But now at the venerable age of 100, film-making has become the subject of the kind of academic discussion once reserved for literature. Media studies courses are mushrooming in schools, further education colleges and universities, and debate continues about whether traditional conceptions of literacy need to be expanded to take in an understanding of the moving image.
Just as literature needs its classic texts, so too does cinema, with Citizen Kane established as one of the definitive greats. Last year the film was voted the most significant of the century in a poll of teachers, run by media studies organisation, Film Education. And as a result of this commendation, the film, along with the rest of the top ten, is being shown around the country in a series of free screenings for schools.
As well as getting to see the films, students are getting the chance to interview some prominent film industry figures. Introducing Citizen Kane to English and media students last month at the Warner West End, Leicester Square was Sir David Putt-nam, the director responsible for such award-laden films as Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields and The Mission.
Now aged 55, he recalled the films that had influenced his own youth, citing such tragic heroes as James Dean and Montgomery Clift. And in considering the films that still impressed him most, he pointed to works such as The Godfather II and Raging Bull.
But despite his impressively-long pedigree in film-making, Sir David is far from reaching the look-back-in-armchairs phase of his life - quite the opposite, as he ranges over what he sees as the future of the film industry and particularly its relationship to education.
The next changes in cinema, he says, will follow the building of a wave of "megaplexes," huge multi-screen businesses with dozens of films running all day, every day. "Multiplexes brought cinemas into shopping malls," he says. "Now megaplexes will mean that cinemas are the shopping mall. Movies are the locomotives for a massive industry, with videos, books, T-shirts, and toys all sold on the strength of a film."
This link between film and a huge hinterland of other commercial possibilities leads to another of the issues about which Puttnam feels strongly - education and the need to produce high-quality multimedia materials to serve it.
Although in the past, film and broadcasting have treated education as something of a backwater, now David Puttnam believes the education market is about to take on a new economic and cultural significance. Education, training, "edutainment" (in which entertainment and education converge) and English-language teaching all represent a massive multi-billion market for British multimedia teaching materials, he believes.
But, while the chance to produce educational television programmes, videos, software and CD-Roms is waiting to be taken, he believes that there is a grave danger of the market being lost to the United States. And in an effort to kick-start the British multimedia industry's efforts, he has been lobbying to establish a consortium of partners able to produce and distribute educational material worldwide.
Under the flag of the "World Learning Network", he is currently exploring links with the BBC, the Open University and the British Council, with the possibility of launching a satellite channel able to transmit educational programmes to audiences around the world.
David Puttnam's evangelical belief in the need for Britain to take a lead in producing the educational tools for the next century has seen him speaking regularly on the conference circuit, and this week he will be presenting his arguments at the Curriculum 2000 conference. This event at the National Film Theatre, sponsored by The TES and the British Film Institute, will explore the growing connections between education, the moving image and new technology.
"Britain has never been able to make up its mind whether film is culture or trade," he says, and as a consequence neither perspective has been fully supported. In Puttnam's view, in educational multimedia publishing, the two elements are interwoven and with no lack of passion he is pushing for a recognition of the markets that are at stake.
David Puttnam will be speaking at Curriculum 2000: Education and the Moving Image, at the National Film Theatre, London, May 1-2. Details from the British Film Institute, 0171 255 1444. Information about free Film Education screenings, 0171 637 9932.