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A poster can be defined as a placard or bill, usually large and often incorporating photographs or illustrations, posted up for advertising or publicity or for decorative purposes. The functions of those which advertise include communication, selling and persuading. This does not preclude them being decorative. Indeed the first job of a poster is to attract the attention of the passerby and only once this is done can a message be delivered. A good poster then is one which is attention-grabbing, succinct, convincing and memorable.

To achieve these aims designers may use a large format and bold colour, simple and minimal text and attractive illustrations which psychologically support and reinforce the written words. At the same time designers must consider the constraints imposed by the methods and places of display and competition from other posters whose messages may be as urgent and emphatic.

Poster design combines the fine and applied arts, incorporating painting, graphic design, collage, and photography. In countries where television is not a major advertising medium, the poster remains a transient yet effective means of reaching the widest audience on behalf of culture, commerce, and ideology.

Posters have become an integral part of the cityscape. They are pasted next to each other on large plywood hoardings attached to windowless walls of old buildings or onto fences surrounding parks and construction sites. Officially designated for poster display, these well-kept colourful quilts of public billboards not only disseminate information on cultural, sports, and political events but also serve as constantly changing outdoor exhibitions of graphic art. Through such widespread and continuous exposure, poster design has become one of the most accessible and effective art forms, reaching out and influencing even that part of the public that does not frequent museums or galleries. In juried exhibitions, the best posters achieve national exposure, and for many graphic artists, book illustration and poster design are important vehicles for a wider recognition of their personal style both at home and abroad.

A feature common to all the designers is their striving for self-expression in an environment that demands political conformity. They seem intent on designing posters that have an emotional impact and appeal to the sense but that also challenge the viewer to an intellectual response. Their imagery includes lyrical and neo-surrealist overtones, drama, irony, or playful humor, and the message is delivered in a variety of styles.

A poster constitutes a mirror for the times it is created in. Like a mirror it reflects the political and the social situation, it informs about the repertoire of movie theaters and dramatic theaters, it announces sporting events, it encourages purchasing certain goods. The socio-political poster plays a specific propaganda role. Those who commission it expect that effective impact of the work of art upon the viewer will allow them to get closer to their desired goal. The goal varies depending on the circumstances: winning a war, or a presidential election, or a parliamentary campaign; a struggle to alter social behaviours or attitudes.

History of the art of movie poster

Cinema and film posters are the physical incarnation of the special movies we have enjoyed through the years. Although there is a big market for collecting film posters, they were never intended or created to be sold to the public. They were merely meant to promote and entice viewers to come to the local theatres that were screening the films. Today these rare original movie posters are in great demand. They are the tangible souvenirs of favourite films and stars whose characters we fell in love with.

Ironically in the early days of movie making actors were not usually depicted on the film posters. The title of the film and the producer and directors names were usually the attraction until Hollywood realized that it was the actors who brought in the viewers. It was at that time that the stars of movies were then plastered on each poster giving life to a new era in the film industry.

Movie posters created before the eighties were mainly returned to the studios or poster sources and destroyed when the archives became full or the film’s run had ended. Unfortunately many early film posters made for hit movies such as Casablanca, King Kong, Frankenstein and The Wizard of Oz were destroyed as a result of natural disasters that occurred during World War II. As people became more aware of their value theatre owners began to ignore return policies and those film posters that were spared are widely sought today by collectors and dealers.

Before 1940, each film studio maintained its own offices (or exchange) in every major city. The studios would send the films and their posters to all the exchanges and from there; they would be distributed to the surrounding theatres. The big city theatres would just go to the exchange and pick up the films and posters right before they would show them (for big films they might order extra posters in advance of the opening to create an elaborate display). Theatres in smaller towns would often receive their films via Greyhound bus, which back then serviced just about every town in the country. The films would be in containers that would have the posters (often just one or two one-sheets and a set of lobby cards) tucked in a pouch on the outside of the container.

Most theatres would show a film for 3 or 4 days (as part of a program that might include 2 features, a cartoon, a newsreel, and possibly a serial chapter), and then send it on (via bus) to the next theatre. Often the theatre manager would put the film on a late night bus right after his last showing and it would arrive at the next theatre the following morning, in time to be displayed for that night’s show. The film might go by bus through a circuit of many theatres before returning to an exchange. After the film returned to the exchange, it would go back out to other theatres, and often the posters had to be replaced, as they were torn and tattered from being put up and taken down several times.

This more than anything explains why posters from before 1940 are extremely rare. Theatre owners couldn’t give their posters to collectors, no matter how hard they begged, because they were needed at the next theatre. This whole system of having to deal with each studio separately might sound very inefficient, but remember that in the 1920s and 1930s many theatres were owned by the studios and so only showed that studio’s product; and most of the independents would only get their films from a couple of studios, so it wasn’t that complicated.

