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How to Collect Movie Posters

About Movie Poster Collecting

Movie producers have been advertising the films they make by every means conceivable since the first producer decided to splice his footage together, load it onto a projector, set up a screen and some chairs, and sell tickets. Film trailers, handbills, heralds, radio and TV spots, sneak previews and the revered publicity stunts of the great showmen of the past have all played a role in getting the attention of the public when a film needed selling. But for film fans all over the world, one area of film advertising remains specially connected to the heart of filmmaking: movie posters.

Posters go right back to the beginning of movie exhibition a century ago. The evolution of advertising movies on posters was inevitable; in the previous century almost anything you could buy had been advertised on posters. Posters were colorful and they were ubiquitous. So it was natural that filmmakers would turn to posters as a means of arousing curiosity. The modern one-sheet posters of today, offset printed on translucent "lightbox" paper, fulfill exactly the same function as did the stone lithographs which announced exhibitions of cinema by Lumiere and Edison: advertisement. By the exploitation and juxtaposition of image, text, and color, posters attract the public's attention and persuade people to reach for their wallets at the box office.

But aside from this primary function, film posters have another quality. They are at once mementos -- memorabilia, if you will, of the experience of seeing a film. In this they are artifacts of film culture. The poster that you see at the the cineplex for a film like The Dark Knight or Up could have the same appeal in fifty years that a poster for The Wizard of OZ or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has for us today. The possibility that it might is the essence of the charm and allure of collecting. The ability to see something special in a poster is the hallmark of a talented collector.

A collector may have great posters and yet have a somewhat featureless collection. Collections with verve are amassed by collectors with vision. That is true in collectibles generally and it is likewise true with film posters. Happily, seeing one's own preferences and personality evolve in a collection is what makes collecting fun. Anyone interested in collecting can join in.  Knowing a little bit about original film posters helps, however.  That's what this article is about.

Sizes

Movie posters were made in different sizes, in different countries, sometimes in multiple styles (different posters in the same size), so that they could be used in different situations. The most common size in the United States, the one-sheet poster, 27 inches wide by 41 inches high, is today triumphant over other sizes which are, largely, no longer manufactured. The one-sheet poster is usually the poster one sees displayed when attending a theater today. But in the past, as recently as the 1970s and 1980s, posters were made in several sizes. Classically, from the smallest to the largest they are:

Press Stills

Usually 8 inches by 10 inches, press stills are glossy black and white or sometimes color photographs produced on the set of a film by the film's unit photographer. They are not, strictly speaking, posters; they are photos. But stills were once used at movie houses they in groups for display.  They are not, usually, actual frames from a film enlarged as a photograph although in some rare cases they may be. They are tableau or scenes from the film set up and photographed in such a way as to look as if they are lifted from the film. In the old days a film's unit photographer used large format cameras that would create razor sharp stills for good reproduction in magazines and newspapers.

A film's unit photographer would produce many black and white stills for a given production. Color also was used for stills. Sometimes producers would lithograph (print) color still sets in 8x10 format for use at the theater location for display. These are called color still sets, and they may sometimes be numbered. But the garden variety black and white still is the copper penny of movie posterdom. Normally in the bottom border are printed a film's title, production and copyright information. There were millions maybe billions of these photos produced worldwide.

Sometimes stills were produced in 11 by 14 inch formats - oversized stills. (The most regal type of still are the glamorous stills produced by talented photographers like George Hurrell which are generally elegant photographs of the stars. These are quite valuable and are not to be confused normal production stills. They are often embossed with the photographer's imprimatur.)

It actually can be hard to buy stills mail order because they are such a pain for the average dealer to sell. Generally you find them in shops whether your local collectibles store or in mail order memorabilia stores with huge inventories. Or you may see them at poster and movie conventions around the world.  You can be sure that millions of these stills have been discarded over the years. Nevertheless, many of these photos survive today.

U.S. Lobby cards (11x14 inches)

Single Lobby Card ExampleSingle lobby card for 1934's Bolero, starring George Raft and Carole Lombard.
These are 11 inch by 14 inch posters printed on card stock, designed to be displayed in the foyer or the lobby of the theater. Hence they are called lobby cards. They are generally printed as sets of eight different cards, but not always. Typically a set will consist of one title card and several scene cards. The scene cards are so called because a black and white still, a scene from the movie, is generally hand tinted and reproduced as a lithograph in color on the card. Each card is embellished with other art, text or other design elements and each scene card will have a different photo from the film. The title card features the title and credits of the film arranged in a more poster-like design, setting it apart from the scene cards.

As color photography became more common in the 1950s and afterward, color photos were used in the creation of scene cards.

Lobby card collecting is one of the most varied and interesting areas in the hobby because of the endless variety of cards and the qualities of the images used. Generally the more pertinent, memorable and central to the film the image on the scene card is, the more interesting and valuable the card is.

Single Lobby Card ExampleSingle lobby card for the Murray Douglas Sporup crime musical, Rock Baby Rock It.
The term dead card refers to a card that has the more compelling aspects of the film - either stars or subjects- missing from the scene portrayed. For example, a scene card from an obscure Bela Lugosi film in which Lugosi, the chief element of interest, is not portrayed, or a card from a Marx Brothers film where there is not even one brother pictured could earn the moniker dead card.

