The History of the Hollywood Movie Poster


Hi, John Hess from Filmmaker IQ.com – today
we’re going to take a look at the history of Hollywood film posters and explore some
of key artists who have shaped this commercial artform. The movie poster date back as far as the motion
picture itself and why shouldn’t they? Signs for events have been needed since antiquity
but the paper poster first came into prominence only in the early 1800s. And it started with an actor or rather an
failed actor: Johann Alois Senefelder. Senefelder was getting ready to study law
when his father, a prominent actor in Prague, suddenly died. In an attempt to support his mother and eight
siblings, Senefelder tried to step into his father’s shoes as an actor. He couldn’t replicate his father’s success
but draw of theater was strong. Senefelder was also a playwright and he turned
to publishing. He found better luck there seeing some success
in his first published play: Connoisseur of Girls. But getting something published in 1790s was
expensive and Senefelder’s next publication took him into debt. So Senefelder put his mind to figuring out
a new inexpensive way of printing. One day in 1795, Senefelder’s mother called
to him asking him to write down a list of items she was sending out to laundry. Having no paper, Senefelder took a grease
pencil and wrote the list on a flat limestone slab that printers use to mix ink on. Then on a hunch, Senefelder decided to etch
the stone with acid – and sure enough the list written in grease remained on the stone. Senefelder was onto something – and after
a year of perfecting the process, he joined up with some music publishers and began producing
musical scores with this much cheaper process he called “stone printing”. But the process would be better known by its
French name: Lithography It wasn’t just musicians that took to lithography:
because the stone plate is prepared by directly drawing on the stone using familiar artist
tools like pencils and crayons, artists took to lithography as early as 1803. Senefelder kept perfecting process. After his death, others like Godefroy Engelmann
of Mulhouse in France added color with chromolithography. So by the time we get to protofilm in the
1890s with magic lantern projection shows, lithography and poster making was a fully
mature industry and artistic medium. Here a beautiful litograph by French artist,
color lithography pioneer, and some say father of the poster, Jules Cheret for the magic
lantern show “Projections Artistiques” in 1890. He would later go on to make another highly
regarded poster for Theatre Optique’s program called Pantomines Lumineuses. And now we get to the poster I use over and
over again in these courses to represent the Lumiere Brothers groundbreaking first ever
commercial public film screening on December 26, 1895 in the basement of the Grand Cafe
in Paris. This poster illustrated by Marcellin Auzolle
depicts a scene from the film L’Arroseur arrosé – the Sprinkled Sprinkler marking the first
time a poster was used not only to advertise a film but to advertise a specific film and
even the first time a movie scene was depicted in a poster. Across the pond in the United States, as Thomas
Edison consolidated his control and standardized the newborn film industry in the late 1800s
and the turn of the century, he standardized the movie poster as well. The One Sheet – 27 inches wide by 41 inches
tall became the standard dimension for Hollywood movie posters shown inside and out of the
movie theater. Variations came with the one sheet from the
3 sheet poster, 6 sheet poster even up to the 24 sheet billboard style poster which
measures about 9 feet by 20 feet. Now keep in mind, this is era of single screen
venue – from nickelodeons even moving into the movie palaces of the 1910s, these theaters
only had one screen which they would show only one preset program of films. So when a theater played a certain movie – the
entire advertising for that theater was dedicated to just that one film. To complement the movie poster which was posted
on the outside of the building, a variety of smaller advertising sizes popped up from
the Window Card which measures 14 x 22 to the lobby card which featured scenes from
the film and printed at 11 x 14 card stock and usually displayed as a set of eight. Other sizes like banners, door panels, and
Subway Sheets have also evolved as promoters saw their need. During this first half of the studio era where
Studios owned both the means of production and the theaters that distributed their own
products, the production of advertising materials were handled in house. It’s important to note that just as theaters
were operated differently in those days, movie distribution also worked differently. Today, a movie opens wide pretty much everywhere
at once, back then a film opened in only a few major cities before rolling out to smaller
cities and rural areas. This rolling out process was facilitated using
a network of studio owned central offices or film exchange that carried the actual print
of the movie as well as a press kit consisting of posters and advertising paraphernalia. Each theater would come into the film exchange
