Flickering Empire

My book Flickering Empire, a non-fiction account of the silent film industry in Chicago, co-written with Adam Selzer, was released by Wallflower Press (the Film Studies imprint of Columbia University Press) on January 20, 2015. I will periodically update this page to include news and reviews of the book.

Flickering Empire can be ordered from amazon in both hardcover and paperback here.



– 08/27/16: A positive review of Flickering Empire has appeared at the Midwest Book Review. This scholarly review is short and sweet so I’m quoting it here in its entirety: “Occasionally illustrated with black-and-white period photography, ‘Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry’ is a fascinating read from beginning to end. An exceptionally well written and accurately detailed history, ‘Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry’ is a ‘must’ for academic library Cinematic History reference collections. Also available in both a hardcover edition (9780231174480, $75.00) and a Kindle edition ($14.74), ‘Flickering Empire’ is also commended to the attention of non-specialist general readers with an interest in early movie making in the years prior to Hollywood’s dominance in the cinematic industry.”

– 04/04/16: On Thursday, April 7 at 7pm, Adam and I will give a Flickering Empire talk at the Glen Ellyn Historical Society. We will also be screening clips from films made in Chicago 100+ years ago. Tickets cost $10 ($8 GEHS members) and include wine, cheese and cookies. Tickets may be purchased in advance at Stacy’s Corners Store at the History Center, 800 N. Main St. Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. For more information, call 630-469-1867 or visit the GEHS website.

– 03/04/16: On Saturday, March 11 at 2pm, Adam and I will be giving a talk about Flickering Empire at the Bezazian branch of the Chicago Public Library in Uptown. The talk will conclude with a walking tour of the original Essanay studio nearby! More info here.

– 01/06/16: Adam and I will be giving a talk at the Schaumburg Township District Library next Wednesday night (01/13) at 7:00pm. Our talk will be illustrated with film clips including the brand new restoration of Charlie Chaplin’s His New Job. Admission is free and open to the public but you must register here if you plan on attending.

– 10/23/15: I talked with Marilyn Ferdinand about Flickering Empire and silent film production in Chicago in advance of the Chicago re-premiere of Essanay’s Sherlock Holmes. Read a transcript of our chat at her terrific Ferdy on Films blog.

– 10/19/15: There is an amazingly thorough and perceptive review of Flickering Empire at Scott Pfeiffer’s great Moving World blog.

– 07/02/15: Adam and I talked about Flickering Empire with the esteemed Tony Sarabia on WBEZ’s The Morning Shift today. You can listen to our segment online here.

– 06/21/15: Choice Magazine, a publication of the American Library Association that reviews books for academic libraries, has given Flickering Empire a stellar review in its July edition. One F.J. Augustyn Jr. calls it a “goldmine for popular culture historians and early film buffs.” Here is a screenshot of the entire review:


– 06/01/15: Gary T. Johnson, President of the Chicago History Museum, has some very kind words for Flickering Empire in his new Author! Author! blog series.

– 05/01/15: Adam and I were guests on The Underground Multiplex’s “Mediatrocities” podcast this week. We spent 40-minutes chatting with host Legendary Lew Ojeda. You can listen to the entire show here.

– The Cigar Society of Chicago will host a book talk/book signing with me and Adam at Iwan Ries on Tuesday, April 14. More info here.

– 04/12/15: Adam and I appeared on WGN Radio’s Dave Plier show to talk Flickering Empire last night. You can listen to the entire segment here.

– Adam and I will hold a book talk/book signing at Centuries and Sleuths bookstore in Forest Park, IL on Saturday, April 4 at 2:00pm. More info at the store’s official site here.

