resulting in a "confusing" situation that "should be stopped." (7)

Overall, it seems Moving Picture World much preferred the term "motion picture," or--as the publication's own name suggests--"moving picture." By contrast, in 1910, an editor for The Film Index argued that "we never could endure the term 'moving picture,'" arguing that it was "ambiguous" and "incorrect." The editor also believed "nickelodeon" was problematic as a synonym for "film," an application that apparently did occur in that era, rather than "nickelodeon's" proper designation as the "place of amusement" where films were screened. The Film Index instead promoted the term "motion picture," which was "nearer right, since it is 'motion'--action--that is pictured." (8) All that said, the publication's editor, apparently more sensitive to the accurate than to anything else, believed a newly-coined term could also have merit, and briefly argued for the philological worthiness of "Lifeorama."

In 1913, an editor at Photo-Era echoed The Film Index in claiming that "moving pictures" was an inaccurate term, given that "each of the numberless pictures is shown with a limited and stationary space, all of them combining to simulate motion, but the pictures themselves do not move." As a result, "motion pictures" exemplified "correctness." It was also "dignified," a term that "refers rather to the respectable and refined character of the display and its environment." (9) Motion Picture News reprinted the article, implicitly agreeing with the sentiment; the same trade had changed its name from Moving Picture News in 1911.

Editors at film trade publications were not alone in their concern over proper nomenclature. In 1910, the Essanay Company opened a contest "to all" who might want to submit words to replace the "moving picture show." The company "reasonably questioned" as to whether the phrase "picture show" could "ascend in dignity and command increasing respect as the art side of moving pictures continues to be perfected." (10) Careful analysis of such early complaints over differing terminology makes it clear that prestige (or the lack thereof) was the key issue, even above the question of accuracy.

The Dreadful Word

During its first few years in print, newspapers and trade publications usually placed the new term "movie" in quotation marks, as if to distance themselves from the word, a usage that tied the question of origins (which quotation marks raise) to a different cohort of filmgoers. On at least two occasions, trade publications argued that the term had been created by journalists. For example, in 1914, the New York Dramatic Mirror noted that "movie" was "a newly coined word from newspaperland." (11) Two years later, Paste-Pot and Shears--the house organ for the Selig Polyscope Company--made the same claim. (12)

The word appeared for the first time in the New York Times in March 1911, in an article about the medium's future. (13) While newspapers did publish the word "movie" shortly before trade publications began to argue against it, there can be little doubt that the word was actually coined by audiences in one or more areas of the United States three or more years prior to its inaugural newspaper appearance. In 1912, for example, the Day Book of Chicago noted that "some bright youngster gave moving pictures an apt, vivid name, and it has spread all over the United States." (14) Three years later, W. Stephen Bush of the Moving Picture World recalled that
   The first time I ever heard the word was in the
   Kensington section of Philadelphia, when a
   group of boys was debating how they were
   going to spend the evening. One of them said,
   'Let's go down and see the movoes.' They did
   not say 'movies,' but 'movoes.' That is as near
   as written language can reproduce the sound.
   Never did I dream then in the fall of 1908 that
   the word would invade and soil the
   newspapers and become a recognized noun in
   polite conversation. (15)

Epes Winthrop Sargent, who also wrote for Moving Picture World, offered a similar argument, asserting that the word arose from the "streets and the children's playground." (16)

Motion Picture News reported a slightly different explanation in 1914, claiming that the word had "originated in the Bowery district of New York City, when motion pictures were really 'movies,'" the time period implying that the term was coined during the early nickelodeon period. (17) "Movie" was a slang nickname, its suffix not dissimilar to nicknames that might be bestowed on children: "Jimmie" instead of "James," and "Stevie" instead of "Steven." Some of the word's detractors apparently believed the word "movie" connoted a nascent or even childish project, rather than a maturing art form better conveyed through terms like "film" or "motion picture." (18) Here the emphasis was less on children than on the working class. The variance in different anecdotes is easy to understand, as the specific inventors of slang are often difficult to determine, given that--particularly in the early twentieth century--slang could spread orally for years prior to its first appearance in print. Likewise, it is possible for the same slang term--particularly a simple corruption of the phrase "moving pictures"--to have had several inventors in different parts of the same country, the word "movie" possibly being a joint project between a small number of creators who were in fact unknown to one another.

