What is the Silver Screen?

wiseGEEK Writer

There is much reference in Hollywood and in filmmaking in general to the silver screen. This is a common phrase that may still refer to most films produced to be screened in theaters. Alternately, some people use it mostly to talk about movies that were generally black and white and made before color filming became common. The term has an interesting origin that completely explains its use.

The term "silver screen" refers to movies made to be shown in theaters.
The term "silver screen" refers to movies made to be shown in theaters.

In the 1920s, movie houses sought to create the best picture quality when films were projected onto a screen. One method derived was coating fabric or imbedding it with actual silver. This caused light to reflect back, creating a more realistic and better quality picture, especially important with black and white films. Hence the silver screen was really a movie screen coated with or containing silver, and the term caught on as more movie houses began to employ these screens.

Marilyn Monroe in the 1959 classic "Some Like it Hot.".
Marilyn Monroe in the 1959 classic "Some Like it Hot.".

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The reason why silver screen may be thought of as relating to older films is because many movie houses ultimately got rid of silver screens in favor of other types of screening materials. Light reflection was not as highly required with projection and color films. Yet there is one exception to this, which may bring the term silver screen into the present day with a vengeance.

Movie theater tickets.
Movie theater tickets.

It turns out that silver coated screens are still usually some of the best to use when showing 3-D (three-dimensional) films. The extra light reflection creates better quality 3-D. It had seemed for a time that 3-D films were rarely produced and were a dying art form, but in the late 2000s, Hollywood has again begun to produce quite a few films in 3-D format. This may be in part response to low box office returns.

3-D films are best viewed in theaters, and on a silver screen if possible. They can be viewed at home with special glasses, but the quality of the film is definitely diminished. Encouraging people to attend theaters instead of waiting for the DVD or Blu-Ray® disc release may be accomplished by producing a 3-D film instead of one filmed in a more standard way.

Thus it might again be appropriate to discuss the “stars of the silver screen,” since it may be the case that certain movie houses will turn to using screens with actual silver again. Most are unlikely to because the majority of films are not made in 3-D. However a niche market can exist for those that are, making silver an attractive element of the actual screen, and expanding definition of the term silver screen.

Box office.
Box office.

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Discussion Comments


It’s a shame that I will never know exactly what those old silver screen movies looked like. Watching them on another kind of screen just won’t have the same effect.

If I ever come across a theater that has an actual silver screen, I will definitely watch an old film there. Surely theaters that have these must show old films from time to time, since that is where the screens got their start.

The term surely has lost its meaning, since every single reference I hear to the silver screen these days refers to modern Hollywood. I wonder if the people who use the term even know what it means.


I wonder if my local theater uses a silver screen to show 3-D movies. They sure do have a lot of them there, and the quality is great, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if they had one room reserved for showing three-dimensional films only.

It seems that just about every animated film that comes out these days has a 3-D counterpart. People have the option to either see it in digital format or in 3-D, but most kids want to go with 3-D. It costs about a dollar more per ticket, but the effects are really cool.

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