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  • Motion Pictures: A Problem to Be Co-operatively Solved
  • Martin L. Johnson (bio)

The history of nontheatrical film in the United States is vexed by a paucity of research on its origins, the contours of its development, and the meanings that result. The two most prominent edited collections on the subject, Useful Cinema (2011) and Learning with the Lights Off (2012),1 acknowledge the magnitude of the field they are addressing but eschew historicist approaches in favor of generative descriptions of the films themselves. As Devin Orgeron, Marsha Gordon, and Dan Streible note in the introduction to Learning with the Lights Off, the term educational is a “useful umbrella under which to collect scholarship on films that were used to teach, inform, instruct, or persuade viewers in a variety of ways and contexts.”2 Such an approach is useful, to use Charles Acland and Haidee Wasson’s term, in that it can be applied to a diversity of practices, historical periods, and media, but it flattens the history of nontheatrical film and its ongoing, and complex, relationship to commercial cinema, civic institutions, and society. While the field of nontheatrical film is still young, and there are early signs that sites of nontheatrical exhibition, modes of production, and histories of technology will in time get their due, it is worth flagging the tendency to fold all things nontheatrical into a single descriptor.

This pamphlet, produced by the Social Center Committee of the People’s Institute of New York City in March 1915, is prima facie evidence of the difficulty of relying on established frameworks, even those as seemingly firm as the divide between the commercial and noncommercial, or the popular and the educational, in order to understand the history of nontheatrical film. The People’s Institute, which is best known to film historians for its role in shepherding the growth of the National Board of Review, which dealt primarily with commercial cinema, also sponsored social centers in New York City beginning in 1912.3 These [End Page 157] school-based community centers screened motion pictures on a regular basis, and the profits earned from film screenings helped ensure that the centers could stay open, even without operational and financial support from the People’s Institute and the New York City Board of Education.

By early 1915, when this pamphlet was published, social centers had been established in twenty schools in New York City. John Collier, chairman of the Survey Committee of the New York Social Center Committee, oversaw the publication of a series of pamphlets on the problems community centers faced, most of which focused on matters of logistics and financing. This pamphlet was the only one, out of six, to address a specific activity offered by social centers, suggesting that motion pictures were both a pressing subject and one that, as the pamphlet writers suggest, would best be resolved by the centers working together to locate and exchange films.4 Although the proposals outlined in this pamphlet went unrealized, the diagnosis of the state of film distribution in 1915, and its challenges for nontheatrical exhibitors, coincided with initiatives by private and governmental entities to establish film libraries and exchanges as well as the networks that were fundamental for the development of a nontheatrical film sector in the 1920s.

Martin L. Johnson

Martin L. Johnson is author of Main Street Movies: The History of Local Film in the United States (IUP), and an assistant professor of media and communication studies at the Catholic University of America. Starting in 2018, he will be an assistant professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


1. Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson, eds., Useful Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); and Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible, eds., Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

2. Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible, introduction to Orgeron, Orgeron, and Streible, Learning with the Lights Off, 9.

3. Robert Fisher, “Community Organizing and Citizen Participation: The Efforts of the People’s Institute in New York City, 1910–1920,” Social Service Review 51, no. 3 (September 1977...


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