This is a brief history of "the" favourite film memorabilia, the movie poster.
- The First
- The 1900'S
- The I910's
- The 1920'S
- The 1940'S
- The 1950's
- The 1960's
- The 1970's
- The 1980's
- The 1990's
The First Movie Posters
The earliest forms of movie advertising included the use of hand-painted crates
and sandwich boards. Soon this crude form
of advertising would be obsolete due to the artistic contributions of
Frenchman, Jules Cheret.
At the turn of the century, the world had a very high illiteracy rate. Posters,
with their vibrant colors and pictures, and limited words, provided a means of
advertising on a level that could be understood by the majority of the general
public. Posters could be placed almost anywhere in the city and were widely used
to promote a variety of products and services, including the early cinema.
Jules Cheret, considered in the advertising world as the father of the modern
poster, is also credited with bringing the movie poster into existence. Through
the use of the printing process known as stone lithography (which was invented
around 1798), Cheret produced a lithograph for the 1890 short film program
called Projections Artistiques. The lithograph showed a young lady holding a
placard with the times of the shows. Cheret followed with his poster for Emile
Reynaud's Theatre Optique 1892 program called Pantomimes Lumineuses.
The first posters used to advertise moving pictures portrayed an audience
watching black and white images projected on a screen. These posters contained
the name of the movie company, such as Edison or Lumiere, and the name of the
hall showing the program. They did not even mention the title of the program.
The programs were five to ten minutes long and were changed about twice a week.
Because the posters did not contain the titles, they could be used time and
In 1896, M. Auzolle designed the first poster for a specific film, actually
containing scenes from the program, for Lumiere's film entitled L'Arroseur Arrosé.
This film is also generally considered the first movie with a fictitious plot.
The film's plot involved a young boy who squeezed a gardener's hose, prompting
the gardener to look into the hose to see what was stopping the water's flow. As
the boy released the hose, the gardener was sprayed with water. The boy's prank
resulted in a spanking.
The movies up to this point in time were nothing more than pictures of actual
events, such as waves washing against a beach. While the initial motion pictures
flourished, after a while the crowds began to grow bored, and the motion picture
industry faced its first sense of doom. In 1899, Georges Melies, a French
magician, produced the first motion picture to tell an entire story. He filmed
hundreds of fairy tales and science fiction stories. Other movie producers
followed, and interest in motion pictures again began to flourish.
By 1900, motion pictures were enjoying enormous popularity throughout the
United States and Europe. Motion pictures became popular attractions at
amusement parks, music halls, traveling fairs and vaudeville theatres. The
vaudeville style "stock poster" was soon gaining favor with the movie companies.
One of the earliest of these was produced by the American Entertainment Company.
It measured 28" x 42" and depicted an audience watching an on-screen brass band.
The scene was possibly taken from one of Edison's early works.
Some of the other commonly used stock posters depicted ladies holding up a card
which would give the show's program for the night. These stock posters could be
reused by simply placing a new program on top of an older program. In 1903,
Edwin S. Porter, an American director, produced the first motion picture
utilizing modern film techniques to tell a story. The film, The Great Train
Robbery, was an eleven minute movie describing a train robbery and the pursuit
and capture of the robbers. This movie was a tremendous hit, and this film's
success led to the establishment of "nickelodeons," the forerunner to movie
Initially begun in 1905 by an ingenious Pittsburgh businessman, nickelodeons
were stores which were converted into early theatres by simply adding chairs.
These nickelodeons charged five cents and showed a variety of movies,
accompanied by piano music. By 1907, there were approximately 5,000 nickelodeons
throughout the United States, and the demand for new movies was continually
By 1909, the number of companies producing movies was growing by leaps and
bounds. Although Thomas Edison resented the fact that these newcomers were
profiting from what he considered to be his invention, he decided that it would
be best to join forces with the larger studios in an attempt to shut out the
smaller ones. The major studios at the time, Biograph, Essanay, Kalem, Kleine,
Lubin, Selig and Vitagraph, joined Edison to form the Motion Picture Patents
Company. This group of studios also organized the General Film Company to
distribute the studios' films to theatres.
One of the first steps made by this newly-formed cartel was to set standards for
advertising materials. Although Edison had used Hennegan Show Print in
Cincinnati for printing posters for his first films, the General Film Company
contracted with A. B. See Lithograph Company of Cleveland to produce all the
members' posters and ad materials.
