What is Film Studies? An Overview of the Academic Discipline

Film studies is an institutionalized academic discipline that focuses on the serious study of films, cinematic history and film culture and is majorly informed by film theory. Unlike what some people may believe, film studies is not concerned with filmmaking or the technicalities of film production itself but is rather focused on studying cinema the way one would with art or literature. It involves not just analysing the content of a film, but also looking into its form, the narrative, technique, stylistic elements and the historical, socio-political, economic, and cultural aspects and context surrounding it. This article aims to provide an introduction to what the field entails by delving into its history and further looking into some of the major concepts involved.

film studies

History of Film Studies:

The invention of film technology and the creation of motion pictures itself is a relatively new chapter in human history. A critical approach towards cinema emerged a while later, with writings on film history first published in the 1920s along with the launch of journals. The first film school was set up in 1919 in Moscow, and more cropped up in France, the United States and the UK in the next couple of years however they were all institutes dedicated mainly to filmmaking and film production, with film studies only being a part of the larger, mainly practical work-based programs. At that time, classes on film appreciation were being introduced in schools in part as an effort to educate them about this newer but growingly popular medium of communication.

However, the field of film studies is one that has been around only for the last few decades. The creation of film theory and the idea of film studies as an institutionalized field first came about in the 1940s in France, under the “filmologie” movement, and names such as “cinematology” were considered. It seriously began taking shape a decade later and came to be known as film studies. Scholars and critics mainly looked at and studied mainstream Hollywood and other national film movements such as those of Soviet Cinema and German Expressionism. Recently, however, the focus has been more towards world cinema. We have also been witnessing in the past few years the changes that digital technology has brought to the cinema, both in terms of filmmaking and the rise of streaming services which have sparked debates on the future of films and the cinema.

Introduction to Film Theory:

Film theory is one of the most important and foundational elements of the discipline, and that which distinguishes it from say, just film critique. It is a set of theoretical approaches used to study cinema and its relationship to audiences, reality and the world. Some of the earliest texts of film theory which helped establish it as a theoretical approach were essays published in journals such as Cahiers Du Cinema (France), Screen (United Kingdom).

Scholar Robert Slam describes film theory as “palimpsestic”, i.e that it majorly draws from and is informed by previous theories such as literary theory and contemporary discourses. Many of the topics debated upon in film theory such as aesthetics, realism, genre, etc are ones that already existed long before. For a long time, it was heavily inspired by “grand theory”, i.e, theories found in the works of philosophers and thinkers such as Freud, Althusser, Marx, etc. The introduction of film theory helped film studies in getting credibility and being seen as an academic discipline. Since grand theory focuses on more abstract concepts, in recent times there have been newer theories and concepts created by those scholars and academics who place importance on looking at the role and representation of gender, class, race, sexuality, nation, etc.

One of the most important theories that helped establish film theory is the auteur theory. While the word auteur already existed beforehand, it was first used in this context by French theorist Alexandre Astruc to refer to a director being the author of the film, i.e being the biggest creative driving force with the film being reflective of their vision. Auteur theory was developed upon by theorists Bazin and Truffaut (also a director) and American critic Andrew Sarris, who is credited with coining the term. Not all directors are classified as auteurs – only those who have a lot of control over their projects and have a distinctive style that can be noticed throughout their work such that one can recognise who it is being termed as auteurs.

There are various other types of theories that come under film theory such as feminist film theory and queer theory which look into the representation and role of women and the queer community respectively in cinema; psychoanalytic film theory, which is based on the works of Freud and Lacan; Marxist film theory, which focused on using films to increase class consciousness and spread messages to the masses; apparatus theory, which is drawn from psychoanalysis and Marxist theory and talks about the ideological nature of cinema and how it influences the viewer, etc. The theories that have been noted here are just a few of the many theories and concepts related to cinema.


Today, there are numerous film studies programs and courses being offered by universities and colleges across the world, either as fully-fledged programs or a subsection of media studies. There is no one common curriculum for film studies as it is an academic discipline that developed and was shaped by the critiques and cinematic analysis of academics, film critics and people from the industry. However, the important elements that form the basis for students include various film movements, waves of cinema, cinematic genres and tropes, modes of analysis, film language, methods of production, ways of filmmaking and various theories. Film studies courses are useful not just for those who wish to enter the industry but are also a good pick for those who may be studying subjects such as philosophy, cultural studies or sociology and are passionate about cinema, and wish to explore it deeper from these angles.


The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2017). Auteur theory. In Encyclopædia Britannicahttps://www.britannica.com/art/auteur-theory

Hellerman, J. (2019, April 10). Understanding film theory: An essential guide. No Film School. https://nofilmschool.com/Film-theory-basic-terms

Joshi, P. (2014). Films and history: a critical study of select Hindi films (1950-2008) [Doctoral dissertation]. http://lib.unipune.ac.in:8080/xmlui/handle/123456789/9094

Kuhn, A. (2019, October 28). What is film studies? https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/blog/what-is-studies/

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Swati D is an undergraduate student at FLAME University, Pune, pursuing a literary and cultural Studies major and an open minor focused in sociology. Her interests include learning more about issues related to gender and sexuality and its intersections with various other vectors, and studying online spaces. She likes to unwind by watching cooking videos and reading (fan)fiction.