We are constantly recommending books and articles to people. Now we have organized our collective “frequent recommendations” into a reading list to share. Though the list is organized into categories, you will discover that all of these themes are interlinked. Most of these books fall into multiple — or even all — categories.
Though a good number of these of these selections are out of print, most are available through libraries. Some are freely available online (we have provided a link when that is possible). If you want to purchase one, we recommend ordering through your nearest independent bookstore.
The list may be edited at any time, so bookmark this page and check back!
HISTORY OF FILMGOING, FILM DISTRIBUTION, & FILM EXHIBITION
America At The Movies by Margaret Farrand Thorp
Yale University Press, 1939 — Find At A Library • Read Online
A not-at-all-dry study of American moviegoing and moviegoers written just after the close of the first decade of sound cinema. “There are other people who make the movies besides the artists and technicians in Hollywood. Eighty-five million Americans go to see a picture every week.” CFS’s own Kyle Westphal says it’s “the greatest book about film ever written,” and while he has probably said this about other books on this list, this one is a serious contender.
“The Trouble With Video” by Fred Camper
originally published 1985 — Read Online
Fred Camper explains himself best: “My purpose here is not to attack video, a medium with its own unique properties and potentials, but rather, to address filmmakers and the film community [on the general question of] whether a film can survive the transfer to tape, and whether film should be even viewed on video at all. With filmmakers increasingly tempted by the exhibition possibilities of video distribution and cable TV, some reflections on the differences between the two media, and particularly between film projection and the standard TV monitor that now exists, are in order.”
“The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema” by Godfrey Cheshire
New York Press, 1999 — Read Online
One of the earliest, most substantial essays about the “digital transition” in cinema exhibition. “Maybe people are afraid that if they look up, or talk about what they think might be about to happen, then the next couple of years will turn out to be dauntingly weird and, well, millennial. I haven’t read any articles concerning the enormous changes about to occur in our media environment, which is why I’m writing this one.”
“Digital Rocks” by Will Tavlin
n+1, 2022 — Read Online
This essay reviews the causes and consequences of the “digital transition” for theaters, distributors, archives, and filmmakers from the weary vantage point of the 2020s. The tangle of niche economic and technological specifics involved can make it difficult to retell this history to readers who don’t have a background in these fields, but this piece makes it clear and approachable. “Intro to Film History” instructors, assign this one to your classes!
Crimes of a Christian by Kent Dickinson
One Body Press, 2012 — Find At A Library
A real-life prison memoir written by a movie projectionist caught up in a very bad scene: the Chicago projectionists’ union in the late 1990s. The people in this book do many things that projectionists should never do. Historical context can be found in this Chicago Tribune article from 2003 as well as in this court document from 2006.
Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society by Scott MacDonald
Temple University Press, 2002 — Find At A Library
The first of media scholar Scott MacDonald’s compendiums of documents, program notes, and interviews charting the history of mid-20th century film culture, this book chronicles Amos and Marcia Vogel’s New York-based film society, Cinema 16, through key primary texts (like Amos Vogel’s often hilarious and infuriating written exchanges with filmmaker Kenneth Anger). Cinema 16 existed between 1947 and 1963, but situations and personalities they encountered will be familiar to anyone who runs a small arts organization today.
Art in Cinema: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society by Scott MacDonald
Temple University Press, 2006 — Find At A Library
Following the template established in Cinema 16, MacDonald’s follow-up volume examines Frank Stauffacher’s pioneering film society, Art in Cinema, which ran programs at the San Francisco Museum of Art from 1947 to 1955. In addition to serving as a hub for West Coast post-war experimental film culture, Art in Cinema was notable for publishing one of the earliest museum catalogs devoted to cinema, which is reproduced in facsimile in this volume, along with correspondence, program notes, and interviews.
Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor by Scott MacDonald
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008 — Find At A Library
Canyon Cinema began as Bruce Baillie’s backyard screening series in 1960, but quickly evolved into an artist-run distribution coop in San Francisco, which still operates to this day. If you’ve read McDonald’s Cinema 16 and Art in Cinema books, you know exactly what to expect: a thoroughly researched, deeply entertaining mix of archival research and contemporary writings about the West Coast’s premiere distribution coop.
Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, 1959 – 1971 by Jonas Mekas
first published by the Macmillan Company, 1972 — Find At A Library
Jonas Mekas’s ‘Movie Journal’ column began running in the Village Voice in 1959 and provides an invaluable primary source in chronicling the independent film scene in New York in this period. Mekas’s columns still crackle with wit and fervor (and less generously, much grumpiness). The collection remains inspiring because Mekas’s dispatches remind us that much of the avant-garde canon (established, in no small part, by Mekas, and consecrated subsequently by academic and institutional pedigree) originally debuted to no great fanfare, projected for a handful of losers and junkies in makeshift venues. Absent Mekas’s Voice coverage, many of these events would simply be lost to time. Think about that the next time your program only attracts a dozen people—history may regard it as a watershed moment all the same.
Ideas on Film, Cecile Starr, ed.
Funk & Wagnalls, 1951 — Find At A Library
This volume about non-theatrical exhibition was compiled from columns first published in the Saturday Review of Literature, which, rather astonishingly, ran a regular column about 16mm film overseen by distributor and advocate Cecile Starr. While the film community published many guides and tracts about 16mm during this period, this one is unique because it’s conceived with a non-specialist audience in mind. This book offers matter-of-fact insight into the ways that libraries, schools, labor unions, churches, museums, and other non-theatrical venues approached programming and outreach during the heyday of 16mm. It even features a contribution from Nobel Prize winning novelist Pearl S. Buck, who oversaw the Green Hills Farm Film Council, her neighborhood film club.
Sixty Years of 16mm Films, 1923 – 1983: A Symposium
Film Council of America, 1954 — Read Online
The film council movement grew out of wartime mobilization in the 1940s, when local boards coordinated the circulation and exhibition of educational and informational films from the US government. It’s a measure of this movement’s success and ambitions that this odd little volume from the Film Council of America—published in 1954, the title notwithstanding—chronicles the first thirty years of small gauge exhibition and projects the next thirty years (!) of its glorious future. (Interestingly, they predict that videotape will overtake film by the ’80s, but that the spirit and ethos of 16mm will transfer to the new medium.)
Film Society Primer, Cecile Starr, ed.
American Federation of Film Societies, 1956 — Find At A Library
This modest chapbook provides a vivid snapshot of the state of film societies in the late 1950s, with contributions from folks running 16mm in Charleston, WV, Princeton, NJ, Salisbury, CT, Wilmington, DE, Madison, WI, Galesburg, IL, Albuquerque, NM, St. Paul, MN, and Long Beach, CA. Starr’s volume illustrates the heterogeneity and decentralized nature of the American film society movement, including contributions from universities, libraries, and even an after-hours film club at the United Nations! A second section describes several organizations trying to organize this unruly consortium and looks towards international examples for comparison.
In Focus: A Guide to Using Films by Linda Blackaby, Dan Georgakas, Barbara Margolis
New York Zoetrope, 1980 — Find At A Library
If the film society boomlet of the 1940s and 1950s emphasized ‘film appreciation’ and used the language of adult education, this next-generation guide comes out of a more activist sensibility. It still provides a lot of practical information about projecting film, producing fliers, leading discussion groups, and the like.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn by Nick Pinkerton
Fireflies Press, 2021 — Find At A Library or Buy From Publisher
This pocket-sized deep dive into Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 film Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a beautiful essay reflecting on the history of Taiwanese filmmaking and the communal spaces where cinema happens. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to eat sunflower seeds in the back of a busted movie palace. The first book from Fireflies Press in a series called “Decadent Editions,” 10 books about 10 films, one for every year of the 2000s.
Times Square Red, Times Square Blue by Samuel R. Delany
New York University Press, 1999 — Find At A Library
FILM EXHIBITION TECHNOLOGY
Film Notes for the Reel People and associated publications from Kodak
Eastman Kodak, published 1976 through ~1990s (?)
