Vascular smooth muscle cells (vSMC) cultured on gels of fibrillar type I collagen or denatured collagen (gelatin) comprise a model system that has been widely used for studying the role of the extracellular matrix in vascular diseases such as hypertension, restenosis and athrosclerosis. Despite the wide use of this model system, there are several disadvantages to using collagen gels for cellular studies. These include poor optical characteristics for microscopy, difficulty in verifying that the properties of the preparations are identical from experiment to experiment, heterogeneity within the gels, and difficulty in handling the gels because they are fragile. Previously, we developed an alternative collagen matrix by forming thin films of native fibrillar collagen or denatured collagen on self-assembled monolayers of alkanethiols [Elliott, J.T., Tona, A., Woodward, J., Jones,P., Plant, A., 2003a. Thin films of collagen affect smooth muscle cell morphology. Langmuir 19, 1506-1514.]. These substrates are robust and can be characterized by surface analytical techniques that allow both verification of the reproducibility of the preparation and high-resolution analysis of collagen structure. In addition, they have excellent optical properties that allow more details of the cell-matrix interactions to be observed by microscopy. In this study, we performed a side-by-side structural and functional comparison of collagen gels with thin films of collagen. Our results indicate that vSMC on thin films of collagen are nearly identical to vSMC on thick gels as determined by morphology, proliferation rate, integrin ligation, tenascin-C expression and intracellular signaling events. These results suggest that the features of collagen gels that direct the observed vSMC responses are adequately reconstituted in the thin films of collagen. These thin films will be useful for elucidating the features of the collagen matrix that regulate vSMC response and may be applicable to high content screening.