Photoplay began as a short-fiction magazine concerned mostly with the plots and characters of films at the time and was used as a promotional tool for those films. In 1915, Julian Johnson and James R. Quirk became the editors (though Quirk had been vice-president of the magazine since its inception), and together they created a format which would set a precedent for almost all celebrity magazines that followed. By 1918 the editors could boast a circulation figure of 204,434, the popularity of the magazine fueled by the public's ever increasing interest in the private lives of celebrities. It is because of this that the magazine is credited with inventing celebrity media.
Beginning in 1920, Photoplay gave out what is considered the first significant annual movie award, the Photoplay Medal of Honor (later Gold Medal). An actual medallion produced by Tiffany & Co., it was voted on by the readers of the magazine and given to the producer of the year's best film, chosen with an emphasis on (according to Quirk) "the ideals and motives governing its production... the worth of its dramatic message." Though Photoplay only gave the single award for best film, its intentions and standards were influential on the Academy Awards founded later in the decade, and they overlap on Best Picture choices to some extent, though increasingly in the 1930s Photoplay's choices reflected its primarily female audience. By 1939 the Medal of Honor had declined in importance and the award was discontinued that year. In 1944 the awards were revived in a new format in which awards for both the film of the year and the most popular stars were determined by the Gallup Poll company. Bing Crosby and Greer Garson were frequently named the most popular film stars during the 1940s and later winners of the title included James Stewart, Jane Wyman, Alan Ladd, Marilyn Monroe, Rock Hudson, and Kim Novak. Most popular television stars were also named in the 1960s. In 1977 and 1978, The Photoplay Awards were broadcast on network television as variety specials.
Photoplay reached its apex in the 1920s and 1930s and was considered quite influential within the motion picture industry. The magazine was renowned for its beautiful artwork portraits of film stars on the cover by such artists as Earl Christy and Charles Sheldon. With the advancement of color photography, the magazine began using photographs of the stars instead by 1937.
Photoplay published the writings of Hedda Hopper, Walter Winchell, Cal York, Sidney Skolsky, Adela Rogers St. John, Sheilah Graham, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Louella Parsons, among others. The magazine was edited by Quirk until 1932; later editors include Kathyrn Dougherty, Ruth Waterbury, and Adele Whiteley Fletcher.
Photoplay merged with another fan magazine, Movie Mirror, in 1941; and changed again in 1977, when the name became Photoplay and TV Mirror. The magazine ceased publication in 1980. A British version of Photoplay debuted in 1950, featuring an equal mix of American and British films and stars, and ceased publication in 1989.