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The Design Of The Movie Poster Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 5489 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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A poster can be described as a placard or bill, generally huge and frequently incorporating photographs or designs, posted up for marketing or advertising or for decorative reasons. The functions of those which publicize comprise communication, selling and influencing. This does not rule them out being attractive. Certainly the first job of a poster is to draw the attention of the spectator and simply once this is done can a meaning be delivered. A first-class poster then is one which is attention-grabbing, to the point, persuasive and unforgettable. To attain these goals designers may employ a large design and bold colour, plain and minimum text and striking illustrations which mentally support and strengthen the printed words. Simultaneously designers must believe the constraints imposed by the methods and places of display and contest from other posters whose messages perhaps will be as critical and absolute.

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Poster design merges the fine and applied arts, incorporating painting, graphic design, collection, and cinematography. In countries where TV is not a main advertising means the poster remains a fleeting yet successful means of reaching the widest spectators on behalf of culture, commerce, and beliefs. Posters have turn out to be an essential 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 nearby parks and construction sites. Formally selected for poster show, these impeccable colourful quilts of public billboards not just distribute information on cultural, sports, and political events but as well function as continually changing outdoor exhibitions of graphic art. Throughout such extensive and continuous exposure, poster design has become one of the most reachable and effectual art forms, reaching out and influencing even that part of the public that does not regularly visit museums or galleries. In juried exhibitions, the best posters accomplish national disclosure, and for numerous graphic artists, book illustration as well as poster design are significant vehicles for a wider acknowledgment of their personal style both at home and overseas.

A feature widespread to all the designers is their striving for self-expression in an atmosphere that demands political conformity. They seem aim on designing posters that have an emotional impact as well as appeal to the sense however that as well challenge the viewer to an intellectual response. Their metaphors include lyrical and neo-surrealist overtones, drama, irony, or playful humour, along with the message is delivered in a diversity 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 concerning the repertoire of movie theatres and dramatic theatres, it announces sporting events, it encourages purchasing various goods. The socio-political poster plays a definite propaganda role. Those who commission it anticipate that effective impact of the work of art upon the viewer will allow them to come nearer to their desired goal. The goal varies depending on the circumstances: winning a war, or a presidential election, or a legislative campaign; a struggle to change social behaviours or attitudes.

My overall aim is to not to just identify and define the design of a typical poster, I aim to concentrate my focus around the film industry and really look at how film posters have changed over time. Not only in a visually sense, but I also aim to look at how the handling of them has changed, when did they become considered as piece of art and part of the cityscape? When did they become collectable items? And what impact do they have today?

I aim to do this by researching through a wide range of resources from books, internet articles and through poster archives, looking as far back as the late 19th century into today’s society.

History of the art of movie posters

Cinema along with film posters are the physical living form of the special movies we have enjoyed throughout the years. Even though there is a big market for collecting film posters, they were for no reason anticipated or produced to be sold to the public. They were just intended to endorse as well as attract viewers to approach to the local theatres that were showing the films. Nowadays these rare original movie posters are in huge demand. They are the solid souvenirs of most wanted films and stars whose characters we fell in love with. (Bruce Hershenson, 1999)

Surprisingly in the early days of movie making actors were not typically depicted on the film posters. The label of the film and the producer and directors names were typically 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 earlier than the eighties were for the most part returned to the studios or poster sources as well as destroyed when the archives became full or the film’s run had ended. Unluckily numerous early film posters prepared for hit movies for example Casablanca, King Kong, Frankenstein as well as The Wizard of Oz were destroyed consequently of natural disasters that occurred in the duration of World War II. As people turned out to be more responsive of their value theatre owners began to disregard return policies and those film posters that were spared are extensively sought these days by collectors and dealers. (Bruce Hershenson, 1999)

Before 1940, almost every film studio maintained its own offices in each main city. The studios would send the films as well as their posters to all the exchange offices and from there, they wound often be distributed to the adjoining theatres. The big city theatres would just go to the exchange and collect the films and posters right before they were scheduled to appear on screen (for big films they might order extra posters beforehand of the opening to produce an elaborate display). Theatres in smaller towns would receive their materials via a ‘Greyhound bus’, which back then serviced very nearly every town in the country. The films would be transported in containers and the posters would be protected in a side section or pouch of the same container. (Bruce Hershenson)