and check out a copy of the film and posters for their run and return them when the run
was finished. In this case movie posters and lobby cards
would be used over and over again as the movie made its way from town to town. Well this shipping and handling was starting
to become a logistical nightmare especially with something as fragile as movie posters
– this was a business that studios would happily to outsource. The National Screen Service, originally created
in 1920 to create movie trailers for the studios, saw an opportunity in the movie poster business
as well. By mid 1940s, most of the major studios had
deals with the N.S.S to manage their movie poster distribution. The studio would send the N.S.S the artwork,
the N.S.S would print and distribute the “movie paper” as it was called, directly to the
local film offices and theaters and print new ones as pieces became damaged. To manage all of that – the N.S.S developed
a numbering system which happens to be really useful for modern poster collectors. From 1943 to 1977, the N.S.S marked posters
with two digits followed by a slash and then up four digits. The first two digits were the last two digits
of the year of release and the last digits indicate what number film it was. So if you saw 58/223 – that meant the film
was released in 1958 and it was the 223rd movie to be released that year – in this case:
Attack of the 50ft Woman. If the poster was a re-issue, you would see
an R at the beginning of the number. Sometime in 1977 they removed the slash. Through arrangements with all the major studios,
The N.S.S basically held a natural monopoly on poster production – nearly 90% of all Hollywood
posters found their way to the public through N.S.S. offices. But their control of the industry began to
fade in the 70s and 80s with the rise of the modern multiplex and a new strategy of wide
release. Now a lobby couldn’t be dedicated to just
one film – so sizes like half-sheets, three-sheets and lobby cards started to disappear. Secondly with the wide release strategy which
took advantages of economies of scale with national advertising, you didn’t need to
keep track of replacement movie paper. With a simpler movie poster ecosystem, studios
took back the responsibility for creating their own posters. By the end of the 1990s the N.S.S had only
3 offices remaining. In September of 2000, Technicolor purchased
what was left of the N.S.S and shut down the remain offices. Although lobby cards have all but disappeared
a new type of movie paper has begun to grace the lobbies of multiplexes – the movie standee. These are often cleverly designed cardboard
creations that entice fans to interact and grab a picture for a bit of word of mouth
advertising via social media. Unfortunately their sheer size makes the market
for collectible standees a bit difficult. We breezed through the business history of
posters but let’s jump back and look at some of the art created by key poster and
illustrators and designers through the years. And honestly this is where you can really
get lost in some amazing work. Although the rise of the poster as an artistic
medium grew from the roots established in Paris by the likes of aforementioned Jules
Chéret, poster design exploded all through Europe being influenced by Art Nouveau, Cubism,
Dadaism, Surrealism, and the Bauhaus and Swiss school of designs. There’s even fascinating developments in
Poland which has its own history of avante garde movie poster design that grew from Communist
control and censorship of all but poster production. But that’s a story for a different time. For the sake of time I’m going to focus
mainly on the Hollywood movie poster. In the United States early movie poster design
took a different evolution than our European counterparts. Borne of the brightly colored posters advertising
traveling circuses; the illustration stylings of the influential, Edward Penfield who many
consider the father of the American Poster; and William H. Bradley, once the highest paid
illustrator in the early 20th century: the earliest Hollywood movie posters showed a
unique version of American Art Nouveau. Very little information can be found about
the specific artists in this early silent era as so much of the work was done anonymously. As beautiful as some of these seem to us now,
they weren’t considered high art in their time, most of these probably ended up in the
garbage heap after being used by theater after theater. The beginnings of what we might recognize
as the modern poster really began in the early 1940s. And although it’s really hard to pinpoint
a single individual – one artist does really stand out in this era: Bill Gold. Trained as an illustrator, a graphic designer
and a photographer, Gold started his career at Warner Bros. working on this poster of
Yankee Doodle Dandy. But if there is one Studio Era film that defines
Gold’s contribution to the modern poster, it would be the one for Casablanca. He may not have been the first to employ the
collage style posters – but the subtlety of size, placement and pose of each of the leading
