Early Cinema Overview

Although the study of early cinema continues to evolve, over the past several decades some core and enduring methods and concerns have emerged that help to define the contours of a relatively distinct field of research. Broadly, “early” cinema includes the period of international film history spanning from around 1890 through 1915, that is, from the emergence of motion pictures as a “new” medium to the large-scale institutionalization of narrative feature filmmaking practices. The periodization has strong roots in the 1978 International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) conference, which brought together scholars and archivists who were interested in significantly reimagining the relevance of the cinema’s early years to film studies as a discipline. The conference hosted some seminal conversations that would eventually develop into several unifying discourses that are central to the field and that concern the following in a variety of ways:

Origins: There is a general investment in rethinking teleological histories that bracket off the early years of film as a “primitive” period relative to the feature filmmaking industry that developed in the teens. Included in this is an understanding that the cinema has multiple so-called origins, some of which place “film” in genealogies of media and what André Gaudreault has called “cultural series” that span centuries.

The Archive: There is a strong commitment to collaborations between film scholars and archivists, and to archival-based research—using film prints and other primary source materials—especially research at the margins of canonical film histories, that seeks to understand, for example, early cinema’s diverse economic, industrial, aesthetic, exhibition, and reception contexts on their own terms.

Intermediality: There is a strong interest in studying early cinema as part of a broader constellation or network of media, practices, and institutions with which fin-de-siècle motion pictures shared affinities, including vaudeville, amusement parks, world’s fairs, the magic theatre, popular science shows, and department stores, to name a few.

Education: Much scholarly work on early cinema has helped to bring the once-marginalized field seriously within the purview of cinema and media studies. There is thus a related effort to promote not only scholarly research on this period but also rigorous and innovative approaches to teaching it.

With its interest in the longue durée and in placing the cinema in a broader intermedial context, the field of early cinema studies has strong affinities with the study of early popular visual culture, media archaeology, and histories of “pre-” or “proto-” cinematic media from chronophotography to the magic lantern and shadow plays. Among the many questions that research in this area engages are, How did fin-de-siècle audiences receive the new medium in light of existing media? Where did the cinema make its home before the stabilization of the film industry? What impact did motion pictures have on other media, institutions, and modern life? And, equally important, In what ways is early cinema relevant to our contemporary moment? Exploring answers to these and countless other questions remains an ongoing and fruitful endeavor.


(This is meant to be neither exhaustive nor canonical but rather a place to begin.)

Richard Abel, The Ciné goes to town (University of California Press, 1994).

Richard Abel, The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American (University of California Press, 1999).

Richard Abel, Americanizing the Movies and “Movie-Mad” Audiences, 1910-1914 (University of California Press, 2006).

Richard Abel (ed.), Encyclopedia of Early Cinema (Routledge, 2013).

Richard Abel, Menus for Movieland: Newspapers and the Emergence of American Film Culture, 1913-1916 (University of California Press, 2015).

Richard Abel & Rick Altman (eds), Global Experiments in Early Synchronous Sound (Film History 11.4, 1999) —DOMITOR 1998.

Richard Abel & Rick Altman (eds), The Sounds of Early Cinema (Indiana University Press/ John Libbey Publishing, 2001) —DOMITOR 1998.

Richard Abel, Giorgio Bertellini & Rob King (eds), Early Cinema and the “National” (Indiana University Press/ John Libbey Publishing, 2008) —DOMITOR 2006.

Rick Altman, Silent Film Sound (Columbia University Press, 2004).

Kristen Anderson Wagner, Comic Venus: Women and Comedy in American Silent Film (Wayne State University Press, 2018).

Kaveh Askari, Scott Curtis, Frank Gray, Louis Pelletier, Tami Williams & Joshua Yumibe (eds), Performing New Media, 1890-1915 (Indiana University Press/ John Libbey Publishing, 2014) —DOMITOR 2012.

John Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, 1894-1901 (University of Exeter Press, 1996, 5 vols).

Bernard Bastide, Aux sources du cinéma en Camargue: Joë Hamman et Folco de Baroncelli (Palais du Roure, 2018).

Adam Begley, The Great Nadar : The Man Behind the Camera (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017).

Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema 1907-1915 (University of California Press, 1990).

Marta Braun, Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (University of Chicago Press, 1992).

Marta Braun, Charlie Keil, Rob King, Paul Moore & Louis Pelletier (eds.), Institutions, Networks, and Publics of Early Cinema (Indiana University Press/ John Libbey Publishing, 2012) —DOMITOR 2010.

François de la Bretèque (ed.), Les cinémas périphériques dans la période des premiers temps / Peripheral Early Cinema (Presses universitaires de Perpignan, 2010) —DOMITOR 2008.

Noël Burch, Life to Those Shadows (University of California Press, 1990).

Francesco Casetti, Eye of the Century: Film, Experience, Modernity (Columbia University Press, 2005).

Lisa Cartwright, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 1995).