The first standardized size of poster became known as the "one sheet,' measuring
27" x 41". The one sheet was designed to be used in glass display cases inside
and outside of movie theatres. The first such one sheets depicted the company
identity, the film's tide and plot. Each of the member companies had its own
stock poster borders printed in either two or three colors. There was a white
panel left in the center which would have the tide and description of the
movie's plot. In some cases, even the ending was printed. The posters sometimes
included a photograph supplied by the movie's producing company.
Strict censorship standards were established by the General Film Company, and
all member companies were required to meet these rigid standards. In most cases,
the photographs were rather tame in nature, and usually showed the leading man
and lady. The producing companies paid A. B. See for the posters and then sold
them to the individual nickelodeons or movie houses for about fifteen cents
Since the A. B. See posters were subject to the scrutiny of the Patents Company,
independent lithographers began printing generic posters showing scenes varying
from romantic embraces to shootouts. These posters were popular with many
theatre owners because they were considerably cheaper (about six cents), could
be used over and over, and were more graphic and uncensored than the materials
sanctioned by Edison's Patents Company.
Up to this point in film history, there were no "movie stars." Most of the
actors in the early films chose to remain anonymous. It was to the benefit of
all involved with early films to keep their movie's participants unknown.
Legitimate state actors preferred to remain unknown, embarrassed that anyone
would find out that they participated in this new medium. Movie producers were
secure in knowing that they could control the medium as long as the movie
participants remained unnamed.
By the year 1910, however, things began to change. As early as 1908, studios
began receiving mail addressed to nameless actors. Movie producers, fearing that
giving the identity of the stars would cause them to demand more money,
continued to insist on anonymity. But the studios were soon faced with the
reality that moviegoers wanted to know the names of the actors and actresses.
This would become quite evident thanks to the stunt perpetrated on the industry
by Carl Laemmle, owner of IMP studio.
Laemmle managed to steal one Florence Lawrence from a rival movie studio. To
this point, Lawrence was known to her fans as the "Biograph Girl." In what could
be considered one of the first publicity stunts pulled off by a movie studio, a
rumor was started, purportedly by Laemmle himself, that the adored "Biograph
Girl" was dead. In order to set the record straight, Laemm1e published a full
page ad in a St. Louis newspaper stating that he had "nailed a lie" and would be
presenting Lawrence in St. Louis. When more people showed up to see Lawrence
than had come to see then President Taft who was visiting St. Louis one week
earlier, the studio owners had to acquiesce, and no longer would movie actors
and actresses be kept anonymous.
It was at this point that producers recognized that the real selling tools were
not the movies but the "stars" that graced their screens. Suddenly, posters had
to be designed with consideration given to the stars and their pecking order.
Posters now had to reflect the size and status of the "leading lady" and
"leading man." Soon the public could recognize one's star status simply by
looking at a movie poster. The size of the print and the placement were easy
indicators as to just how big a particular star was. Movie contracts would now
include clauses relating to the size and placement of names on the movie poster
and other advertising materials. Actors and actresses had now become powers with
which to be reckoned.
By the early 1910s, nickelodeons were being replaced by movie theatres. These
theatres had more room to advertise their new films, which had now to press
information, would include special promotional ideas. These materials were also
referred to by other names, most commonly "showman's manual" or "campaign book."
The early 1920s were considered the golden age of the silent movie. Grand movie
palaces soon replaced the movie theatre, and the crude posters of old gave way
to more splendid, artistically accomplished movie posters. Well known commercial
artists were commissioned by many studios to design movie poster "portraits" of
leading stars. Unfortunately, the American studios did not allow the artists to
sign their posters, as commercial artists were allowed to do on European movie
These new posters no longer depicted scenes-the posters were designed with
portraits of the stars, the movie tide and the stars' names. There was an
occasional slogan or two, but the emphasis was now placed on the stars. Most of
the studios had their advertising offices in New York, and this is where most of
the posters originated from.
It was during this time that the National Screen Service (NSS) first made its
appearance. The NSS began competing with the studios' lucrative business of
creating and distributing "trailers." Trailers were the film clips of coming
attractions that would be shown after a feature presentation-thus the term
trailer. It would be two more decades before NSS would be a predominant factor
in the movie paper industry.