But if all the posters were returned with the films, how are there any posters at all from before 1940? For one thing, one type of poster, window cards (14″ x 22″) were bought in large quantities by an individual theatre and (after they added their name and play dates to the top) distributed to store windows around town. Those were given away after the film was done playing. Another way they survive is in the backs of old picture frames, for framers would often use window cards (obtainable for free) as backing boards.

But as for other posters remaining today, a huge amount come from other countries, for those did not have to be returned to the U.S.; at the time, the value of the posters was less than the cost of the postage to return them. There have been huge finds of pre-1940 U.S. posters in Canada, Columbia, and many other countries.

In addition there have been some great finds in the U.S., such as the Cozy Theater Collection in Los Angeles. This was a theatre that maintained its own exchange of posters from the early 1930s to the 1950s for distribution to Los Angeles theatres. In 1968 the theatre owner offered his entire collection of posters (containing tens of thousands of posters and lobby cards, and hundreds of thousands of stills) for sale for $25,000, and it was hard to find a buyer! At today’s prices, the collection would sell for millions of dollars.

Other than the huge finds (which probably account for 90% of the pre-1938 posters known), posters also are sometimes found in one other main way. In the 1910s and 1920s (and to a lesser extent in the 1930s), builders would often look for material to put within the walls of buildings (or under the floors) to serve as insulation. Some enterprising builders hooked up with poster exchanges to take large amounts of outdated posters and put them in the walls of their new homes. I know of at least ten occasions where someone has been remodelling their house in the 1990s and discovered posters in the walls or under the floor. Sometimes they are mouldy and mildewed and require large amounts of restoration, but sometimes they are so tightly pressed together that they survive in relatively excellent condition.

The vast majority of pre-1938 posters known were found in one of the above ways. Very rarely a theatre owner (such as the legendary Charles Dyas, who started collecting in 1922) might order extra posters to keep, or someone who had access to posters might keep a particular poster as a keepsake, but by and large absolutely everybody who handled posters viewed them as disposable advertising, much like newspapers. Old newspapers (like comics’ books or baseball cards) survive in quantity only because they were sold by the millions, and some people never throw out anything. Movie posters, on the other hand, were never obtainable by the general public. It does seem particularly amazing that the studios themselves never thought to maintain an archive of their posters. In recent years some of them have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars buying back a tiny percentage of the posters that they literally sold for pennies each!

am not understating the rarity of pre-1938 posters when I say that for at least a large number of films not a single poster or lobby card is known, and for many others only lobby cards or window cards are known. It is very unusual to find a film from before 1938 from a major studio on which more than ten copies of a one-sheet is known. (Posters from lesser studios are often found in large quantity because when the studio goes out of business they often have hundreds of copies of each poster on hand. An example is the Norman Film Company, which made all-black cast films. Huge supplies of these posters were found, and they are among the most common of all silent posters.)

The system of every studio maintaining its own supply of posters in every one of its branch offices became very cumbersome, and in 1940, National Screen Service was formed. Warehouses (called poster exchanges) were set up in most major cities across the U.S., and each studio contributed its posters from the last couple of years to get it started (Exchanges definitely had posters from 1937-39 in abundance, but nothing like the quantities they would have of post-1940 material. The exchanges had virtually nothing from before 1937, which explains the vast rarity difference between pre-1937 and post-1940 material.

For each new release in 1940, the printers put National Screen Service (NSS) numbers on the bottom right of every poster. For 1940 only, they used a first number that began with 40, followed by a slash mark and more numbers (for example 4011/524). The “40” referred to 1940, and the rest of the numbers referred to in what order the poster had been printed, to make it easier for people to find the posters when stored in a large warehouse (many films had similar or the same titles). In 1941, the simplified the code to be just “41”, followed by a slash mark and three numbers (for example 41/245). This was unfortunate, for in the present day it has resulted in acknowledgeable collectors assuming that they had a limited edition poster (in the previous case, #41 out of an edition of 245). This system continued all the way through the late 1970s, and makes identifying the year of 1940-1979 posters extremely easy. It also makes identifying re-issues simple, for they would put the re-issue year in the NSS number, and put a big capital “R” in front of it. So in the above example, if the 1941 film, NSS #41/245, was re-issued in 1954, it would have a new number such as R54/621.

It appears each exchange received a huge number of each poster (at least). I say this for two reasons. One is the economics of full-colour printing are such that once you get the presses rolling, it is very cheap to keep on printing, and it is much more expensive to reprint items. Thus, it just would not make sense to print less than say five or ten thousand of a full-colour item. Second, when exchanges were bought out in the 1960s (see below), it was not at all uncommon for a single exchange to have well over 100 of a single item, even after years of distributing that item. Of course there was not an even distribution of items, but I think it fair to say that for most items that were in exchanges, hundreds of each survives today. I also think it fair to say that for most pre-1937 items less than ten of each survive today (with the exception of those items that were found in huge quantities, such as the Norman Film Company posters).