These informational newsletters were published and mailed to projectionists by Kodak in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. (A few longer publications were also produced using the “Reel People” trademark). Because of the piecemeal nature of their publication, they are not all easily available, but some are available digitally thanks to the Internet Archive and “The Mistress of the Reel”. (If you have any digital or hard copies, please get in touch with us!)
• Reel People newsletters at the Internet Archive
• Reel People newsletters scanned by The Mistress of the Reel
• Our own inventory of all currently-available issues
John Pytlak’s Practical Projection Pointers
late 1990s / early 2000s – Read Online
John Pytlak was the Senior Technical Specialist at Kodak, winner of a Technical Achievement Academy Award for his work on the Laboratory Aim Density System, and a fountain of knowledge on everything to do with motion picture film and film projection. This series of informal field bulletins covers everything from screen luminance, to “contrast killers,” to “The Seven Deadly Sins of Projection.” They should be printed out and kept on hand in any projection booth!
The Advanced Projection Manual: Presenting Classic Films in a Modern Projection Environment by Torkell Saetervadet
2006 — Find At A Library or Order From Publisher
This volume published by FIAF (the International Federation of Film Archives) provides a state-of-the-art overview of analog projection techniques at a moment right before the mass deployment of digital projection technologies. The book is geared towards archival and cinematheque situations, and the factual information is presented clearly and cogently. Unfortunately, Saetervadet reflects long-standing bias against small-gauge exhibition from a certain segment of the archival community, describing 16mm, Super 8, and 8mm in coarsely condescending terms. This section of the book now reads as a bit of a time capsule, reflecting an elitist attitude towards small gauge exhibition that has, thankfully, been chipped away by events like Home Movie Day and organizations like the Center for Home Movies and the National Film Preservation Foundation. Despite this, the book remains a great resource for experienced projectionists and technicians, and many of the ones we know say they keep it on a shelf in the booth and reach for it often.
The Art of Film Projection: A Beginner’s Guide edited by Paolo Cherchi Usai, Spencer Christiano, Catherine A. Surowiec, Timothy A. Wagner
George Eastman Museum, 2019 — Find At A Library
Written and edited collectively by projectionists and other staff at the George Eastman Museum, as well as students from the museum’s L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, this is a thorough and approachable overview of the fundamentals of theatrical 35mm film projection in the post-digital-cinema 21st century. Much of what it covers will be familiar to seasoned booth hands who have worked in “reel to reel” settings, but rarer subjects pop up: the projection of nitrate film prints (a specialty of the Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theatre) gets its own chapter. You won’t learn how to be a projectionist from reading this book, but you will probably enjoy reading it if you have ever worked in a booth, or ever wanted to.
Sound Systems: Design and Optimization by Bob McCarthy
Focal Press, 2016 — Find At A Library
Essentially a very dense textbook for designing (and optimizing) sound systems, which applies to cinema as well as live sound applications. Not a beginner’s book, but much of the material is written in an approachable way for anyone with a basic understanding of sound technology, and the illustrations are excellent. This book will save a lot of heartache whether you’re designing a 16mm home screening room or a 1000 seat theater, and is especially useful when trying to convince bean counters that you really do need those acoustic treatments.
Projecting Sound Pictures by Aaron Nadell
McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1931 — Find At A Library or Read Online
A thorough and approachably written explanation of optical sound reproduction and recording still in use on film prints today (though with some major improvements since 1931). The first chapter offers one of the best explanations of how optical sound works that we’ve read, as well as an extensive troubleshooting guide that will still come in handy today. Amazing illustrations throughout.
Motion-Picture Projection and Theatre Presentation Manual, Don V. Kloepfel, ed.
Scarsdale, NY: Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, Inc., 1969. [ISBN: 0940690012] — Find At A Library
Did you borrow our copy of the SMPTE Projection and Theatre Presentation manual? If so, we would like it back. Unable to reference it right now, we’ll say it’s a must for any projection booth and covers a lot of showmanship tricks of the trade that faded from public view in the multiplex era that followed.