By the mid-1920s, movie theatre owners and film exhibitors were pro- vided with
a full array of promotional materials for their use in advertising. Up to this
point, most of the materials were printed and distributed by the studios.
However, a number of independent "secondary" printers began issuing various
forms of movie posters, giving theatres and film exhibitors an alternative to
the studio-produced materials.
By the 1920s, a new printing process was developed. Known as photo-gelatin or
helibtype, this new process was used primarily on smaller sized card stock
items, such as lobby cards, inserts and window cards. Evolving from one color to
three (yellow, pink and blue), this process was used for materials meant to be
viewed closely. These items were not as effective when viewed from a distance.
One sheets and larger paper continued to be printed via stone (and later
aluminum plate) lithography.
In 1926 the radio made its appearance and it had a direct impact on the movie
industry. Although a few motion pictures had used sound as early as the late
1890s, it was very difficult to synchronize the sound to the action on the film.
In the mid-1920s, Bell Telephone Laboratories developed a system that could
coordinate the sound with the action being projected. In 1926, Warner Brothers
experimented with this system, known as Vitaphone, in their movie Don Juan. Don
Juan was actually a silent film with recorded music and sound effects. Warner
Bros. released their 1927,
The Jazz Singer as a silent film with a few songs by
star Al Jolson. However, in one scene, Jolson actually spoke a few lines.
Shortly thereafter, the Movietone system was introduced. Sound was actually
photographed directly on to the film. After moviegoers were exposed to this new
sound-on-record method, they demanded only sound pictures.
The popularity of these new "talkies" was so great that movie attendance in the
United States increased from 60 million people in 1927 to 110 million two years
later. With attendance figures skyrocketing, the public demanded more movies.
More movies meant more competition, and more competition meant more advertising
dollars and more movie posters.
The appearance of movie posters would soon change dramatically, due to a new
color offset printing process developed by Morgan Litho Company. This process
made it possible to photograph the artwork provided by studios through screens
separated by color. While not as colorful as the stone lithography posters, the
color offset process produced sharper images. Over the next twenty years, the
two processes would continue to be used. However, by the 1940s, color offset
would replace stone lithography for all poster printing.
The 1930s would usher in the time known in the movie industry as the "Golden Age
of Movies." This time period saw the emergence of the great Hollywood musicals,
the legendary gangster films and the ever popular horror movies. Sound recording
equipment improved during this time, which gave creative directors even greater
artistic tools. Some of the greatest films in movie history were released during
this decade, culminating in 1939 with one I of the biggest money-making films in
movie history, Gone with the Wind.
At this time, the country was caught in the grips of the "art deco" movement (a
twentieth century style of decorative art using geometrical designs and bold
colors). Motion picture companies kept the pace with the rest of the country,
and the movie posters began to take on the art deco look. The use of dense
backgrounds was eliminated, and more white space was created. Varying sizes and
styles of lettering were used, and the placement of the letters became more
The movie studio during this period generally produced two styles of the one
sheet and half sheets, each with different artwork. These were known as Style
"A" and "B" (used by Paramount Studios); Style "C" or "D" (used by MGM); or, in
some cases, "X" and "Y" (used by Universal in the 1930s). There were occasions
when more than two styles were released, particularly on major productions.
While the film industry was flourishing in the field of make-believe, the United
States was facing the all-too-rea1 prospect of an economic depression. With the
country suffering such a tremendous economic blow, many felt that the movie
industry would surely be one of the casualties. And although the industry did
suffer, it was not nearly as hard hit as most had expected. The public still
needed to escape-maybe even more so during this time.
The only real negative effect experienced in the industry was that movie- goers
now sought out more cheaply priced tickets, so theatre owners were forced to
"play the market." With the cheaper admission tickets, the movie studios chose
to cut back on operating costs-one of these being the advertising materials. As
a result, movie materials were more cheaply produced, and thus lost some of the
lavishness of earlier material.
Movie studios and stars were not the only ones to benefit from the movie
industry. A number of service related businesses were also flourishing. Theatres
and film exhibitors had to deal with each studio individually to get their movie
paper or "accessories" as they were sometimes called. In an attempt to
centralize this movie paper distribution, independent regional exhibitor
exchanges began cropping up all over the country. These independent exhibitor
exchanges would get their paper from the studios, and then buy or rent them to
theatres and film exhibitors. The theatres liked dealing with these exchanges
because they could get the movie paper from all studios at one location, and had
the option to either purchase or rent it.
