A common format of the film posters from the period preceding the “Nickelodeon Boom” of 1905-6 was what Kathryn Helgessen Fuller refers to as the “audience image.” (Kathryn, 1999) From Edison’s 1901 poster for a Vitascope exhibition in Birmingham to a Cook and Harris advertisement for a 1905 showing at the Elk’s Opera House in New York, the audience is shown in almost stock fashion in these images, namely, enthralled by the wonder of the new medium. On these grounds, Fuller identifies the “audience image” with what Tom
Gunning has called “the cinema of attractions,” a mode of spectatorship and film production which preceded the arrival of narrative cinema and in which the apparatus and its illusion of motion was itself the star attraction (Tom, 1990). In these terms, the audience functions in conjunction with a larger attempt to foreground the apparatus and the uncanny illusion of reality it produced rather than to advertise the content of the film. The latter is utilized only secondarily, that is, only in so far as it magnifies the former (Michal, 1992).
While Fuller is eager to establish the virtual disappearance of the “audience image” from film advertising as coinciding with the movement away from “actualities” and toward narrative cinema, the audience does not necessarily disappear from film posters after the first decade of the twentieth century (Sandy, 1994). Rather, they that take on a new role, one that is best illustrated by a Mutual Movies ad from 1913. Here, the audience is divorced from the apparatus. Gone are the catatonic viewers of the Edison images. Instead, these well-dressed filmgoers serve to assuage the fear of the middle class audience that theatre owners were now courting and to counter campaigns waged by activists like Jane Addams who saw the Nickelodeon as a house of vice. While the waning of the 19th-century fascination and astonishment with the cinematic apparatus certainly transformed the audience image, its disappearance only occurs after the middle class audience had been successfully procured by the film industry (Sandy, 1994). From this point on, it is the moving image itself, rather than the apparatus or the spectators that comes to take precedence 87 in publicity material. As the pair of posters for D.W. Griffith 1915 film Birth of A Nation illustrate, for the most part, this meant either lithographs which took from the circus and other promotional material a bold and dramatic style, or posters based upon still photographs from the film (David, 1995).
It is crucial to understand this movement toward the “still” in the context of the
1909 drive of the Motion Picture Patent Company (MPPC) to consolidate and standardize distribution and exhibition (Pafic News Service, 1995). First, through what Richard Abel calls a combined strategy of “lawsuits and licensing” and second, through the formation of the conglomerate General Film Company in 1910, the MPPC established film distribution and exhibition as, for all intents and purposes, “a closed market”(Nancy, 1999). In light of this consolidation, underway in virtually all aspects of the industry, the still offered an additional benefit. Since producing ads for specific theatres would be impractical for a company such as the GFC, which served an extensive and diverse group of exhibitors, the still presented an image devoid of the geographical specificity of the audience image, one that could be mass produced without variation. What ensues is a standardization that begins with the reconfiguration of the poster itself. For example, in 1909, the Klame Company began creating posters in dimensions that would be equal to the size of eight lobby cards (seven “scenes” and a title card), allowing streamlined shipping and standardized lobby displays (Engineering News-Record, 1999). The standardization of form was followed by the standardization of content as printers such as Hernegan and Donaldson in Cincinnati created a line of stock posters that represented the prevailing subjects of the films of the time and that could easily be tweaked to represent a given show (Alan, 1999). With shipping expedited and printing costs minimized, film manufacturers soon began sending “vast quantities of literatureâ€¦free to every exhibitor,”(Moving Picture world, 1911) and trade publications such as Moving Picture World began offering advice to exhibitors on lobby displays, promotional tie-ins and publicity stunts (Parsons, 1927). In an article entitled “Theatre Managers, Wake Up!” the trade journal encourages the obsessive decoration of the Nickelodeon “It is all well enough to let the storefront make the circus display outside his place in order to attract a crowd” (Parsons, 1927). However, the shift from the “audience image” to the still image initiated a standardization that does not alone account for the interconnectedness or metonymic exchange between image and film that began this inquiry. The latter must be understood in conjunction with an exhibition practice that preceded both the establishment of conglomerates and subsequent standardization of exhibition. As Tom Gunning points out, it was common practice in the 19th century to begin a showing with a projected still image which would, after a dramatic pause, suddenly be granted movement (Tom, 1999). In fact; Albert E. Smith developed a water cell between the film and the light source that would allow the projector to hold the still without catching fire precisely for this purpose (Andre While the “aesthetic of astonishment” and the “cinema of attractions” were relatively short-lived modes of spectatorship, this residual connection between the still and its “magical transformation” gained a new currency within the film poster. In focusing on dramatic, climactic scenes, posters such as Griffith’s Birth of A Nation presented images that were themselves caught between motion and stillness and as such asked the audience to internally re-enact this early practice.
From the point of view of spectatorship, the result of this standardization between images in combination with the implied motion of the still itself is a peculiar displacement that André Bazin would later diagnosis as “the art of not seeing films.” In a 1944 article of the same name, Bazin, perhaps the ultimate cinephile, makes the provocative claim that a film can be legitimately be read, at least with “seventy-five percent accuracy,” by the posters which advertise it. In essence, by reading the image through an elaborate “graphology” the image gives way to the film proper and in those cases where the film one “sees” through the poster is of inferior quality one can safely choose not to attend its showing. “Seeing” the film no longer necessitates the theatre or even the film itself.
The arrival of the “still” as the dominant graphical reference to film experience in combination with the standardization or codification of advertising practices make possible the metonymic exchange between the poster and the moving image of the film. With the web of standardization established between images, the film poster appropriates the ability of the filmic image, both moving and still, to exceed itself only to recuperate this excess elsewhere. This inquiry has focused on the poster and obviously each visual mode of extension constitutes its own unique discourse that must be approached on its own terms. However, one can’t help but think that in a general sense it is this dispersal, endemic to the filmic form and perfected with the commercialization of the film industry, that grants film, a by now thoroughly antiquated technology, its continued relevance and vitality. In these terms, the evolution we have traced through the film poster is not all together different from the current migration of the cinematic across media and in turn time and space. The “artefact” that Barthes finds in the trail of posters is therefore both the anomalous element within our conventional understanding of the cinematic experience and also a record of the past. The latter, however, points simultaneously back to the birth of commercial cinema at the same time it prefigures the migration of the cinema across digitized formats where the materiality of the film and its space of presentation bring this process of portability to near completion.