Motion Picture Projection by James R. Cameron
Find At A Library or Read Online: First Edition (1918) • Second Edition (1921) • Third Edition (1922) • Tenth Edition (1947)
No, not that James Cameron. James R. Cameron entered the Motion Picture business in 1902. In 1918, when he wrote the first edition of this manual — then titled Instruction of Disabled Men in Motion Picture Projection: An Elementary Text Book— he was an instructor of film projection for the American Red Cross. Probably the densest book on film projection technology, Motion Picture Projection goes deep on the many technologies and disciplines that make film projection possible. Cameron writes “The author… does not wish to pose as an expert in all manners pertaining to projection. When one stops to consider that to fill this role of expert one would have to be (a) An expert electrician, (b) An expert Optician, (c) An expert mechanic, and (d) An expert in photography, besides having good working knowledge of at least half a dozen branches of sciences that are allied with the Motion Picture industry, one must admit it would be a hard role to fill.” Some earlier editions are over 1200 pages long and include sections on theater design, fire safety, and detailed maintenance procedures for specific projectors, while the 17th version, published in 1972, is a little more pared down but contains a lot of great history on film technology.
Big as Life: An American History of 8mm Films
Museum of Modern Art/San Francisco Cinematheque, 1998 — Find At A Library
FAVORITE FILM PROJECTOR MANUAL
Century C – 1942 Printing – Read Online
The Century C was one of the first truly “modern” 35mm projectors, and also one of the simplest. This particular version of the Century C manual gives a comprehensive overview of the projector itself, but also has quite a bit of detail on the mechanics of film projection.
The Book of Film Care, Paul L. Gordon, ed.
Eastman Kodak Company, 1983 — Find At A Library
Note that subsequent editions are “okay” but they strip out much of the personality of the original edition.
“This book is for you, because you are a member of the worldwide community that has made film part of everyday life … You are legion and you have only one thing in common: you expose, process, store, handle, project, or repair films. The films may be black-and-white or color; 70 mm, 35 mm, 16 mm, 8 mm, or super 8; historically valuable films on cellulose-nitrate base, cellulose acetate or triacetate, or ESTAR Base. Or you may not even know, or especially care, about the classification. But you do care that your film last as long as possible and looks good on the screen, that the projector doesn’t jam, and that the sound isn’t garbled.” Besides heart and personality, this book offers a useful illustrated taxonomy of common types of film damage you might encounter at the inspection bench and a solid introduction to basic concepts in film preservation. Because it’s such an approachable introduction to film handling for people who are new at it, it’s often the first book we loan to our interns.
Andy Warhol Screen Tests: The Films of Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné Vol 1 by Callie Angell
Harry Abrams and the Whitney Museum of American Art, 2006 — Find At A Library
This monumental book is beautiful and fun to read, with frame enlargements and short, friendly descriptions of each of Warhol’s “screen test” films and the people they depict. The material attributes of film prints don’t usually get the same art historical treatment in books as do the pigments and chemistry of fine art paintings or the wood of their frames. Callie Angell knew better, and detailed the exact lengths of the film rolls, the specific film stocks, the crossed-out words written on the film boxes in pencil, and whose handwriting it was, alongside biographical sketches and notes on composition, focus, and framing. For this reason, this book is a model for how to write and think about film as art, beyond any specific interest you may have in Andy Warhol’s films (but it’s also the next best thing to actually seeing these particular films projected!) Volume 2 has just been published as of December 2021, but none of us have read it yet.
Home Movies: A History of the American Industry, 1897-1979 by Alan Kattelle
Transition Publishing, 2000 — Find At A Library
This is a pleasant and detailed history of home and amateur filmmaking and the industries that made them possible, considered one of the definitive books on this subject. However, I think I’ve seen this book on the shelf at actual film archives more often than almost any of the other books on this reading list. This is because it also contains painstakingly assembled appendices detailing just about every technical aspect of amateur films imaginable, from camera and projector models and their original retail prices to the identification marks that certain cameras left on the film that ran through them. Home movies divorced of context can be quite mysterious; the information in this book helps archivists decode them.
