What’s in a name? A forum on the past, present, and potential futures of nontheatrical media studies 

by Madison Brown and Tanya Goldman

In recent decades, scholars and archivists have increasingly turned their attention to a diverse corpus of moving image works and practices distinct from cinema and media studies’ classic preoccupations with feature films, documentary, experimental filmmaking, and commercial television. By studying a capacious body of long neglected works and genres (science films, classroom films, sponsored films, and home movies among them), this cohort has developed a variety of interpretative and interdisciplinary frameworks to make sense of their meaning and, in doing so, have probed media’s endless entanglements in 20th-century life on a global scale.[1] [open notes in a new window]

Yet, while the nature of such media practices and scholarship is global, we as a community have struggled to find a shared terminology. Among English-language scholars—particularly in the United States and Canada—these cinemas and the spaces outside the commercial theater in which they have been historically encountered are often referred to as ‘nontheatrical’ to distinguish valences of ‘difference’ in form, function, and exhibition. It is this adjective, for example, that forms the basis of the “Nontheatrical Film and Media” Scholarly Interest Group (SIG) formed within the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) in 2007. While nontheatrical is widely used in this context, scholars have long recognized its theoretical and linguistic limitations.[2] Are there more precise and inclusive terms to encapsulate the disparate media objects we collectively study?

The limitations of nontheatrical as designator of this growing subfield have been increasingly on the minds of many SIG members. Preliminary discussions held during virtual SCMS member meetings in 2020 and ’21, as well a 2022 member survey, yielded scattered suggestions but little consensus. These discussions were also limited to active (that is, due-paying) members of the SCMS community, precluding precarious researchers, graduate students, non-English speaking scholars, and more.[3] (Regarding non-English language verbiage, current SIG co-chair Dimitrios Latsis is spearheading a nomenclature study that seeks to gather terms customarily used to describe ‘other cinemas’ from as many languages as possible.) Ultimately, SIG leaders realized that what began primarily as an administrative consideration—contemplating a change to its name—was an opportunity to do much more.

Eager to involve interlocutors beyond SCMS membership, then-SIG Graduate Representative Madison Brown and former grad rep Tanya Goldman convened an online forum—“What’s In a Name?: A Forum on the Past, Present, and Potential Futures of Nontheatrical Media Studies”—that invited participants to reflect on the state of the field and continue discussion regarding the potential renaming of the SIG. At the invitation of event attendee and Jump Cut editor Julia Lesage, what follows is a brief narrative summary of the discussion among the event’s nearly 50 attendees. This discussion encompassed suggestions and debates around numerous aspects involved in a name change:

Medium specificity was one recurrent line of thought during the forum. What of a medium like television that has never been rooted in theatrical exhibition?, asked Owen Gottlieb.[4] In turn, Lauren Berliner asked how digital media complicates nontheatrical designations and recounted her initial perception that, as a scholar of contemporary media, she did not ‘fit’ within a subfield whose extant body of research is historically-oriented. She noted that social media is often situated in relation to amateur media production (a topic bulked within nontheatrical studies) and, similarly, both amateur media’s and social media’s circulation via computers, phones, and tablets have never been theatrical. Michael Turcios pursued this line of reasoning further by observing that many organizations use so-called nontheatrical moving images often as one element of a larger media ecology, commingling with paper-based materials, photographs, and other media forms. Put simply, considering these adjacent nonfilmic artifacts is methodologically necessary to fully account for the use of media in nontheatrical contexts.

Attendees also weighed the viability of alternative terms. It quickly became apparent that, just as ‘nontheatrical’ has its deficits, so too do its potential alternatives. Martin Johnson broached the viability of “small gauge.” As a catch-all descriptor for marginalized film formats throughout the 20th century (most popularly 16mm and 8mm film), Johnson suggested that the term has the potential to serve as shorthand for likewise ‘alternative’ formats typical of non-mainstream media today. Although several participants objected to the collapsing of distinct technological formats like video and digital media into one medium-specific term like ‘gauge,’ Johnson also suggested that ‘gauge’ as a verb can connote an evolving field whose practitioners are consistently re-appraising its meanings and methods. 