In any event, the term arose from the ranks of everyday viewers, whether adolescents or the working classes or both. It then spread to other audience members, some of whom were in the working class. As Michael Adams has noted, slang is the "people's poetry." (19) The American public became a self-christened "moviegoing" public, as the word "movie" existed and continued to exist because of the control that viewers had over their own word choice in oral contexts. Here is a crucial point, as there is no available evidence of any kind that any company or individual in the film industry promoted the term when it first began to flourish among at least some audience members prior to print publication of the same.

The fact that the word "movie" appeared repeatedly in newspapers during 1911 and 1912 led many members of the film industry, in fact, to fight against it. In June 1912, the editorial staff at Moving Picture World actively began a war on the "dreadful word," arguing,
   There is power in a good name and evil in a
   bad one. Slang and improper abbreviations
   are one of the well-known weaknesses of
   America's careless speakers. Some time ago,
   when a competition was started to secure a
   good sound and universal name for the
   moving pictures, 'photoplay' was selected....
   'Photoplay' is being so seldom used that it
   may soon be forgotten, especially so now that
   the abominable 'movies' has arisen.... What
   an excruciating sound this has!--at once
   vulgar and repulsive. May these abominable
   incongruities stop at this point! They will if all
   moving picture people with any degree of
   culture will refrain from and also forbid the
   use of so objectionable a term. (20)

Intentionally or not, the editor avoided mentioning that writers for the same publication had used the word "movie" repeatedly and without quarrel in articles published in April 1912. (21)

The "evil" of the word "movies" had taken hold, and the people who perceived themselves to stand at the top of culture adopted the righteous pose of cultural protectors. Editors at trade publications were not alone in their contempt. In 1913, the manager of the Empire Theatre in Detroit chastised local newspapers for employing the term "movie" instead of the "proper" term "photoplay." (22) Most exhibitors in Melrose, Massachusetts, agreed to ban the term in 1913, believing that it was "undignified." (23) The same year, Los Angeles exhibitors staged a "boycott" of the word, vowing not to use it in "connection with publicity of any kind." (24) Film producers also expressed their discontent over the term's lowbrow connotations. In a 1914 advertisement, George Kleine argued, "If the man who coined the word 'Movie' had first seen Quo Vadis? (Enrico Guazzoni, 1912, screened in America in 1913) that word would never have joined the influences that work against the better interests of this industry." (25)

But American popular culture heeded the moviegoing public, not the film industry. In July 1912, one scene in the opera The Summer Slump was titled "The Movie World." (26) A schoolteacher quoted in the New York Tribune twice used the word "movie" in a neutral manner in later 1912. (27) Then, two years later, a classified advertisement in the Oakland Tribune offered a building for sale suitable for grocers; it was located "next to a 'movie' theatre." (28) None of these instances implied a pejorative connotation, but rather the dissimenation of a new and increasingly--accepted word. As Reel Life noted in 1914, "movies" had bested other terminology for popularity among American audiences. (29)

The real disdain toward "movies," then, comes not so much from the diminutive term but from the identity of its creators: the American audiences themselves. Coined at least by 1908, the term "movie" had entered oral culture well ahead of print culture. Because of this usage en masse throughout the United States without assistance or approval from the film industry or the editors of prestigious newspapers and journals, the term "movie" represented an economic and sociological challenge to the power of these cultural agencies. Studios, editors, and self-described intellectuals promoted appellations like "motion picture theatre" or the "feature film" or any of the other trial balloons of sometimes dubious merit against the usurpation of language by the "vulgar" crowd. Controlling the word meant controlling the thing it named.

Robert Sklar's landmark text Movie-Made America ties cinema to Americanization, rightly claiming that, "American movies presented American myths and American dreams," (30) I would suggest, therefore, that the phrase "movie-made movies" may also be used to describe how the audience helped to create the kind of cinema that became associated with Hollywood. The "audience" consisted of both the real viewers and conceptions of them by those producers who would, in turn, attempt to target them with particular films. The word "movie" described what a motion picture was to those audiences, but it also then prescribed what it should be. In short, the word is symbol and substance of a populist cinema controlled in some measure not from the top-down but rather from the bottom-up, and that vector of development posed significant problems--and opportunities--for Hollywood.