– 03/24/15: Flickering Empire is the featured book on the Columbia University Press blog this week. They are holding a contest to give away a free copy of the book. To enter, send your name and address to: pl2164@columbia.edu (the winner will be selected Friday, March 27 at 1:00pm). They also have an interview with yours truly here: Part one and Part two

Flickering Empire was at the center of a flurry of media attention the weekend of 02/20 – 02/22. We were the subject of a full-page story by Nina Metz in the Chicago Tribune on Friday and the subject of a swell full-page review by Donald Liebenson in the Tribune‘s Books Section on Sunday. Finally, Adam and I appeared on WDCB’s Arts Section show on Sunday to talk with host Gary Zidek about the book. You can listen to us for the first 20 minutes of the program and then I come back for the last 10 to talk Oscars and the best films of 2014. Check it out here.

– There will be an official book release party for Flickering Empire at Transistor Chicago on Saturday, February 21st from 8 – 10pm. The event will involve a book talk, book signings and the screening of rare silent films that were shot in your backyard 100 years ago! You can find out more info about the event (and listen to an interview Adam and I gave to Transistor owner Andy Miles) here.

– Adam and I recorded a radio interview for WBBM in Chicago that will be broadcast at some time on February 1st — the 100th anniversary of the world premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s His New Job! That’s 780am and 105.9fm on your dial.

– Adam and I will be appearing on WGN Radio’s Pretty Late with Patti Vasquez show at 11pm, Tuesday, January 20. If you’re in the greater Chicago area, that’s 720am on your dial. UPDATE – you can listen to the full show podcast here (our segment begins at the 41-minute mark).


“A significant and original contribution to the field . . . a much-needed practical guide to the films and where to find them.”
— Therese Grisham, desistfilm (Full review here.)

“Exceptional . . . A book that immediately joins the ranks of essential film references.”
— Joel Wicklund, Chicagoist (Full review here.)

“Excellent . . . reads more like a contemporary novel of corporate rivalry, charismatic and egocentric characters and the amazing moving picture innovations of its day . . . An important addition to a cinephile’s library.”
— Ruth Ratny, Reel Chicago (Full review here.)

Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry by Michael Smith and Adam Selzer offers a well-researched, in-depth chronicle of the Windy City’s role in cinema history . . . The value to film scholarship is obvious: It fills in the holes, or the missing info, that the history books have left out. However, I highly recommend this book to movie buffs, pop culture lovers, and Chicagoans for other reasons. If you want to really want to know what the beginning of the film industry was like, this book will place you into the thick of it.”
— Susan Doll, Turner Classic Movies (Full review here.)

“A long overdue telling . . . a great book . . . worth it for the appendices alone.”
— Donald Liebenson, Printer’s Row Journal (Full review here.)

“I was sucked in from the first pages — by the subject, by intrigue, and by the authors’ accessible narrative style, simultaneously a tale told by fireside and a cliffhanger. Copious research in newspapers of the day, film archives, museums, personal interviews, other film scholars, and the like inform every page. I felt as if I were walking the lively old streets and eavesdropping on the major players as I read. Villains, heroes, adventurous visionaries, and short-sighted muddlers abound. In case the reader might slip into melancholy over Lost Chicago, though, Smith and Selzer provide two charming epilogues: one an Oscar-night summary of the main figures’ careers after the books’ end, and another on ‘Orson and Oscar’ (Welles and Micheaux) that is worth the price on its own.”
— Sara Vaux, author of The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood

“READ THE BOOK! Discover Chicago’s fascinating history as a motion picture mecca in Flickering Empire.”
— Greg Philby, Midwest Living

“Dandy passages”
— Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune


Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry
tells the fascinating but too little known story of how Chicago served as the unlikely capital of film production in America in the years prior to the rise of Hollywood (1907-1913). As entertaining as it is informative, the book straddles the worlds of academia and popular non-fiction alike in its vivid illustration of the rise and fall of the major Chicago movie studios in the mid-silent era (principally Essanay and Selig Polyscope). Colorful, larger-than-life historical figures like Thomas Edison, Charlie Chaplin, Oscar Micheaux and Orson Welles are major players in Flickering Empire – in addition to important but forgotten industry giants like ‘Colonel’ William Selig, George Spoor and Gilbert ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson.


4 responses to “Flickering Empire

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: