From the beginning of cinema, film posters were loaned to theatres to promote a film, then returned to the film exchange or sent to the next theatre on the distribution circuit. If the harshness of the 1920s and 1930s kept movie posters out of the hands of the general public, the paper shortage of the war years also helped to keep movie memorabilia out of general circulation; so it is no surprise that film posters from the years of 1930 to 1945 are quite scarce. It is said that fewer than 20 copies of movie posters exist from most films made between 1930 and 1945. As the years went by more and more theatre owners did not bother to return the posters and they remained in theatre exchanges and warehouses. Over the years many of these collections have been bought by dealers and collectors resulting in a huge market for vintage movie posters. However, the majority of these posters were printed on inexpensive paper and were never intended to be collectable items.
When you look back into the 1930s and the films that were produced in this era only a handful of posters have ever surfaced and movie posters have become a hot commodity in today’s market. Major auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s are now auctioning movie posters regularly worldwide.
The market is constantly expanding; today’s new buyers are collecting their nostalgia from the 1960s and 1970s. Films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Italian Job, Dirty Harry, and the Bond series are highly sought after, but some examples can still be bought at reasonable prices.
From the very beginning movie posters were a part of commerce, designed to get cinema goers to the box office. In 1890 a Frenchman called Jules Cheret is credited with producing the very best film poster, a lithograph designed to promote a short film entitled Projections Artistiques. Five years later, a poster for the Lumiere Brothers Arrival of a Train in 1895 was the first to depict an actual scene from the film. However, up until the early 1910s, the majority of early film posters were nothing more than a simple sheet of paper with little more than a block text. A typical poster for an early Edison film contained the movie title and a few words.
The situation changed with the birth of the Studio System, and by the mid 1910s such studios as Essanay, Biograph and Edison were each producing their own posters and developing their own advertising styles, title treatment, studio logo and slogan to distinguish their quality film from the rest of the studios. In this way, patrons could readily distinguish, for example, between an Edison morality play and a Biograph cliffhanger.
In the mid 1920s the major studios had each developed their own unique style that reflected their output. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (founded in 1924), with its Leo the Lion logo set the industry standard for movie posters, boasting many more stars than the rest. Befitting its position as top studio, MGM often hired established artists and illustrators for its posters, including Al Hirschfeld and Ted Ireland, to name just two. During the late 1920s through to the 1940s, MGM movie posters tended to be uncluttered and highly-polished pieces of art, with unusual graphic treatments, often featuring pastel graphics on white backgrounds. 20th Century Fox (founded as Fox in 1915 and merging with the 20th Century Corporation in 1935) is perhaps best known for elaborate dance features and musical films. The studio used brilliant and fanciful stone lithos to promote their product, and their posters are noted for their bright colours.
Paramount, founded in 1930, with its table of top stars, produced witty posters with a minimum of text. By contrast, Warner Bros., founded in 1923 adopted a punchy, no-frills style of movie poster, often dominated by a photo-montage design, in keeping with their catalogue of strong realistic fims. Columbia Pictures, despite its no-frills movie making, employed a bigger art department than any of the other studios.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s their posters were consistently eye-catching and very rich in colour and also pioneered the fake colour process by which black and white still photographs were coloured and turned into poster art, a process quickly adopted by all the other studios. Universal Studio, founded in 1912, is the oldest in existance. During the 1920s and 1930s Universal movie posters were remarkable for their bold colour and dynamic compositon, with hardly any white space. It is no coincidence that the posters for their 1930s horror, serial and western movies are among the most highly prized by collectors.
Over the years movie posters have been produced in a huge variety of sizes ranging from a small handbill or a little midget window card up to road side billboard sized 24 sheets. But the most common size remains the standard one-sheet movie poster (roughly 27 inches wide by 40 inches tall) which has remained relatively unchanged since the early days of cinema and is still in use today. For bigger-budget films, the studios often created advance or teaser one-sheets that would announce the impending arrival of a film weeks and sometimes months ahead of its cinema booking. For other major releases, the studio often produced several different styles of one-sheet for the same film, one to show-case the action packed elements of the movie and the other to exploit the romance angle.
Film poster collection is stimulating and fun, combining the better of the two worlds of art and nostalgia and you are tracing the history of change in fashion, style and culture.