Even after the nickelodeon era ended, some factions within the film industry continued their fight. In November 1915, an editor of Photo-Play Review demanded that "the word 'movie' be relegated to the ash heap." On the very same page was the publication masthead, which featured a phrase that had been their tagline for months: "A Weekly of Interest to the Movie World." (31) The publication's change of approach may well have followed the lead of the Moving Picture World, the original trade enemy of the "movies," which itself reopened the debate in their pages in 1915 after a Detroit exhibitor published a small brochure decrying the term. In October of that year, would-be cultural arbiter W. Stephen Bush claimed that
   The word ["movie"] sounds more like the
   helpless loll of the idiot than the speech of
   normal people with a healthy tongue and
   clean, dry lips... The word implies that the user
   thereof does not take the motion picture
   seriously. The word is a weapon in the hands
   of our enemies. How often do we hear the
   expression, 'Only a "movie," after all'.?

      Someone within or without the industry
   will surely think of something far better and
   far more suitable, but we simply must get rid
   of 'movies.' That word I would like to see sent
   back to the gutter, whence it came. (32)

Bush lobbied for "film" to act as a replacement for "movie," correctly believing it had international currency. As late as 1920, Exhibitors Herald continued to fight against the word movie, lobbying in vain for widespread acceptance of alternate terms like "Photodrama." (33)

The Not-So-Dreadful Word

Not everyone in the film industry disavowed the word. While agreeing that it was "not exactly dignified," the New York Dramatic Mirror in 1914 asked if "the periodical explosion" against it was "a much ado about nothing." (34) The Billboard, which covered the nickelodeon period extensively, used the term unproblematically on numerous occasions in 1912 and 1913. (35) During the same period, the word had appeared within the pages of a number of mainstream American magazines, in the verse of Clyde Martin's 1912 poem I'm the Guy, and even in the title of a stage play, The Queen of the Movies, which ran for over one hundred performances on Broadway. (36)

Various production companies and exhibitors used the increasingly popular term as a means to speak about--and sometimes to--their audiences. The Mutual Film Corporation adopted it in 1912 as part of the slogan, "Mutual Movies Make Time Fly." (37) In January 1913, an advertisement for Kinemacolor included the phrase "movie fans;" the following month, a Bausch and Lomb advertisement featured the word "movie." (38) More prominently, in Hollywood, a Universal newsreel of 1913 included the story The Making of the "Movie" Ivanhoe ("The greatest feature film ever produced"), titling what was perhaps the first-ever "making of" featurette. Later that same year, another Universal newsreel featured the story Meeting of the "Movie" Men; then, in 1914, the studio released a newsreel with the story Great Movie's [sic] Comedians. (39) Warner's Features released the three-reel drama The Movie Queen (1914), and Primagraf released the three-reel comedy Oh! That Movie (1914). (40) And, on May 9, 1914, the first issue of the fan magazine Movie Pictorial appeared on American newsstands.

In 1916, William N. Selig, of the Selig Polyscope Company, expressed a view that seems to have been shared by many others in the film industry at the time and to the present day: "movie" was an "undignified" word, yes, but it would "never be abandoned" because it had become a "customary expression" among the American public. (41) The growing number of film companies, exhibitors, fan magazines, and even trade publications that accepted the word included many who did so grudgingly, but they did it for the same reason others did: the term created by the American audience was dictating the terms by which it participated in the medium; to maintain that participation, the film industry needed to talk directly to them, the consumers--the self-described "moviegoers"--not to any hypothetical "filmgoers" or "photodrama-goers." Burgeoning studios were producing movies rapidly. The ordinary American moviegoer was not rich, of course, but the wealthy producers and other stakeholders in cinema marketing were ready to capitalize on the popular medium and thus were ready, as a matter of pragmatism, to attract the requisite audience for sustaining the industry.

The "Movies" and Hollywood Cinema

The word "movie" speaks to the power of the audience in the nickelodeon era, but it also suggests what Hollywood cinema was, as an early-twentieth-century market, and thus what it would become as it grew from those roots. Such a relationship is apparent in many respects, including what the word "movie" evokes, as opposed to its synonyms. The word "film" stems, obviously, from the technology involved, specifically the photographic medium on which footage is--or was, until the digital era--shot, edited, and then projected. Likewise, some terms apparently created by viewers also drew attention to the correlative technology, whether in the term "talkies," with its emphasis on film sound and, particularly, on spoken dialogue, or in the term "flickers," which seems to have been in usage as a noun by 1910, as Moving Picture World used the word that year as the name of an occasional column dedicated to industry news. (42) That latter term--which continues to be used sporadically over one century later, particularly in the abbreviated form "flicks," notably (with adjusted spelling) in the company name "Netflix"--originally referred to technological problems with early film processing and, much more commonly, film projection. Projection flicker was an ongoing concern during the early cinema period and beyond, in part because of the sometimes intentional, sometimes unintentional use of an incorrect projection speed that not only caused image flicker, but that also gave rise to widespread fears that the cinema caused eyestrain. (43)