By 1939, National Screen Service (NSS), which had been cutting and distributing
trailers since the 1920s, entered into a contract with Paramount Pictures to
begin distribution of their movie paper. Over the next few years, the remaining
major studios-Columbia, Loew's, Fox, United Artists, RKO, Universal and Warner
Bros., as well as other independent film makers-had also contracted with NSS to
handle production and distribution of their movie paper.
In addition to the NSS, there were at one time 28 independent regional theatre
exchanges around the country. As the NSS gained more control, court battles
ensued between the NSS and these independents. Through a compromise, NSS began
distributing to the independents as well as directly to theatres.
In order to control the number of materials going through, NSS instituted a date
and number coding system for all the movie advertising paper they handled. The
numbering code included the year of distribution and the sequential order of the
movie's release. At its peak, 90 percent of all advertising materials were
handled through the NSS regional offices.
With the Great Depression only a decade behind, the country faced yet another
global crisis-World War II. The movie studios and many of their stars did their
part in creating a climate of patriotism, and war movies were the genre of the
day. In fact, a number of war documentaries were made starring major movie
actors who walked away from motion pictures and joined the ranks of the
military. Those stars that did not or could not enlist did their part by making
movies about the war. For most of this decade, war movies dominated the screens.
The movie industry, which suffered little in comparison to other businesses, was
forced to make cost-cutting adjustments-and they chose to make the cuts
primarily in their advertising budgets. With a worldwide shortage of paper, many
studios used the lesser grade of paper utilized by the newspapers. Some were
also printed on the reverse side of old war maps.
By the late 1940s and with World War II now several years behind, the world was
introduced to a new entertainment medium - the television. By the end of this
decade, television had attracted a large number of moviegoers. The studios
responded by reducing the number of films released. Many directors, stars,
producers, and others involved in movie making soon found themselves without
With the return of the GIs from World War II, and a public that wanted more
fantasy, the movie studios changed their movie subject matter from the war to
science fiction, comedy, and B drive-in movies. Although introduced in 1933, the
drive-in theatre reached its peak during the 1950s with over 4,060
screens in the United States. Television continued to bite into the movie
industry's profits. It was no longer necessary to leave your home for viewing
pleasure. To combat the "comfort of your own living room" thinking pattern,
the movie industry experimented with a number of new wide-screen projection
processes. Two such processes, known as CinemaScope and Todd-AO, allowed movies
to be shown bigger, more spectacularly and for a more expensive ticket price.
These processes were ideal for such epics as
Ben-Hur and Cleopatra. Another lure
used by the movie studios was the 3-D movie, along with special 3-D viewing
glasses. William Castle, the master of the gimmick production, was bringing
audiences back to the theatres by offering them "barf bags" and "buzzer seats."
"Fan magazines" also made their appearance during this time period. Photoplay
and Movie Mirror were two of the pioneers in this area, and their
magazines were replete with color photographs of all major movie stars. Movie
companies adopted this style of advertising, and soon movie posters began to
look more like color photographs, using tinted photographs and large stock
lettering. With the number of cars on the roads, posters were designed to be
seen from long distances. Stone lithograph movie posters were now a thing of the
The most popular movies of the early 1960s were teen oriented. Teen idols from
the world of rock & roll successfully crossed over into movie stardom, mostly
through the genre known as "beach movies." The Elvis musicals were also
extremely popular. Action movies grew in popularity, particularly with the
introduction of the infamous Agent 007,
Social mores began to change with the mid-1960s. Movie studios were not held to
the same strict censorship guidelines as television. As such, more and more
adult oriented movies were produced, introducing the movie public to nudity,
profanity and excessive violence. Desegregation and the Vietnam War created an
atmosphere of social consciousness, and movie makers had to address these issues
through their films.
Movie posters during this time mirrored the changing social climate. The posters
from the teen oriented movies were normally simple in their artwork design,
featuring full length shots of the major stars. Posters from the action movies
usually featured the hero, sometimes in a series of dangerous situations. As the
1960s progressed, the posters began to reflect the changing attitudes toward
violence and sex. The use of photographs were replacing the painted artwork
common in the early years.
The early 1970s were mostly a continuation of the late 1960s. The most
significant change came in the area of movies with African American casts. Up to
this time, movies with black actors and actresses were distributed only through
a chain of theatres patronized by blacks. However, with the changing attitudes
toward race, several black action and adventure movies crossed over into the
main theatres. Before long, the racial lines disappeared, and black cast movies
became common features in major theatres.
The 1970s brought The Godfather, Rocky,
Star Trek. This was
a springboard into the era of the blockbusters-the 1980s.
The movies posters of the 1970s continued the principal use of photography.
Drawing and painting styles were still being used occasionally, and artists like
Amsel, Frazetta and Peak lent their names to some of the more popular film
posters of this era.
Movie posters from the Star Wars and Star Trek movies were extremely popular and
were responsible for making movie poster collectors out of many fans. Movie
posters were now being printed on a clay-coated paper which gave them a glossy
finish smooth to the touch.
In the 1980s, moviegoers witnessed great advances in the development and use of
special effects. Special effects were the key to the success of the major box
office smashes of the 1980s, including The Empire Strikes Back (1980),
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E. 7: (1982),
Return of the Jedi (1983), Ghostbusters
(1984), Back to the Future (1985),
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and Batman
By the 1980s, the National Screen Service lost its control over the movie paper
industry, leaving only three regional offices remaining in operation. This fact,
along with the advent of the multi-screen complexes, changed drastically the
lineup of advertising materials available to theatres.
Prior to this time, most theatres had just one screen and one feature movie. A
theatre lobby was covered with various sizes of posters for its one movie. With
more screens and more movies, the advertising space in the theatre lobby now had
to be divided equally among all films being shown. As a consequence, movie
studios opted to phase out some of these old standards and introduce a more
versatile "mini sheet" which could be produced in any smaller size. This mini
sheet could take the place of any of the smaller sizes, since there was no
The video rental market, which began gaining popularity during the 1980s, gave
movie producers another avenue for increasing profits. No longer did movie
studios have to rely on theatre box office receipts to make money. Video rental
income now figured heavily in weighing the success or failure of a film.
Since video rentals also rely on advertising, a new line of video materials were
introduced. Video posters similar to the theatre one sheets were distributed to
video rental outlets for display. Many studios issued a number of materials
strictly for their video market, making it a viable profit alternative for movie
The rise of the video resulted in the demise of movie reissues (sometimes called
re-releases). Instead of re-releasing a film to the theatres, movie studios simply
released them on videocassette.
The 1990s brought about the computerization of special effects, creating realistic creatures and adventures that before could only be imagined. This
decade has brought three of the biggest money making films of all time,
Park, Batman Forever, and Independence Day, to theatres.
Advances in animation during this decade have resulted in some of the biggest
box office successes in movie history, such as
Beauty and the Beast,
The Lion King, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It has also led to
the billion dollar a year merchandising industry.
Although cable and satellite television have gained popularity, movie theatres
and video rental outlets continue to profit. To increase control, studios have
moved to more licensing, retail stores, and buying television networks and minor
studios. Twentieth Century-Fox created the Fox network so Warner Bros. follows
and Disney buys ABC.
As far as movie paper is concerned, the one sheet continues to be used
extensively today, although some studios have shortened it one inch to 27" x
40", Many of today's studios have opted to use the "mini" sheet. Since the mini
sheet is not a standard size, it can be used to replace many of the old
favorites, like inserts, half sheets, window cards.
Mini sheets are also used as
promotional giveaways, as were the heralds in the 1930s and 1940s.
mobiles and counter displays are also very popular. Video advertising materials
are also still widely used. In addition, posters made for cable TV and network
television movies have also been introduced.
With entertainment retail chains getting contracts to produce reproduction one
sheets, a greater influx of British posters and the advancement of quality
reproductions, there is more confusion to the novice poster collectors. This
trend is likely to continue, making things more and more difficult for the
uninformed collector. With the current competitive market, movie studios must
rely heavily on their advertising and promotional programs. The movie poster is
still viewed as the centerpiece of the advertising paper, and some of today's
posters offer the finest in color, art and graphic detail.
If history is indeed a look into the future, the popularity of the movie poster
will continue, even in light of the other advertising avenues available. The
movie poster has always been the rock on which the movie industry was built-and
all indications are that it will continue to be into the future.