C.W. Ceram, Archaeology of the Cinema (Thames and Hudson, 1965).

Michael Chanan, The Dream that Kicks: The Prehistory and Early Years of Cinema in Britain (Routledge, 1996).

Leo Charney and Vanessa Schwartz, Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life (University of California Press, 1995).

Paolo Cherchi Usai, Silent Cinema: A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship, Third Edition (British Film Institute, 2019).

Ian Christie, The Last Machine: Early cinema and the Birth of the Modern World (BFI/BBC, 1994).

Maite Conde, Foundational Films. Early Cinema and Modernity in Brazil (University of California Press, 2018).

Malcolm Cook, Early British Animation: From Page and Stage to Cinema Screens (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Roland Cosandey, André Gaudreault & Tom Gunning (eds), Une Invention du diable? Cinéma des premiers temps et religion/An Invention of the Devil? Religion and Early Cinema  (Payot-Lausanne/ Presses de l’Université Laval, 1992) –DOMITOR 1990.

Roland Cosandey & François Albera (eds), Cinéma sans frontières/Cinema Across Borders (Payot-Lausanne/ Nuit Blanche Editeur, 1995) –DOMITOR 1992.

Donald Crafton, Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898-1928 (University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Scott Curtis, The Shape of Spectatorship: Art, Science, and Early Cinema in Germany (Columbia University Press, 2015).

Scott Curtis, Tom Gunning, Philippe Gauthier & Joshua Yumibe (eds.), The Image in Early Cinema: Form and Material (Indiana University Press, 2018)DOMITOR 2014.

Marina Dahlquist, Doron Galili, Jan Olsson & Valentine Robert (eds.), Corporeality in Early Cinema: Viscera, Skin, and Physical Form (Indiana University Press, 2018)DOMITOR 2016.

Sarah Dellmann, Images of Dutchness: Popular Visual Culture, Early Cinema, and the Emergence of a National Cliché, 1800-1914 (Amsterdam University Press, 2018).

Nick Deocampo (ed.), Early Cinema in Asia (Indiana University Press, 2017).

Victoria Duckett and Vito Adriaensens (ed.), The Actress-Manager and Early Film (Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film 45.1, 2018).

Claire Dupré La Tour, André Gaudreault & Roberta Pearson (eds), Le cinéma au tournant du siècle / Cinema at the Turn of the Century (Lausanne-Payot/ Nota Bene, 1999) —DOMITOR 1994.

Jacques Deslandes and Jacques Richard, Histoire comparée du cinéma (Casterman, 1968).

Thomas Elsaesser (ed.), Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative (BFI, 1990).

Thomas Elsaesser, Film History as Media Archaeology (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016).

Tony Fletcher, Regulating the Cinematograph in London 1897-1906 (London: Local History Publications, 2017).

Giovanna Fossati, Tom Gunning, Jonathan Rosen & Joshua Yumibe, Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema (Eye Filmmuseum/Amsterdam University Press, 2015).

Giovanna Fossati, Victoria Jackson, Bregt Lameris, Elif Rongen-Kaynakci, Sarah Street & Joshua Yumibe, The Colour Fantastic: Chromatic Worlds of Silent Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2018).

John Fell, Film before Griffith (University of California Press, 1983).

Annette Förster, Women in Silent Cinema. Histories of Fame and Fate (Amsterdam University Press, 2017).

Kathryn H. Fuller, At the Picture Show: Small-Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996).

Alberto Gabriele, The Emergence of Pre-Cinema: Print Culture and the Optical Toy of the Literary Imagination (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Jane Gaines, Pink-Slipped: What Happened to Women in the Silent Film Industries (University of Illinois Press, 2018).

Oliver Gaycken, Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science (Oxford University Press, 2015)

André Gaudreault (ed.), Les Cahiers de la Cinémathèque n°29: « le Cinéma des premiers temps 1900-1906 » (hiver 1979).

André Gaudreault, From Plato to Lumière (2009 translation at the Toronto University Press — first published in French at Méridiens Klincksieck, 1988).

André Gaudreault, Cinéma et attraction: pour une nouvelle histoire du cinématographe (CNRS éditions, 2008).

André Gaudreault, Nicolas Dulac, & Santiago Hidalgo (eds), A Companion to Early Cinema (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

André Gaudreault & Tom Gunning, “Early Cinema as a Challenge to Film History” (2006 translation in Attraction Reloaded — first published in French in Histoire du cinéma, nouvelles approches, 1989).

Aaron Gerow, Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, 1895-1925 (University of California Press, 2010).

Lee Grieveson, Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early-Twentieth-Century America (University of California Press, 2004).

Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early film, its Spectator and the Avant Garde” (Wide Angle VIII: 3 & 4, Fall 1986).

Miriam Hansen, Babel & Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Harvard University Press, 1991).

Maggie Hennefeld, Specters of Slapstick & Silent Film Comediennes (Columbia University Press, 2018).

Roger Holman (ed.), Cinema 1900-1906 : An Analytical Study (FIAF, 1982).