The terms "pictures" and "picture shows" also date from the nickelodeon era, with their use continuing to the present day, even if only minimally so. Along with the ongoing awarding of the Oscar for "Best Picture," notable uses of these terms have occurred in the titles of Peter Bogdanovich's adaptation of Larry McMurtry's 1966 novel, The Last Picture Show (Columbia; US, 1971), and Jim Sharmon's The Rocky Horror Picture Show (20th Century Fox; US, 1975). The word "movie" also has its roots in phrases evoking the sense of "moving pictures," but the audience that created and unshakeably embraced the term "movie" chose a term that described the relationship the common audience had with the cinema. The technology before that experience and the critical reception after it were largely outside the scope of meaning for this audience, which was "going to the movies" (rather than, say, "going to the films," which is not a commonly-used phrase).

Terms like "moviegoers" and "going to the movies" conflate different individual films into a singular act, that of watching or participating in cinema. And that style of participating--characterized by the "vulgar" audiences, with unapologetically common tastes--naturally fed back into the marketing system of predictable and homogenous Hollywood formulas. "Movies," the word itself, was not just a symptom of this genre-forming process; it was a root cause. Francois Truffaut confessed that, "In the final analysis, we loved the American cinema because the films all resembled each other." (44) Andre Bazin felt compelled to admit the same response: "The American cinema is a classical art, but why not then admire in it what is most admirable, i.e., not the talent of this or that filmmaker, but the genius of the system." (45) Auteur and auteur critic alike recognized that the cultural substrate of "moving pictures" or "photoplays" or "cinema" was the consistent, reproducible relationship between maker and consumer, and that relationship was built on moviegoers.

This Americanization of the cinema did not occur in a vacuum, however. As Richard Abel has explained, the films of the French company Pathe Freres had a "profound impact" on American cinema prior to 1910, so much so that "by the summer of 1905, the French company had become the leading supplier of moving pictures on the American market." (46) Such dominance continued "well into 1907 or 1908," until such time that their films were "repeatedly stigmatized and/or marginalized, especially in the trade press, as foreign or alien to (in a sense 'not white enough') for American culture." (47) It is possible that film viewers developed slang terminology ("movies") specifically to rechristen "moving pictures" and "films" in order to privilege films produced in America, even those made specifically for the nickelodeons, but moviegoers themselves were a diverse crowd, large numbers of them immigrants, particularly in urban areas.

A more plausible explanation for the gravitation toward the term "movie" can be found in the geographical deployment of film, especially as it shifted to California. Fictional filmmaking began in Los Angeles as early as 1908, with Griffith and Selig shooting there in 1910; the following year, Nestor opened the first permanent studio in Hollywood. (48) In April 1911, Moving Picture World declared that "Los Angeles within the short period of two years has reached a position in the moving picture manufacturing field where it is second only to New York." (49) By comparison with the East Coast, land in southern California was cheap, and rules were lax. Hollywood, as synecdoche for all films produced there, was a producer's haven, especially as film exhibition shifted from the nickelodeon, in 1912 and 1913, to motion picture theatres, which were more elegant venues that ostensibly catered to middle classes. Attempted ownership of the cinema was no longer the province of Manhattan elites--"New York" itself operating as synecdoche for those persons throughout the country who were promoting, in vain, all the alternative terms. "Movies"--as the homogenous experience expressed by the term--included everyone.