The majority of theatres would show a film for probably just short of a week (as part of a program that might comprise 2 features, a cartoon, a newsreel, and possibly a serial chapter), and after that they were often send on to the next theatre. Frequently the theatre manager would put the film on a late night bus right subsequent to 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 lots of theatres before returning back to one of the exchange offices. Once the film was returned to the exchange, it would go back out to other theatres, and frequently the posters had to be replaced, as they were worn out and tattered from being put up and taken down quite a lot of times. (Bruce Hershenson, 1999)

This could explain why posters from before 1940 are tremendously rare. Theatre owners couldn’t give their posters to collectors, regardless of how hard they begged, since they were needed at the next theatre. This entire system of having to cope with each studio independently might sound very incompetent, however remember that in the 1920s and 1930s a lot of theatres were owned by the studios and so merely showed that studio’s product; and it wasn’t that difficult for most of the independents to just acquire their films from a couple of studios.

However if all the posters were returned with the films, how are there any posters at all from before 1940? For single thing, one form of poster, window cards (14″ x 22″) were bought in great quantities by an individual theatre and (once they added their name as well as play dates to the top) circulated to store windows around city. Those were exposed after the film was finished playing. An additional way they carry on is in the backs of old picture frames, for framers would repeatedly use window cards (available free of charge) as backing boards.

However as for other posters remaining these days, an enormous 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 numerous other countries. (Bruce Hershenson, 1999)

Additionally there have been various great finds in the U.S., for example the Cosy Theatre Collection in Los Angeles. This was a theatre that maintained its own exchange of posters from the untimely 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, as well as hundreds of thousands of stills) for trade for $25,000, and it was difficult to find a buyer! At today’s prices, the collection would put up for sale for millions of dollars.

Except the enormous finds (which almost certainly account for 90% of the pre-1938 posters identified), posters as well are from time to time found in one other main way. During the 1910s and 1920s (and to a slighter degree in the 1930s), builders would over and over again look for material to put inside the walls of buildings (or beneath the floors) to serve as filling. Several enterprising builders hooked up with poster exchanges to obtain great amounts of outdated posters and place them in the walls of their new homes. There was known to be at least ten occasions where somebody has been remodelling their house in the 1990s and discovered posters in the walls or under the floor. Occasionally they are mouldy and mildewed and need huge amounts of restoration, but infrequently they are so powerfully pressed jointly that they undergo in relatively excellent circumstance. This again shows how in the early 20th film posters were not considered in any way valuable after their use in the theatres. They were not recycled or thought of as collectable pieces of art they were simply discarded for constructional waste.

The vast commons of pre-1938 posters identified were found in one of the above ways. Very rarely a theatre owner 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! (Bruce Hershenson, 1999)

Rarity cannot be understood of pre-1938 posters when Bruce Hershenson thinks 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. (Bruce Hershenson)

It appears each exchange received a huge number of each poster (at least). Bruce says 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. Bruce also thinks 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). (Bruce Hershenson, 1999)

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. Bruce has owned many posters that were mailed folded in the 1940s, without an envelope, and the cost was three cents!) Bruce has 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. (Bruce Hershenson, 1999)

Then in the mid-1960s, some enterprising individuals began to buy the individual poster exchanges. Bruce had no idea what they paid, but Bruce has no doubt it was an absolute “steal”, as the exchanges thought they had warehouses full of practically worthless old paper. (Certainly Bruce admired 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. (Bruce own personal introduction to movie posters came in 1968 at an Oklahoma City collectibles show, where Bruce, being a full-time comic book dealer, was intrigued by the many boxes of movie posters Bruce saw at Tanner Miles’ tables. Bruce spent over $40 with him, a huge amount of money for me at the time, and Bruce went home with a large box of posters and lobby sets). (Bruce Hershenson, 1999)

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). Bruce 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. Bruce remembers 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. Bruce 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). (Bruce Hershenson, 1999)

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. One 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, one can 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. (Bruce Hershenson, 1999)

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 short film 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, This marked the beginning of the new design. Posters began to portray more information and focus of the name of the film rather than the company that designed them. However comparing that to today’s world you see that this has changed again, where now the main focus seems to be around the main actor or actress, as it’s them who promote the film’s success and attract the eye’s of the viewers.

