Mapping Movies


Exploring the landscape of moving pictures. Because movies come and go, theaters rise and fall, and the audience has to be in place.

Mapping Movies is founded on a simple premise: Where we watch movies matters. To understand the powerful role that movies play shaping culture and identity, we first need to know where they have been seen. We then need to know how they got there, when, under whose auspices, and in what physical conditions and social contexts they were experienced, interpreted, discussed, regulated, acted upon, and remembered by diverse audiences.

Whatever the environment – open air, tent, barracks, theater, town hall, church, airplane, hotel, home, school, mobile device, or elsewhere – Mapping Movies explores how people and movies intersect in places that vary and change over time. The goal is to discover the social, technological and industrial forces that create the infrastructures for these intersections, and to map the cultural networks and patterns formed through and upon them. By placing histories of movies in geographical contexts, the project explores the relations between media access, landscape, community, demography, transportation, modernization, and memory. It also probes the limits of mapping as a method and mode for historical research and public engagement.

Mapping Movies is committed to a vision of mapping as a heuristic process of research and learning. Rather than producing finished maps or closed narratives, the site seeks to create space for users to explore shared data and interact with multiple information streams in an open-ended way. Designed to stimulate new research and encourage serendipitous discovery, the project will incorporate a wide mix of historical artifacts and spatial data from both formal and vernacular sources. These materials will reflect the perspectives of multiple spatial locations and social experiences that together constitute a people’s history of movies.

Jeffrey Klenotic pioneered Mapping Movies as a desktop Geographic Information System (GIS) in 2003. In 2013 the project entered phase two by going online using the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA) web GIS platform created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of New Hampshire (UNH). ERMA/Mapping Movies grew and developed for ten years before its server went offline in July 2023. Work is now underway to deploy new, open source, cloud-based GIS platforms to launch an even more accessible and collaborative version of Mapping Movies into its next decade and third digital phase.

UPDATE (January 3, 2024): In continuing to explore QGIS Cloud for mapping cinema history, I reached data storage limits (50 mb) of the free version of the platform when I attempted to upload a shapefile showing the geographic distribution of the U.S. foreign born population across 2,960 counties in 1910. I created the shapefile from U.S. census data in attempt to visualize the important context of immigration as an aspect of early cinema and show how this might relate to the distribution of motion picture theaters as gleaned from The Billboard’s published list in 1910 (see previous update below). The free version of QGIS Cloud works well for simple point data with few attributes, which was true of The Billboard 1910 list, but it does not work as well when attempting to situate such points in the dense and more complex attribute contexts afforded by U.S. census data. As an alternative, I turned to ESRI’s ArcGIS online free “public” account mapping platform, and hit the same data limits. However, my home University affords faculty with access to an ArcGIS online “organizational” account, which enables much larger and broader capabilities than the public account. Using this account, I created a web map that included my two layers of 1910 Billboard data on movie theaters (one layer for cities and a second for small towns), as well as my data layer on the distribution of foreign born U.S. population from the 1910 Census. The census layer was derived from data packaged for public use by the Minnesota Population Center’s National Historical Geographic Information System (Version 2.0. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota 2011).  According to the NHGIS data dictionary and codebook, the number of foreign born residents in each county is stored in the column headed ‘a5b004’ and the total population for each county is recorded in the column headed “a22001.” I used the field calculator tool to determine the percentage of each county’s population that was foreign born, with the results stored in a new column headed “a5b005pcfb.” In addition to these three layers, I added a fourth layer featuring a 1910 georeferenced map from the David Rumsey Collection showing U.S. railroads and railroad mileage between stops. The map was brought into ArcGIS online as a web hosted Tile Layer served from the Mapwarper.net crowdsourced mapping platform. After creating my web map, I used ArcGIS online’s “Instant Web App” tools to convert it into an interactive atlas that enables users to explore the four layers of data in both 2D and 3D (the Tile Layer, however, is not compatible with the 3D viewer and cannot be added to the 3D map). To visit the ArcGIS online Mapping Movies Cloud web application, click here, or for more detailed instructions on how to navigate the map, click on the “Interactive Maps” page of this website and read the caption beneath the ArcGIS Online map image at the top of the page before clicking on the image to enter the application.

UPDATE (October 16, 2023): I have begun exploring different cloud-based GIS mapping platforms for the next iteration of the interactive, online component of the Mapping Movies project. QGIS offers a free cloud platform (QGIS Cloud) that facilitates the basic visualization and exploration of data online. Though the free version of the platform has a limited range of tools, and does not permit the exchange of data via downloads, it does offer a quick, free, and open source way for those who are familiar with the desktop version of QGIS to easily share their work so that it can be explored interactively by others. To test QGIS Cloud, I have deployed it to reproduce and share one of the first datasets that I had mapped on the old ERMA Mapping Movies platform, which was a list of U.S. moving picture theaters published in The Billboard magazine over several months in late 1910 and early 1911. This map does not show the locations of individual theaters. Instead it shows the total number of theaters known to be open at that time in what The Billboard characterized as “principal cities” and “small towns” across the United States. I will continue to add new data layers to this map in the coming weeks, so check back to see how it evolves. To visit the test version of the Mapping Movies Cloud website, click here or skip over to the “Interactive Maps” page of this website and click on the QGIS Cloud map image located on that page.