Although Eileen Bowser has shown that nickelodeon theatres "continued to exist in large numbers, particularly in urban ghettos, and some of them far past 1915," an important transition was clearly underway in the 1910s. (50) Some exhibitors bought prefabricated ornamentation to transform nickelodeons into respectable film theatres, while many others constructed new buildings to create palatial theatres featuring elaborate exteriors, lobbies, and auditoria, with well-dressed and trained ticket-takers and ushers on staff. Such changes improved film exhibition without barring those viewers who attended nickelodeons. As Sklar has indicated, the "movies expanded into the middle classes without leaving their storefront audiences behind. In the motion picture audience, the class distinctions of American society began slowly to fade." (51)

Such venues increasingly screened multi-reel films in the period from 1910 to 1915 and thereafter, yielding "feature" films that ranged from two to eight reels or more, with a growing emphasis on films that were longer rather than shorter. To name but a few examples, these films included Cinderella (George Nichols, Thanhouser; US, 1911, three reels), Oliver Twist (H. A. Spanuth, 1912, five reels), Judith of Bethulia (D. W. Griffith, Biograph; US, 1913, four reels), and The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, David Wark Griffith Corp; US, 1915, twelve reels). As a result, for those viewers marked by fading class distinctions, these venues became popularly known as "movie theatres" during the teens, combining the cachet of the word "theatre" with the inclusiveness of "movie," leading to exhibition sites that screened longer and more elaborate products within an ever-growing market.

Building on earlier American films, feature-length movies offered many of the narrative and generic tropes that are still understood today, including the preference of American moviegoers for "happy endings." W. Stephen Bush wrote about this issue in 1915, claiming, "we all know that the happy ending is not always true to the life we are supposed to reflect on the screen. Just the same, the audiences will have the happy ending." (52) The "audience will have" it: Bush understood very well the phenomenon, even if he resisted it. In large measure, American audiences desired happy conclusions to American movies that they viewed at American movie theatres. In broad terms, such narratives replicated the promise of opportunity and success that lay at the center of the national myth, and, in terms of how genres are continually shaped by their consumers, not strictly by peremptory directors or writers or critics: the audience will have it.

Nowhere does the power of the audience seem more evident than in the rise of the star system, yet another innovation that appeared roughly parallel with the advent of the word "movie." Film manufacturing companies of the nickelodeon era generally eschewed promoting the names of the actors in their releases, apparently fearing that to do so would lead to increases in their salaries and other demands. But, as Sklar has noted, "the growing movie public picked their favorites anyway and wrote fan letters to 'The Biograph Girl' or 'The Lone Indian' of the Bison company." (53) Here again the audience wrested control. Responding to audience desire, Carl Laemmle famously hired the Biograph Girl and gave her billing as "Florence Lawrence" in his IMP productions, thus forging a path others in the industry followed. The "movie star" was born.


The word "movie" is thus representative of a kind of power that audiences have wielded for over one century. Powerful players in American cinema, including producers and directors, were and are largely attentive to their audience's desires and demands, or at least their perceptions of them. The ubiquity of present-day blockbusters and sequels amply illustrates this ongoing attentiveness not simply because studio heads will them into being, but because audiences actively shape the language of the movies. A dialogue exists. Hollywood speaks what it hopes audiences want to hear, but audiences talk back. Costly technological innovations like synchronous sound, color, and widescreen are all key examples of this dynamic, as are television broadcasts of feature films and the release of the same on home video formats. And it is within the purview of audiences (or at least some of them) to reject some innovations used to garner their attention, even if they at first accept them, as evidenced by the many lives of "3-D" in Hollywood filmmaking and exhibition.

Drawing on its populist roots, the word "movie" came to mean--and to impose--certain audience expectations, meaning stars in genre-based narratives that operate in the "excessively obvious" Classical (and Post-Classical) Hollywood Style. (54) Such expectations included a sense of spectacle, which today often means car crashes and explosions or monsters and ever-evolving special effects. But, with the rise of academic film culture in the late 1960s, "movies" were again split off from high-brow respectability. By 1976, the phrase "popcorn movie" began to appear in the pages of Variety, with a snack food as adjective harkening to the original moviegoing experience of the early twentieth century, again stirring up anxiety about who controls taste. (55) "It's only a movie" reads the tagline of Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left (Hallmark Releasing; US, 1972).

It is easy to see why the word "movie" has gained little acceptance outside the United States and Canada. Ordering a DVD from the American-based means that one chooses from a category titled "Movies & TV"; ordering a DVD from the British-counterpart means that one chooses from a category titled "Film & TV." (56) It is the meagerst distinction, until the history of the word "movies" is understood. Hollywood continues to draw these distinctions when dignity is at stake, often well beyond the chosen lexicon of individual filmmakers. The Motion Picture Association of America opts for "motion picture" in its name, and prefers "film" in many of its standard communications (as in "This film has been rated [insert rating] or "This film is not yet rated"). Onscreen Hollywood credits since the 1960s regularly feature the phrase "A Film By" to acknowledge a given director, not "A Movie By."