Nitrate Won’t Wait: A History of Film Preservation in the United States by Anthony Slide
McFarland & Company, 1992 — Find At A Library
This book is a collection of colorful historical sketches of the major players — both individual and institutional — in the first decades of film preservation as a professional field, written by someone who was present for most of it and knew many of the players personally. Kind of feels like listening to an extremely interesting old-timer talk shit at the bar late at night at the Association of Moving Image Archivists conference.
A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies by Dennis Bartok & Jeff Joseph
Jackson University Press of Mississippi, 2016 — Find At A Library
A book about film collectors, written by film collectors, heavily derived from interviews with film collectors (including us).
Making Kodak Film by Robert L. Shanebrook
originally published in 2010 — Find At A Library or Order from the author
Self-published by a 35-year Kodak veteran, this is a detailed insider’s view of how Kodak film (not just motion picture film) is manufactured. Includes numerous rare photos. “No one else, including Eastman Kodak Company, has any rights to over ninety-five percent of the contents of this book, so the information may not ever be available from another source.”
PLUS, a few we haven’t had time to annotate yet:
The Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935 by James Layton and David Pierce
George Eastman House, 2015 — Find At A Library
Silent Cinema: An Introduction by Paolo Cherchi Usai
2000 — Find At A Library
A Passion for Films: Henri Langlois and the Cinematheque Francaise by Richard Roud
Viking, 1983 — Find At A Library
Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film by James Card
Knopf, 1994 — Find At A Library
Keepers of the Frame: The Film Archives by Penelope Houston
BFI, 1994 — Find At A Library
The Film Preservation Guide: The Basics for Archives, Libraries, and Museums
National Film Preservation Foundation, 2004 — Find At A Library or Read Online
The Field Guide to Sponsored Films by Rick Prelinger
National Film Preservation Foundation, 2006 — Find At A Library or Read Online
Recipes for Disaster: A Handcrafted Film Cookbooklet by Helen Hill
originally published 2001 — Read Online
Animator Helen Hill assembled this joyful, practical guide to making films by hand (and on the cheap) out of tips solicited from other filmmakers by postcard. “What I mean by handcrafted cinema: handprocessing, tinting and toning […] cameraless animation (creating or manipulating images frame by frame by painting and scratching directly onto film). A few reasons to use these techniques (hands-on approach, low cost, fast results) It’s fun to handle film as a celluloid canvas rather than as a fragile carrier of images, only to be handled by lab technicians. […] You can experiment and create the most beautiful images ever.”
Film in the Present Tense: Why can’t we stop talking about analogue film?
2019 — Find At A Library or Order From the Publisher
A compendium of short writing, dialogues, and other contributions generated by the 2017 “International Symposium on Current Developments in Analog Film Culture” in Berlin. The contributors include “artists, filmmakers, scholars, archivists, curators, technicians and manufacturers” — including literal film makers like the operators of artist-run film labs and people involved with the Film Ferrania project (complete list of contributors on the publisher’s website).
Film Technology in Post Production by Dominic Case
Focal Press, 1997 — Find At A Library
This book covers almost everything you could ever want to know about finishing a movie on film, including getting quotes from a lab, film processing and printing, negative cutting and assembly, blowups, and much more. Written by the former Technology and Services Manager at Atlab Australia. Can be used as a reference but well worth reading cover to cover. Also an essential read for anyone in film preservation. Includes some information on digital intermediates and film recording, but the second edition (published in 2001) probably has a bit more.
Your Film and the Lab by L. Bernard Happe
Focal Press, 1974 — Find At A Library
Similar to “Film Technology in Post Production,” this book covers everything from after your film is exposed to the final print. Does not cover some more modern processes (such as hybrid digital/film workflows), but provides very detailed information on all manner of photochemical workflows. The illustrations are particularly excellent and can be enjoyed even by the technically illiterate!