In the 1940s, the studios would charge a rental fee to the theatre, which would return the poster after using it (hence the warning that has frightened collectors for years, beginning “This poster is the property of National Screen Service…”). At some point NSS realized that it was easier to just print more posters and sell them outright (probably this was due to rising postal rates. I have owned many posters that were mailed folded in the 1940s, without an envelope, and the cost was three cents!) I have brochures from exchanges from the early 1960s, where they offer new one-sheets for 25 cents each, with other prices on other sizes. The brochure might say 1964 and 1965 one-sheets, 25 cents each, 1963 and earlier 15 cents each! This shows they had no clue that these posters had collectible value, but also that there were next to no collectors before the early 1960s (just like comic book collecting). The few collectors there were in the 1950s kept buying all the posters they could afford from exchanges and didn’t talk about it.

Then in the mid-1960s, some enterprising individuals began to buy the individual poster exchanges. I have no idea what they paid, but I have no doubt it was an absolute “steal”, as the exchanges thought they had warehouses full of practically worthless old paper. (Of course I admire these individuals, for that one business decision made them, financially set for life. They saw an opportunity no one else saw, and they took advantage of it.) The new owners began offering old posters at “collector’s prices”, usually around $1.00 or $1.50 for an older one-sheet. They did next to no advertising, and they often sold a great deal to the local collectors, who heard about them by word of mouth. Some individuals, such as Tanner Miles, would buy posters from the exchanges in huge quantities and try to double their money at collectible shows. (My own personal introduction to movie posters came in 1968 at an Oklahoma City collectibles show, where I, being a full-time comic book dealer, was intrigued by the many boxes of movie posters I saw at Tanner Miles’ tables. I spent over $40 with him, a huge amount of money for me at the time, and I went home with a large box of posters and lobby sets).

But it didn’t take long for the dealers to see that they were rapidly running out of the most popular titles (particularly horror and sci-fi) and they started raising prices on popular titles. The two exchanges that were best organized and sold the most posters to collectors were Theatre Poster Exchange in Memphis, Tennessee, and Movie Poster Service in Canton, Oklahoma (both are still in business and both give excellent service). I remember seeing better quality posters priced at $20 in the early 1970s, and wondering how much higher prices could go! But it is important to realize that pre-1937 posters were always scarce, even in 1965. I remember seeing a Valentino lobby card in 1969, and the price was $20, when virtually no post-1940 item sold for as much. The price was high because even then, silent items were virtually unheard of. I have heard old-time collector’s talk of the days when they bought Frankenstein and Dracula lobby sets from exchanges, but I know this never happened (maybe it was House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula and the stories got embellished over the years).

Sometime in the late 1970s, those who printed movie posters began printing huge numbers of extra posters which they did not fold in the regular way, but instead left unfolded (“rolled”). It is not clear to me if this was done with the studio’s permission or knowledge, or if it was done independently by the printers. I would think it may well have started around the time of Star Wars or especially Return/Revenge of the Jedi, when these posters instantly began selling for collectible prices. Maybe someone contacted someone at the printers and “persuaded” them to print a bunch of extra posters. Unfortunately if this was done without the studio’s knowledge, then we’ll probably never know the full story, for the principals involved are unlikely to admit to it. At this time, several collectibles dealers became tied to whoever supplied rolled one-sheets, and began offering them to collectors. The odd thing is that it remained a very clandestine business, shrouded in mystery. Even today, I have no idea who prints the rolled one sheets, how they can be contacted, how they can be purchased directly, and so forth. Of course those who act as middlemen for distributing these posters don’t want the answers to get out, but it’s just a matter of time before it happens.

The artist given credit for creating the movie poster was Jules Cheret who created two posters in the 1890’s. One was a film short called Projections Artistiques, and the other a Theatre program called Pantomimes Lumineuses. During this early time movie posters would not contain the title of a film short but just the name of the company who made them. 1896 marked the first time a poster would be made for a specific movie and not just a movie company. The film was called L’Arroseur Arrose. It was about a kid getting into trouble with a water hose spraying a gardener.

The 1900’s would mark the beginning of the utilization of modern film techniques which would be used in the American movie The Great Train Robbery. The movie only last eleven minutes and was extremely popular. By the end of the first decade of the last century movies had become a great source of entertainment for the public with movie companies growing in greater numbers. From this time period, the movie poster would get a standard size known as the one sheet measuring 27″ x 41″.