And yet, there are over one hundred Hollywood films produced since the 1970s and the rise of the blockbuster that include the word "movie" in their titles, (57) suggesting that writers, directors, and studios often aim to speak to their audiences through a word that expressly retains its slang value, at least to the extent of its invocation of "entertainment" over "art." Whatever preferences and prejudices abide, the word "movie" continues to be used by the very kind of American audience members who first created and deployed it. A single word remains one of the most important and lasting contributions of the nickelodeon era, with its populist roots still apparent in its ongoing popularity, not only in the oral language of everyday American film viewers, but also in the language of those creators who would speak to them.

Launched in 1993, Moviemaker is an independent magazine that concentrates on independent cinema, its articles written to be understood and enjoyed by film buffs and amateur filmmakers. Likewise, since being founded in 2004, the website Vimeo--its name being an anagram of "movie," with "me," the first and last letters, at center--allows registered users to post and share their own films. American audiences have, perhaps, never shown more obvious power and tenacity in the face of film industry opposition than in their widespread adoption of and devotion to the word "movie," with its connotations both describing and prescribing what Hollywood cinema is and should be.

The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of the following persons in the preparation of this essay: Michael Lee (University of Oklahoma), Desmond O'Rawe (The Queen's University of Belfast), Robert Singer (CUNY Graduate Center), and Anthony Slide (Independent Scholar).

Gary D. Rhodes

Queen's University Belfast


(1) Quoted in Martin J. Quigley, "'Film Play' and 'Movies.'", Exhibitors Herald, November 20, 1915, 10.

(2) Frank P. Tomasulo, "What's the Difference Between a Movie and a Film?", Mubi, 2009,

(3) David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 10th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012).

(4) Peary, Gerald, ed., Quentin Tarrantino: Interviews (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 58.

(5) Tom Grierson, "David Fincher Knows the Difference between 'Films' and 'Movies,'" The Projector January 12, 2011, david-fincher-knows-difference-between-films-movies-090205979.html.

(6) Untitled, The Optical Lantern and Kinematograph Journal, May 1906, 121.

(7) "Facts and Comments," Moving Picture World, January 11, 1913, 132.

(8) "Casual Comment," The Film Index, July 30, 1910, 2.

(9) Quoted in Motion Picture News, December 13, 1913, 22.

(10) "Essanay Name Contest," The Film Index, July 2, 1910, 4.

(11) William Lord Wright, "For Photoplay Authors, Real and Near," New York Dramatic Mirror, December 2, 1914, 30.

(12) "The 'Movies,'" Paste-Pot and Shears, February 14, 1916.

(13) "Is the Moving Picture to be the Play of the Future?," New York Times, August 20, 1911, SM8.

(14) The Day Book of Chicago, November 11, 1912, 11.

(15) W. Stephen Bush, "The Dreadful Word," Moving Picture World, October 30, 1915, 760.

(16) Epes Winthrop Sargent, "Help to Kill 'Movies,'" Moving Picture World, November 29, 1913, 999

(17) "Los Angeles Film Men Boycott 'Movie,'" Motion Picture News, September 12, 1914, 42.

(18) Anthony Slide, Early American Cinema, Revised Edition (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1994), 222.

(19) Michael Adams, Slang: The People's Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

(20) "The 'Movies,'" Moving Picture World, June 8, 1912, 920.

(21) Examples include: "Films of New York," Moving Picture World, December 23, 1911, 1003; "Flickers," Moving Picture World, December 30, 1911, 1084; Louis Reeves Harrison, "Studio Saunterings," Moving Picture World, February 24, 1912, 657; H. F. Hoffman, "Cutting Off the Feet," Moving Picture World, April 6, 1912, 53.

(22) H. M. Star, "Stays Alive," Moving Picture World, January 4, 1913, 43.

(23) "New England," Moving Picture World, March 7, 1914, 1276.

(24) "Los Angeles Film Men Boycott 'Movie,'" 42.

(25) Advertisement, Moving Picture World, January 10, 1914, 140.

(26) Advertisement, Moving Picture World, July 20, 1912, 296.

(27) Quoted in "The Moving Picture Educator," Moving Picture World, November 23, 1912, 774.

