In search of new words for new media?

Is a ‘movie’ still a movie if you watch it on your phone?

Sarah Philbrick
Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA, holds an annual science fiction movie festival.

A question arising from the correspondence folder: Do we need a new, or better, word for “movies” in this era when people watch them not only in the movie house but on the phone as they wait for a bus?

Whatever happened to cinematic glamour, anyway? Instead of palatial theaters we have Joe Average hitting the pause button in the middle of a movie to find out what’s delaying the No. 47.

Film has long been an aspirational synonym for “movie” – movie as “art,” in other words. At the beginning of the “feature presentation” (i.e., the thing you came to see as distinct from all the trailers) there is usually a screen that announces “A Film by [Director’s Name].” Note: It’s a “film,” not a “movie.”

But does it make a difference that films (or movies) are not on actual film anymore? Maybe not.

It may be useful to distinguish between genres and delivery systems. Some genres, and the terms for them, have proved remarkably sturdy, even as delivery systems evolve. 

Book once referred to a scroll, and then was applied to the collections of bound “signatures” familiar today. And a book on an e-reader is still a book, however different the reading experience.

Record has been a similarly flexible term, remaining in use as technology has evolved from wax cylinders to compact discs. “Articles” may be online or in a dog-eared magazine. Academics organizing conferences still call for “papers,” even though they get digital files in response.

Digital, of course, referred first to fingers and then to types of clocks. But it also means “of or relating to information that is stored in the form of the numbers 0 and 1.” This reference to two numbers instead of 10 suggests that a better term would have been pollical, from the adjective derived from pollex, the technical term for thumb (or big toe). It would acknowledge all those thumb typists who have transformed our online culture. But I digress.

We might say that movie and film are two terms for a distinct genre, built on traditions of theater but made possible by a cinematic technology, which has continued to evolve. Video (from the Latin “I see”) has come in as a new genre built on another kind of new technology. I have a hunch we’ll be talking about “movies” and “films,” and distinguishing them from “videos,” for some time to come.

True story: Making my way through Harvard Square the other day, I heard behind me the voices of (I gathered) a female undergraduate and a somewhat older man – an uncle? A family friend who hasn’t seen her in a while? I sensed he was trying to avoid sounding like a fuddy-duddy. He asked, “Do you actually have paper books in your classes anymore?”

Oh, yes, she answered; she reads actual books all the time. And in fact, she added, “I print out all my course readings. I can’t stand to read on the computer!”

In some cases, it’s not just the genres that live on longer than you might expect; it’s the delivery mechanisms, too.

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