Independent Filmmaking by Lenny Lipton
Straight Arrow Books, 1972 — Find At A Library
Have never finished this book because I get excited and pick up a camera after reading just a few pages. Great resource that covers everything from using a tripod to making titles for your films. Lots of good information on optics. Crucial reading for ALL filmmakers, not just independent/experimental.
Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices by Rick Schmidt
Penguin, 1988 — Find At A Library
The book that says “just do it” has many important lessons in thrift as well as solid advice for technical workarounds to make your movie on the cheap and still shoot on film. I wouldn’t follow the author’s advice on credit cards but there’s a lot of great and inspiring information here.
FILM by Tacita Dean
Tate, 2011 — Find At A Library
“Digital is not the analogue of analogue. At the moment we have both, so why deplete our world of this choice?” The exhibition catalog from Tacita Dean’s monumental installation in Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, which occurred at the peak of the cinematic “digital transition” years. In addition to Dean’s own essay about her preparations for the installation, the book contains scrapbook-like illustrations and frame enlargements alongside written contributions from various film workers, including hotshots like film curator Paolo Cherchi Usai, filmmakers Peter Kubelka and Jonas Mekas, the School of the Art Institute’s Bruce Jenkins, critic Amy Taubin, and preservationist Mark Toscano. An interesting artifact of the art world’s conversations about the future of making analog film work at a distinctly uncertain moment.
The Snarkout Boys & the Avocado of Death by Daniel Pinkwater
1982 — Find At A Library • Listen to the Audiobook (read by the author, highly recommended!)
A hilarious surrealist classic from young adult author and genuine weirdo Daniel Pinkwater. “Can the Snarkout Boys save the man who can save the world from extra-terrestrial real estate brokers? That is the question, or, at any rate, it’s a question, and one you may, or may not, find the answer to in a book that takes you from the hallowed halls of Genghis Khan High School to an all-night movie theater that features such double bills as Rebel Without a Cause and Attack of the Mayan Mummy to a secret laboratory housing the ultimate organic secret weapon.” Chicago residents might recognize the thinly disguised “Snark Street Bus” and “Snark Theater.” We love this book so much we bought two editions because the covers are different. A great gift for the cinephile who has everything, or a cool 12 year-old.
Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison
2001 — Find At A Library • Buy From Publisher
“Here I have retrieved from beneath the refrigerator these thirty or forty fur-covered toy mice. These cost me hundreds of dollars over the years and have a street value of many hundreds of dollars. So why doesn’t the cat—lying on her side there with her eyes squeezed shut—show any appreciation?” The fragmented diary of an unhinged Hollywood script doctor with three ex-husbands and a missing cat who divides her time into driving aimlessly around the South while hopped up on ADD meds and flying to L.A to get fired. Robison was once an actual Hollywood script doctor and her 1981 novel Oh! was the basis for Michael Almereyda’s film Twister.
The Woman Chaser by Charles Willeford
originally published in 1960 — Find At A Library
The story of a very mean, bad man making a very bad movie. Incredible insight into the mind of an incompetent filmmaker, with a particularly excruciating editing process. Begins with one of the best descriptions of threading a film projector I’ve ever read, and also a “must read” for Santa Claus enthusiasts.
The Kidnapping of Courtney Van Allen & What’s-her-name by Joyce Cool
1981 — the Bantam Starfire edition has the best cover art — Find At A Library
I can’t promise that this book is “good”, but I read it repeatedly when I was ten. It introduced me to the idea that there might be weird people around me who are REALLY into old silent movies, even though it’s the 1990s.
Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell
1989 — Find At A Library
A horror novel about a haunted movie. Has a set piece set in an old movie palace that is the scariest thing I have ever read.
Nothing More Than Murder by Jim Thompson
originally published 1949 — Find At A Library
For a crime paperback about miserable people, this book sure contains a lot of accurate detail about the film exhibition business in the 1940s!