(28) Classified Advertisement, Oakland Tribune, September 17 1914, 16.

(29) "'Movies' Strong Reality Aid," Reel Life, January 31, 1914, 35.

(30) Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (New York: Vintage, 1994), 215.

(31) "Editorial Comment," The Photo-Play Review, November 6, 1915, 8.

(32) "The Dreadful Word," 760.

(33) "Movies," Exhibitors Herald, January 24, 1920, 74.

(34) Wright, 30.

(35) See, for example: "Exhibitors Appeal Court Decision," Billboard, January 6, 1912, 14; "Swat the Fly, See the Movies," Billboard, July 27, 1912, 5; Watterson R. Rothacker, "'Reel' Facts About Moving Picture Advertising," Billboard, December 14, 1912, 43; "Growth of 'Movies,'" Billboard, June 29, 1913, 20; "The Movies Have Created Showgoers," Billboard, July 12, 1913, 20.

(36) For an example of its appearance in a specialist magazine, see: P. Harvey Middleton, "'Movies' Speed Up Labor," Technical World, April 1913, 187-190. Clyde Martin's poem I'm the Guy appeared in Moving Picture World, October 5, 1912, 43.

(37) Slide, 221.

(38) Advertisement, Moving Picture World, January 18, 1913, 291; Advertisement, Moving Picture World, February 22, 1913, 726.

(39) "Universal Animated Weekly, No. 77," Moving Picture World, September 13, 1913, 1106; "Universal Animated Weekly, No. 82," Moving Picture World, October 11, 1913, 192; "Universal Animated Weekly, No. 105," Moving Picture World, March 21, 1914, 1582.

(40) "The Movie Queen," Motion Picture News, January 17, 1914, 38.

(41) "Term 'Movies' Has Come to Stay Is Opinion of William N. Selig," Paste-Pot and Shears, 31 July 1916, 1.

(42) See, for example: "Flickers," October 1, 1910, 745; "Flickers," Moving Picture World, December 3, 1910, 1300; "Flickers," Moving Picture World, December 10, 1910, 1353; "Flickers," Moving Picture World, December 24, 1910, 1484.

(43) For a discussion of projection flicker and what was often termed "moving picture eyestrain," see Gary D. Rhodes, The Perils of Moviegoing in America, 1896-1950 (New York: Continuum, 2012).

(44) Quoted in David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 4.

(45) Quoted in Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era (New York: Pantheon, 1988), xiii.

(46) Richard Abel, The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900-1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), xi.

(47) Abel, xiii.

(48) Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 151-152, 155, 161.

(49) Richard V. Spencer, "Los Angeles as a Producing Center," Moving Picture World, April 8, 1911, 768.

(50) Bowser, 121.

(51) Sklar, 46.

(52) W. Stephen Bush, "Happy Ending," Moving Picture World, November 6, 1915, 1107.

(53) Sklar, 40.

(54) Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, 3.

(55) "Popcorn Untolerated in Theatres of Screen Writers & Directors," Variety, May 26, 1976, 2.

(56) In another example of the same point, use of the term "movie premiere" in the American press dwarfs appearances of the same in the British press, where "film premiere" is far more common. A graph illustrating this point for the years 1960-2005 can be found at: "Difference Between 'Movie,' 'Film,' and 'Motion Picture.'" English Language & Usage. difference-between-movie-film-and-motion-picture. At the same website, one user posted the following anecdote in 1911: "I was once queuing for a film at the BFI and there was an American ahead. He asked, 'I'd like a ticket for the movie.' The attendant replied, 'Here is your ticket for the film [emphasis in original],' and then, after the guy had left, added, 'I cannot bring myself to use such childish language.'"

(57) In addition to the example of Superman: The Movie, a token list might include The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper, Universal; US, 1971), Silent Movie (Mel Brooks, 20th Century Fox; US, 1976), The Muppet Movie (James Frawley, Henson Associates; US, 1979), American Movie (Chris Smith, Sony Pictures; US, 1999), Greg Franklin's The Drawn Together Movie: The Movie! (Comedy Central; US, 2010), and David Murphy's Not Another Not Another Movie (Instinct; US, 2011), these last two indicating the ongoing self-consciousness of a "movie" as potential product of "vulgar" tastes.
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Author:Rhodes, Gary D.
Publication:Film & History
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2016
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