Martin L. Johnson, Main Street Movies: The History of Local Film in the United States (Indiana University Press, 2018).

Anton Kaes, Nicholas Baer & Michael Cowan (eds), The Promise of Cinema: German Film Theory, 1907-1933 (University of California Press, 2016).

Charlie Keil, Early American Cinema in Transition (University of Wisonsin Press, 2001).

Charlie Keil (ed.), A Companion to D. W. Griffith (Wiley-Blackwell, 2018).

Frank Kessler, Nanna Verhoeff (eds), Networks of Entertainment. Early Film Distribution 1895-1915 (Indiana University Press/ John Libbey Publishing, 2008) —DOMITOR 2004.

Kristina Köhler, Der tänzerische Film. Frühe Filmkultur und moderner Tanz (Schüren, 2017).

Vanda Krefft, The Man Who Made the Movies: The Meteoric Rise and Tragic Fall of William Fox (New York: HarperCollins, 2017).

Mattia Lento, La scoperta dell’attore cinematografico in Europa (Edizioni ETS, 2017).

Jacques Malthête & Stéphanie Salmon (eds), Recherches et innovations dans l’industrie du cinéma: les cahiers des ingénieurs Pathé 1906-1927 (Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé, 2017)

Michel Marie, Laurent Le Forestier & Catherine Schapira (eds), La firme Pathé Frères, 1896-1914 (AFRHC, 2004) —DOMITOR 1996.

Nicoletta Leonardi & Simone Natale (ed.), Photography and Other Media in the Nineteenth Century (Penn State University Press, 2018).

Jay Leyda and Charles Musser (eds), Before Hollywood (American Federation of the Arts, 1987).

Patrick Loughney, “A Descriptive Analysis of the Library of Congress Paper Print Collection and Related Copyright Materials” (George Washington University, 1988).

Laurent Mannoni, The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema (Exeter Press, 2000).

Steve Massa, Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy (Albany: BearManor Media, 2017).

Jean-Baptiste Massuet, Le dessin animé au pays du film. Quand l’animation graphique rencontre le cinéma en prises de vues réelles (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2017).

Rosanna Maule (ed.), Representational Technologies and the Discourse on Early Cinema’s Apparatus / Les Technologies de représentation et le discours sur le dispositif cinématographique des premiers temps (Cinema & Cie 3, 2003) —DOMITOR 2002.

Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (University of California Press, 1994).

Charles Musser, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (University of California Press, 1991).

Kemp Niver, Motion Pictures from the Library of Congress Paper Print Collection 1894-1912 (University of California Press, 1967).

Jan Olsson, Los Angeles Before Hollywood: Journalism and American Film Culture, 1905 to 1915 (National Library of Sweden, 2008).

Giusy Pisano, Une archéologie du cinéma sonore (CNRS éditions, 2004).

Marion Polirsztok, Action/Spectacle/Idea: Forms of the American Silent Cinema (Mimesis, 2018).

Leornardo Quaresima & Laura Vichi (eds), La decima musa. Il cinema e le altre arte (Udine: Forum, 2001) —DOMITOR 2000.

Lauren Rabinovitz, For the Love of Pleasure: Women, Movies, and Culture in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (Rutgers University Press, 1998).

Lauren Rabinovitz, Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity (Columbia University Press, 2012).

Gary D. Rhodes, The Birth of the American Horror Film (Edinburgh University Press, 2018).

Stéphanie Salmon, Pathé à la conquête du cinéma, 1896-1929 (Tallandier, 2014).

Georges Sadoul, Histoire générale du cinéma (Denoel, 1948-1975).

Vanessa Schwartz, Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin de siècle Paris (University of California Press, 1998).

Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (University of California Press, 2005).

Isak Thorsen, Nordisk Films Kompagni 1906–1924: The Rise and Fall of the Polar Bear (KINtop 5, 2017).

Vanessa Toulmin, Electric Edwardians: The Story of the Mitchell & Kenyon Collection (British Film Institute, 2006).

Yuri Tsivian, Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception (University of Chicago Press, 1998).

Marc Vernet, Ainsi naquit Hollywood. Avant l’âge d’or, les ambitions de la Triangle et les premiers studios (Armand Colin, 2018).

Gregory Waller, Main Street Amusements: Movies and Commercial Entertainment in a Southern City, 1896-1930 (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).

Tami Williams, Susan Ohmer & Donald Crafton, Early Cinema and the Archives (The Moving Image, 16.1, 2017).

Colin Williamson, Hidden in Plain Sight: An Archaeology of Magic and the Cinema (Rutgers University Press, 2015).

Emily Yueh-yu Yeh (ed.), Early Film Culture in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Republican China: Kaleidoscopic Histories (University of Michigan Press, 2018).

Joshua Yumibe, Moving Color: Early Film, Mass Culture, Modernism (Rutgers University Press, 2012).

Zhang Zhen, An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896-1937 (University of Chicago Press, 2005).