So 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, 1903. 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″. (Edwin and Susan, 2001)

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The Change of movie posters over decades

1910’s – 1920’s 

In the early days movie stars weren’t known, so the names of actors did not appear on the posters. Besides the movie studios liked it that way so they wouldn’t have to pay more money to actors. Things certainly have changed with actors like Will Smith, Denzel Washington, and Johnny Depp commonly getting checks over or around 20 million dollars per movie. 

During this early period in movie history movie studios realized that movie stars were as much an attraction for the moviegoer as the movie itself. So the movie star was born, and movie posters started showcasing the names of the actors as well as the title of the movie. The bigger the star the bigger their name appeared on the poster. Other promotional materials were soon used such as billboards, lobby cards and the press books. (Edwin E. Poole and Susan T. Poole, 2001)

In the 1920’s, the golden age of the silent movies, posters became more artistic and spectacular. Accomplished Artists were hired to paint portraits of the stars for the movie studios to be used as movie posters. By the mid 1920’s talkies as they were called were introduced. Movie attendance shot up to 110 million by 1929 from 60 million in 1927. During this time movie poster images would become sharper due to a new printing process by the Morgan Litho Company.


“The Golden Age of Movies” as it is known in the movie industry saw the beginning of great musicals, gangster movies, westerns, and horror movies created for the growing public hunger for movies. One of the biggest money makers of all time came from the end of this decade, a little picture called 1939’s Gone with the Wind, (Films Posters of the 30’s). Two styles of movie poster were created, one sheets and half sheets. Major movies would sometimes get more than the two different styles. However due to the depression of the time period, with the beginning of World War II, a lot of movie materials had been created more cheaply, causing movie posters to lose some of the quality as they had previously. All the posters at this time were hand rendered, which gave them a sense of warmth and humanity but around the late 1930’s they lost that and slowly didn’t seem to capture the iconography of the film as well as the likes of King Kong did for example, which was only several years earlier. (Films Posters of the 30’s)

1940’s – 1950’s 

During World War II war movies became the biggest theme for movies of the time. A number of movie stars joined the military and the entire industry did what they could for the war effort. The movie industry cut advertising costs using cheaper paper for posters due to the paper shortage of the war time.

The 1950’s would see the invention of the movie industry’s biggest competitor, the television set. The movie industry came out with bigger screens for large scale movies like Ben Hur, and 3-D movies. Drive-in movies were at their peak, and movie posters adopted a style of the new fan magazines with colour photographs of the major movie stars and large stock lettering. (Edwin E. Poole and Susan T. Poole, 2001)

1960’s – 1970’s

Teen movies were the big thing in the early sixties. Beach movies and Elvis Presley ruled the movie theatres. James Bond stirred up the action genre, but by the end of the sixties into the seventies times were a’ changing and posters reflected this change of attitude towards sex and violence.

By the 1970’s everything changed. Gone were the simple days of Andy Griffith and Mayberry. Hello Dirty Harry! Before the decade was over Clint Eastwood would make our day, we would see John Travolta charming his way in the likes of Grease and Saturday Night fever, we’d cheer Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, race off to other parts of the galaxy in Star Wars and be made to believe a man can fly in Superman. Movie posters used photography occasionally using drawing and painting styles. Star Wars and Star Trek posters were the most popular creating collectables out of many today. Artist Drew Struzan is one of the most admired posters artists still today for his designs for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. Movie posters at this time were now being printed on a clay-coated paper which gave them a glossy finish. (Visual Ref; Film Posters of the 30’s- 90’s by Tony Nourmand) and (Drew Struzan)

1980’s – 1990’s 

The age of special effects blockbusters, the 1980’s broke records with awesome films like The Empire Strikes Back,  Return of the Jedi, E.T., more Superman movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 2 more Indiana Jones movies, more James Bond movies, Ghostbusters, Batman, Back to the Future, The Terminator, more Rocky movies, and don’t forget Rambo. (Visual Ref; Film Posters of the 80’s- 90’s by Tony Nourmand)

This decade meant more screens per theatre and more advertising material. The mini sheet was invented, and the video store became popular creating the video store poster.

The 1990’s saw the beginning of new computerization technology used in films like Jurassic Park. Armageddon, Independence Day and Arnie was back in Terminator 2; Judgement Day. The one sheet continued to be used for posters as well as the mini sheet.