and supporting characters presents the story of the film brilliantly without using any
words. In 1962, Gold opened up his own firm – Bill
Gold Advertising and the list of movie posters he has been involved with as a designer is
absolutely stunning. From My Fair Lady, to Hair, Clockwork Orange,
Alien, Deliverance, James Bond and For Your Eyes Only, Bullit, Dirty Harry – not to mention
every single Clint Eastwood movie until Gold’s retirement in 2004. Not only did Gold design many of these posters
but as we shall see, many fantastic artists would find their start with his agency. Backing upt the 1950s, of course we have the
name that dominates so much of movie design: Saul Bass. Though he may be known more for his title
sequences, Bass was influential in the spread of minimalism and kinetic typography in movie
poster design. As we glance at a few of his pieces we see
much more emphasis on simple but powerful shapes – Bass would probably be more of a
bridge between American illustrative posters and the more abstract posters that came out
of Europe. Working with Bill Gold and Saul Bass was an
illustrator from Kansas by the name of Bob Peak. Peak was first hired to illustrate the poster
for West Side Story – but not the iconic fire escape minimalist poster that Bass was responsible
for- but this one. From there Peak made his way to Bill Gold’s
agency where he illustrated My Fair Lady, In Like Flint and Excalibur… Peak most iconic work came later in the posters
for Superman, Star Trek, Apocalypse Now and the film that would turn Bruce Lee into a
legend: Enter the Dragon. Working around the same time and also for
Gold was an illustrator by the name of Richard Amsel. While at Art School in Philadelphia, Amsel
won a 20th Century Fox talent seach with a poster for Barbara Streisand’s Hello Dolly!
(which was used as the official poster) Amsel worked on several movie posters before gaining
acclaim for his illustrative covers for TV Guide. Perhaps his most notable work was for George
Lucas and Steven Spielberg with Raiders of the Lost Ark. He did two separate posters, one for the film’s
initial 1981 release and another for its re-release a year later which is now inseparable from
the film itself. Unfortunately Amsel’s career was cut short
as he died from complications of AIDS just shy of his 38th birthday. Another illustrator had to take up the pencil
at Lucas Film – Drew Struzan. Struzan’s first encounter the Lucas universe
came when he was asked to create the figure drawings for the 1978 rerelease of Star Wars. Dubbed the Circus Poster – it cleverly simulated
a torn poster bill as a way to fit in the credit block beneath the artwork. Struzan worked on iconic 80s films: Blade
Runner, The Thing, The Cannonball Run, the Police Academy series, Back to the Future,
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Muppet Movie, Coming to America, First Blood, Risky Business,
An American Tail, and The Goonies just to name a few. But he will probably be forever known by his
association with Star Wars – for which he created the posters for the 90s re-release
and the prequels, as well as for picking up after Amsel’s death with Temple of Doom,
The Last Crusade and Kingom of the Crystal Skull before he retired. In the same league as Struzan is John Alvin. Alvin was working as an animator when got
invited by a friend to work on the poster for Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Brooks loved Alvin’s work so much he brought
him back for Young Frankenstein History of the World Part I, Silent Movie and Spaceballs. After that Alvin really didn’t need to look
for work as he constantly fielding poster requests. His work includes, this iconic poster for
Blade Runner, Cocoon, 10, Alladin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Empire of the
Sun, Rainman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever. As you might be able to conclude, as we get
into the 80s and 90s, illustrated posters began to fall out of fashion in favor of digital
photography. That’s not to say that photography and digital
can’t create the visual flights of fancy that illustration can. Although it’s really easy to be cynical
and bemoan the dearth of creativity in modern film poster with it’s over reliance on tropes
and cliches, the same could be said of the actual movies themselves. It might be considered low art by some, but
the movie poster and paper advertising have the power to promise adventure, laughs, thrills,
desire, and titillation while at the same time being a catalyst for the strong emotional
memories that we create when we go to the movies. It’s just advertising yes, but it is also
iconography – a strange intersection between art and commerce where you really can find
some great inspiration. We’ve listed six artists but there are countless
more both past and present. Do some research, get inspired, and go out
and make something that demands an awesome poster: make something great! Follow us on Facebook and Twitter and consider
becoming a patron on Patreon. I’m John Hess and I’ll see you at Filmmaker
IQ.com

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