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A laser beam can be efficiently fed into a planar thin film by means of a prism–film coupler. The properties of the cavity modes, the coupling efficiency, the optimum coupling condition, etc. of the prism–film coupler can be explained using the theory developed by Tien and Ulrich [P. K. Tien and R. Ulrich, J. Opt. Soc. Am. 60, 1325 (1970)]. Based on multiple scattering and multiple wave interference, we propose a theory of the two modes referred to as the leaky and degenerate modes. The properties of the two kinds of modes, such as positions, linewidths, angular spectrum of the leaky mode, and the degenerate mode spectrum are studied in detail. This theory gives an excellent explanation of the underlying origin of light wave propagation in the prism–film coupler. © 2003 American Institute of Physics.