2000- Recent Decade

In the recent decade Spider-man has web spun his way into the record books, DVDs have slowly replaced the VHS video, and posters are sold in many stores with reprints of movie posters currently being mass produced. Collectors of movie posters and other materials may have their hands full nowadays determining which poster is the original and which is the duplicate. On the other hand the development of mass production and duplication now allows anyone who wants a Spider-man poster on their bedroom wall and doesn’t care whether it’s the original or the twentieth reprint, the poster is just a click away on the internet. (Edwin E. Poole and Susan T. Poole, 2001) This shows how the mass difference of how posters are handling poster today compared to finding them in your walls and under your floor boards when it comes to redecorating your home.

How detailed the poster designs were done back in the 1930’s and 40’s

A number of different poster designing methods were available back in 1930s and 1940s, outlined here:


Based upon the principles of lithography, a separate stone or plate was made for each colour. The final colour image resulted from the build-up of successive, individual colour printings. It was associated with the production of posters from the 1850s to the 1930s.


One-off designs generally produced within competitions by, for instance, employees or children.

Intaglio Printing

Generic term for printing processes where an image is etched or engraved into the surface of a plate. The plate is then covered with ink, wiped clean, leaving ink only in the incised lines, with the impression then made direction onto paper. Photogravure is one of the key processes produced by this means.


Printing method based on the principle that oil and water do not mix. Using a greasy medium, an image is drawn on a flat surface of fine-grained porous limestone or zinc plate. The stone or plate is then dampened and inked. The water repels ink from most the surface so that the ink adheres only to the drawn lines. Dampened paper is applied to the stone or plate and rubbed with a special press to make the final print. This was a development that enabled the cheap and cost-effective mass printing of colour image and is the most common method for posters. (Richard and George, 2007)


A popular commercial method of printing where the image to be printed is transferred (offset) first from the cylindrical metal plate on to a rubber-coloured cylinder, and then from this cylinder on to the paper surface, capable of printing on a variety of paper surfaces on both sides of the paper in four colours (can be simultaneous) in a variety of sizes. Small machines are available as in-house printing presses to commercial organisations to a maximum size of A3 (297 x 420mm).


Detailed intaglio prints made by a commercial photographic process. Varying depths of recessed dots are engraved into a copper-plated steel cylinder, filled with ink, surplus ink removed from the surface, and then transferred directly to the printed surface, a high-quality process particularly used for the production of long-run magazines and packaging.


Photo-Lithograph is a process whereby, a photograph is taken of an original painting – essentially, the same process as lithography or offset-lithography. (Richard and George, 2007)


Also known as serigraphy, a method favoured by fine art printmakers, Developed into the modern printing technique of screen printing in which a printed image is made by passing ink through a screen attached to a stencil onto paper. ‘A print-making technique based on stencilling. Ink or paint is brushed through a fine screen made of silk, and masks are used to produce the design. These can be made of paper, or from varnish applied to the silk itself. (Richard and George, 2007)

The use of computer software in making Movie posters

In recent times, the use of technology such as different computer software has made it really easy and time effective for designers to create movie posters. Nowadays, it can take as less as 30 minutes to few hours to create a movie poster, which can further be printed out in larger sizes by use of other giant copiers and printers such as Xerox. The most widely used computer software is Adobe Photoshop. This software gives an ease of access and is one of the most simplified designing software. Adobe Photoshop gives the designer the ability, due to its layers, to create any form of printed promotional material. By utilizing only few layers, the attractive scene from the movie recording can be taken and then adding title of the movie along with the cast’s name can be merely take few hours which then results in a very striking movie poster.

The Class:

The work done in past by the artists in order to create and design film posters was in indeed of high calibre as there were no facilities available for him/her to assist him in order to design the poster that would represent the film. All had to be done by him manually without the facility of modern computers and graphic designing software. The class was un match able as the poster that the artist used to make would have been assigned to him with the theme of the story and the work on it would normally start at the same time when the production of the film will start and will take long time to design it and get it approved by the concerned people who initially order it. This effort would have been based on outstanding hard work and imagination of the artist to produce a master piece that will get the attention of viewers and will attract them towards the cinema halls and theatres.

The Costs:


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