A grouping of all the lobby cards from a film is called a lobby card set. Individual scene cards from many films have a number printed in or near the border area identifying that card.  Some films have no title card in the set. Sometimes there may be only four cards for a film or perhaps more than eight.   Most lobby card sets have been broken up over years of collecting, so finding a set which is integral is increasingly difficult. Lobby card set collectors are often challenged with assembling a complete set. Complete sets often came originally from the studios in paper bags with the name and studio information printed on the bag. The presence of the bag with the set is very unusual today. Very occasionally, two different lobby sets may exist for the same film.

There are also jumbo lobby cards, 14 inches by 17 inches. These can be oriented either vertically or horizontally. These poster range from the silent era through the forties and they are nowhere near as common as standard lobby cards.

U.S. Window cards (14x22 inches)

US Window Card ExampleU.S. Window card for the 1959 Sidney Lumet romantic comedy, That Kind of Woman.
The window card is a poster which is 14 inches wide by 22 inches high. It is one of the easiest sizes to handle and economical to frame because an oversized piece of glass in not required in the framing. It is printed on a card stock. Window cards were designed chiefly for off-premises advertising. Thus they were often seen in the window of the barber shop, the butcher shop, the bakery - advertising a film that was playing at a local theater. A blank area of about five inches was incorporated at the top of the poster; in this space the exhibitor could print or hand-letter the theater locale and playdates of the picture. Of course, many window cards survive with these letterings. While some collectors prefer to find a copy of a window card with nothing printed on it, other people find that the theater and playdate notations can add an individual character to a poster. Some window cards have had this area trimmed from the poster, usually by overzealous collectors who find the top area extraneous. Trimming a poster devalues a poster and usually a bad idea; but finding a trimmed window card on a rare title is OK. Given the choice between a trimmed window card and a complete one, whether printed or not, the untrimmed card will have a wider collector's appeal because it is complete.

The mini window card (8 inches wide by 14 inches high) is a smaller incarnation of the window card. These were not made for every film, and are relatively scarce. Likewise, the jumbo window card (22 wide by 28 inches high) is a larger version of the window card.  Both may feature completely different art from the standard window card.

U.S. Insert posters (14 x 36 inches)

US Insert ExampleU.S. Insert Poster for the George Stevens romantic drama, A Place in the Sun, starring Elizabeth Taylor.
Also called insert cards, they are also printed on card stock. This poster has a vertical format, 36 inches high by 14 inches wide. Because of its vertical format, when framed,  an insert will fit in an area where other sizes may not. Inserts often utilize painting in their design, but some of the most affecting styles are photographic. Inserts which have never been folded may be referred to as flat or rolled. While a rolled insert is nice, an insert that has been folded should not be turned down if the design is good and other areas of condition are satisfactory. A trip to the restorer can brighten any poster and folds can be minimized.

U.S. Half sheet posters (22 x 28)

US Half Sheet ExampleU.S. Half sheet for the classic noir starring Robert Mitchum, Out of the Past.
Also printed on card stock, the half sheet is sometimes called a display. It is more often called a 22 by 28 referring to its dimensions - 22 inches high by 28 inches wide. These dimensions give the poster one of its greatest elements of appeal: a convenient size with a horizontal orientation that is easy on the eyes in a smaller room. Like the insert, both art and photographic designs are found.  These elements are sometimes mixed. Framing is usually less than a one-sheet because an oversized piece of glass is not required. Half sheets may be found folded, but also rolled or flat examples are seen.  It is not unusual to find two different styles for the same film in this format.

One-sheet posters (27 x 41)

One-sheet poster ExampleOne-sheet Poster for This Gun for Hire.
The most popular poster size is arguably the one-sheet. One sheets are 41 inches high by 27 inches wide. They are printed on paper which can vary widely in quality from beautiful enameled stocks to the cheapest newspulp. One sheets can utilize art or photographic elements. Today one-sheets are printed by offset lithography, a process by which the original art which is photographed and a printing plate is made from the photo.  But in the first half of the last century, older posters may have been printed by lithographic techniques utilizing stone or zinc plates. These posters are referred to as stone lithographs.  This type of lithography is now largely confined to fine art editions, but was at one used commercially to produce all types of advertising posters.

Stone lithography for U.S. movie posters stopped altogether in the early 1950s, as photo offset printing, being cheaper and faster, dominated. In Europe the stone lithograph production persisted a bit longer. But stone lithograph one-sheets (as well as three and six and even twenty four- sheets) have become highly desired of by many collectors.

One-sheet stone-lithography poster ExampleOne-sheet stone lithography poster for Haunted Gold
Once you've seen the difference between these two printing methods, you will understand why collectors enthuse over stone lithos. Many of the great one-sheets are stone lithographs. This, as much as anything else, has accounted for their popularity. But it also must be said this has been historically the poster which, through the decades, has been used by the exhibitors more than any other poster. So often, the one-sheet is the poster that a collector remembers from a given film. It is virtually the only size used today by all exhibitors in all parts of the U.S.

Great posters are not defined by their dimensions alone but rather by their overall design. There are wonderful designs in every size.


This article was written by Kirby McDaniel of MovieArt and published originally in Jon Warren's "Movie Poster Guide". It is reproduced here as a service to collectors with Jon's permission.






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