‘Useful media’ (from Charles Acland and Haidee Wasson’s influential edited volume Useful Cinema) emerged as a popular and much-discussed alternative.[5] Yet, as Joshua Mitchell incisively noted, this phrase is ladened with its own exclusionary baggage. He observed that ‘useful’ evokes positive connotations of achievement. Citing his research on educational film screenings at Indigenous residential schools as an example, Mitchell drew attention to the conservative ideologies and harmful applications present in many nontheatrical media histories: “Useful to whom?,” we collectively contemplated. In response, several attendees broached ‘instrumental media’ as a more ideologically neutral descriptor for moving images and operations designed to achieve “demands and objectives…to do something in particular.”[6]
‘Minor cinema’ was another suggestion given considerable attention. In response, Carolyn Steele argued that framing nontheatrical studies in this way risked presenting the work as insignificant and unimportant, particularly to those unfamiliar with the terrain. Contrastingly, Alexandra Juhasz, citing politically radical uses of nonfiction film, argued for the power in framing nontheatrical as marginal since it is in the margins that political work occurs. Here Rick Prelinger reminded us that moving images began as nontheatrical and nondramatic and suggested that we, as scholars and enthusiasts of nontheatrical media, reclaim the term ‘film,’ in and of itself, from its dominant associations with entertainment. Hardly quaint, subcultural, or minor, “we’re really the mainstream,” he quipped.[7]
Other attendees were more hesitant about abandoning ‘nontheatrical’altogether. They noted that the adjective has achieved some level of recognizability; abandoning the term would interfere with progress that had already been made by foundational scholars in the field. Yet another approach was additive. Adding “orphan media” (from the influential biennial Orphan Film Symposium which began in 1999) to the SIG title was floated as a viable option. ‘Amateur,’ ‘useful,’ ‘instrumental, and ‘vernacular media’ were also broached in this regard–as well as the potential viability of an acronym.[8] Joe Clark invoked yet another tack that has been taken by SIGs in SCMS. For example, there is no African American Cinema SIG, but instead the Micheaux Society, a graceful solution that speaks to the spirit of the community rather than trying to find a descriptor.
Conversations around utility and the mass applications of nontheatrical media turned to discussion of the fundamental interdisciplinary nature of the subfield. The scope of nontheatrical media potentially includes any field and/or discipline where moving image media functions for purposes distinct from or in addition to entertainment alone. Loren Pilcher noted that much nontheatrical scholarship shares social and institutional critiques with other areas of study such as gender and sexuality studies. As such, the illegibility of ‘nontheatrical’ prevents dialogue with media scholars and those who conceive of themselves working in entirely different disciplines.
Pilcher’s observation harkened back to a statement written by Haidee Wasson in advance of the event. In this statement, Wasson wrote that the unclear designation of ‘nontheatrical’ not only inhibits interdisciplinarity but also—and even more importantly given the precarious state of higher education—obscures the subfield’s perceived value among job commitments, tenure and review boards, and research funding bodies.
While nontheatrical media scholarship has tended towards the historical (recall Berliner’s observation regarding distinctions between contemporary digital media and pre-digital moving images), the political stakes addressed throughout the forum speak to the subfield’s resonances within today’s media ecology. As Julia Lesage pointed out, “phenomenologically, culturally, politically and economically” nontheatrical media is a “glue that binds” our expansive media cultures of past and present.

Perhaps the challenge of defining the parameters of nontheatrical media (and defending its value) is precisely because of these binding properties. In fact, looking at nontheatrical media’s overlaps with many of SCMS’ other scholarly interest groups (SIGs) points to the wide presence of nontheatrical concerns within other subfields. For instance:

In titling our forum “What’s In a Name?” we playfully foregrounded the Nontheatrical Film and Media SIG’s initial goal of reassessing its title. But beyond that, the event affirmed that renaming the SIG is much more than the changing of a subfield’s designation within a single academic organization. The renaming conversation doubles as an effort to characterize our pervasive past and present media landscape differently, with more acuity, capaciousness, and inclusivity. It is also an opportunity to reassess the contemporary political and cultural stakes of media—and media studies—by reprioritizing what we think about and the terminology we use to describe and critique it. It is also an invitation for other areas and subfields to appraise their own terminology, to seek cracks in their own accessibility and legibility. “What’s In a Name?,” we asked, and the answer surprised us all: quite a lot.
We wish to thank all attendees for their participation and welcome opportunities to continue this discussion.


1. For a sample of scholarship, see “Mapping the Nontheatrical Field: A Useful Teaching Bibliography” compiled by Hongwei Thorn Chen and Sophia Gräfe in “Teaching Nontheatrical Film and Media” dossier, JCMS’ Teaching Media, 2021, web. [return to text]

2. See, for example, Haidee Wasson’s Everyday Movies: Portable Film Projectors and the Transformation of American Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2022) and Dan Streible, Martina Roepke, and Anke Mebold, “Introduction: Nontheatrical Film,” Film History, Volume 19 (2007): 339–43.

3. The Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ annual conferences convene in the United States; its membership and conference attendance fees pose a financial burden to those entirely without or with insufficient institutional funding.

4. Kit Hughes’ Television at Work: Industrial Media and American Labor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020) fits this categorization.

5.The German word gebrauchsfilm similarly evokes a cinema defined by utility.

6. Useful Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 3.

7. Wasson’s Everyday Movies is replete with data evidencing the widespread adoption of 16mm and 8mm projectors during the postwar era as theatrical exhibition (35mm) entered decline. She notes that in 1959, “for every single commercial movie theater in the United States there were 408 small portable projectors in operation,” 4.

8. An “orphan film,” as defined on theOrphan Film Symposium website, is “narrowly defined, it’s a motion picture abandoned by its owner or caretaker. More generally, the term refers to all manner of films outside of the commercial mainstream [which may include] public domain materials, home movies, outtakes, unreleased films, industrial and educational movies, independent documentaries, ethnographic films, newsreels, censored material, underground works, experimental pieces, silent-era productions, stock footage, found footage, medical films, kinescopes, small- and unusual-gauge films, amateur productions, surveillance footage, test reels, government films, advertisements, sponsored films, student works, and sundry other ephemeral pieces of celluloid (or paper or glass or tape or . . . ).

9. To this end, Hollywood’s contributions to wartime government filmmaking—especially Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series and The Negro Soldier—have been particularly well-studied. See, for example, Thomas Cripps and David Culbert’s “The Negro Soldier: Film Propaganda in Black and White,” American Quarterly 31.5 (1979): 616–40, and monographs such as Thomas Doherty’s Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II, revised edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), and Mark Harris’ Five Came Back: A History of Hollywood and the Second World War (New York: Penguin, 2015) which spawned a Netflix docuseries in 2017.