Movie Poster Art: A Short History

I am a huge movie fan and I’m always pleased when I see an artistically crafted film poster.  This led me to do a little research into the history of movie poster artwork and its evolution over the years.

Film posters have always been designed with the commercial intent of getting movie goers to buy a ticket. It is generally thought that the first movie poster was created in 1890 by French painter and lithographer Jules Cheret for a short film called “Projections Artistiques”.  Most of the early film posters prior to 1910 were simple signs with block text announcing the title, producer, and director.

As the movie industry began to grow,  studios realized the marketing value of creating colourful artwork that depicted scenes from their movies to promote the films and bring in more viewers. These posters were printed on inexpensive paper and not meant to be collected or preserved. The posters were usually loaned to the theatres who were responsible for returning them to the studios or sending them to the next theatre.

Another form of movie promotion existed in the form of Lobby Cards – small (14 x 11 inch)   movie posters usually printed on cardstock that were displayed in a lobby’s foyer. The cards were often produced in sets of eight or more and depicted scenes from the movie.

From the mid 1920’s through the 1940’s, movie studios developed their own artwork styles for their movie posters and hired well-known artists and illustrators such as Al Hirschfeld, John Held Jr., Hap Hadley, Ted Ireland, Louis Fancher, Clayton Knight and Armando Seguso.  MGM was known for it’s highly polished posters that used pastel colour schemes on white backgrounds. 20th Century Fox, on the other hand, used rich and vibrant colours in their posters to promote their movies (typically musicals).  As well, the increasing public preference for colour photographic quality prompted Columbia Pictures to pioneer the “fake colour” process which colourized black and white still photos. It was not long before every studio adopted this process.

Very few film posters survived the years of the Great Depression and World War Two where theatre owners often received credit for returning the poster and paper drives during the war kept movie posters out of circulation.  It is estimated that less than 20 copies of most film posters that were produced between 1930 – 1945 exist today.

Up until the mid 1980’s, the National Screen Service (NSS) printed and distributed almost all movie posters and related advertising material for the film studios. The evolution of multi-screen cinemas meant that studios could cut back on distribution and the need for  production and distribution by the NSS was eliminated.  During this transition period, many poster exchanges still had large inventories of products and some evolved into the business of re-selling the posters to collectors.

Today, collecting film posters is a popular hobby and studios typically print extra posters for the collector’s market.  Old and rare posters are extremely valuable and many are auctioned off for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As the modern costs of printing rises, many studios are choosing to promote their films online and through television.  As well, many theatres are going digital and replacing traditional back-lit poster frames with video screens that can display the film poster with very little effort. Whether this means that studios will stop spending money on that uniquely created, iconic film poster, in favour of less expensive alternatives is yet to be seen.  My guess is that it will be a bit of both. Artistic creativity  in promotional materials, whatever the medium, will continue to be an important aspect of those films that strive for originality and artistic quality.

What do you think?  What is your all-time favourite movie poster?  Use the comment section to share your thoughts. You can also upload an image of your favourite poster.  (please keep the size under 100kb)

Sources: FilmPosters.com, Wikipedia, Movie Goods, Smashing Magazine,