The history of canon formation is a history of changing attitudes toward what is valuable in cinema. Early film theorists and historians who sought to establish cinema as a legitimate and unique art form had a vested interest in crowning the medium's masterpieces. Rudolph Arnheim and other theorists of the silent era argued that the most accomplished films moved beyond the recording capabilities of the medium, utilizing those tools specific to cinema, such as editing and cinematography, to represent the diegetic world in a stylized fashion. The drive to distinguish cinema from other art forms by emphasizing its transformative properties encouraged writers to describe film history as a journey toward artistic maturity marked by the development of expressive narrative and stylistic techniques. For example, in The Film Till Now (1930), the most influential of the early English-language film histories, Paul Rotha (1907–1984) identifies the 1920s as the height of film artistry, particularly championing the work of Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977), D. W. Griffith (1875–1948), Abel Gance (1889–1981), Jean Epstein (1897–1953), F. W. Murnau (1888–1931), G. W. Pabst (1885–1967), and the Soviet montage school. Rotha's appendix of 114 "outstanding" films served as a reference point for the orthodox film canon until after World War II.
Along with the writing of early film theorists and historians, the blossoming of international film culture during the 1920s played a particularly important role in the formation of the film canon, advancing the identification, promotion, exhibition, and preservation of those titles that were considered to expand the boundaries of the medium. Within national film industries, studio publicity and trade publications trumpeted directors according to the new methods in their work, offering critics and audiences overt cues to their significance. Art theaters and cinéclubs in Paris, New York, London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and other major cities provided specialized venues for film screenings, nurturing the tastes of individuals who were key to the creation of archives, such as the Cinématheque Française, the Museum of Modern Art's Film Library, and the Belgian Cinématheque. Simultaneously, film journals sprouted across Europe and the United States, featuring ongoing discussions of films by acclaimed directors.
As access to film titles was limited during the first half of the twentieth century, the critical opinions of those who programmed cinéclubs and purchased films for archives exerted a powerful influence on canon formation. Historians, critics, and teachers relied on repertory exhibition, film archives, and circulating libraries for research, restricting their ability to "discover" previously unrecognized work. While tens of thousands of movies were lost to history, titles such as The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, 1903), The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, 1915), Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari ( The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , Robert Wiene, 1920), Der Letzte Mann ( The Last Laugh , Murnau, 1924), and Bronenosts Potyomkin ( Battleship Potemkin , Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) were more likely to be screened and written about once anointed as films of significance, thus perpetuating their status as masterpieces.