MOVIE POSTERS: Beginnings of Film Posters

Vintage Movie Posters - photo by AbeBooks

Jules Cheret was a Parisian artist and lithographer who in 1870, developed a printing method that gave birth to many visual advertising materials including the movie poster. With Cheret’s technique, pictures with vibrant colours and rich texture could be produced. Cheret was also believed to be the first to produce a film poster.

Chéret’s poster for “Projections Artistiques” and “Pantomimes Lumineuses” – photo by Art of the Movies

The first one was for Projections Artistiques, a short film in 1890. It depicted a young girl holding a poster with the show’s screening times. Another was the Pantomimes Lumineuses for Emily Reynaud’s Theatre Optiques in 1892. But if one was looking for the first poster made specifically for the promotion of a singular film, it could be Cheret’s poster for L’Arroseur Arrosé in 1895. The poster for the short black and white silent film shows a scene from the film with a laughing audience in the foreground. It was illustrated by Marcellin Auzolle. Film posters before the one for L’Arroseur simply described the recording quality and technological novelty of the show and may include the show’s screening time. The L’Arroseur poster was the first to feature an actual scene from the film it promotes.

Movie Poster Evolution

Movie posters have always served as an effective tool in promoting films. As cinema style evolved, so did movie posters. Earlier examples of movie posters are a far cry from those we see today. Printing wasn’t as easy as it is now, and the production of promotional images was costly. Technology, apart from the public’s tastes, has, of course, brought about this evolution.

The 1920s

Film poster for The Penalty (1920), directed by Wallace Worsley – photo by Goldwyn Pictures

The Golden Age of silent films when movie theatres were grand architectural masterpieces and poster design was not just an advertising tool but an art form. For a time, movie posters were hand-drawn by artists who needed plenty of time to produce. The emergence of newer, more developed printing processes made the production of posters easier. With the capability of printers to depict more colours and greater detail, movie posters began featuring scenes from the film.

The 1930s

One sheet movie poster for Dracula, This is Style F, 1931 – photo by Universal

This decade marked the Art Deco era known for its bold colours and geometric designs. Movie posters adapted the style and eliminated detailed backgrounds in favour of blank (often white) spaces. Characters of the film became the main focus of such posters instead of scenes from the movie. Aside from featuring the characters’ faces, posters called to audiences with bold typography. Seeing a movie was a means of escape for people then. Despite the Great Depression, people flocked to movie theatres to momentarily forget the harshness of reality.

The 1940s

This Gun For Hire movie poster, 1945 – photo by Paramount Pictures

The Second World War had film studios producing movies that attempted to inspire an atmosphere of patriotism. Despite their having to cut the budget on advertising, the movie industry lost significantly less than others. Aside from the war, the invention of television also had an impact on film production. Few movies were produced in this decade because of both.

1940s movie posters rarely depicted scenes. Character depictions were more prominent, and typography was less loud compared to how it was the previous decade.

The 1950s

Creature from the Black Lagoon, Universal Pictures, 1954, U.S. design by Reynold Brown – photo by Margaret Herrick Library Catalog

The demand for patriotic films dropped, as soldiers returned home. Fantasy was the order of the day, and studios focused on producing comedy and science fiction. The movie industry also had to generate innovations as television kept its hold over the public, drawing them away from theatres.

Artists designing posters took the conceptual approach in creating posters. While some continued to feature the characters, there was more emphasis on the typography and images that will give potential audiences a clue on what the movie is about. Light-hearted films may use brighter colours while the more suspenseful ones may use darker shades and a different style of typography.

The 1960s

Beach Party, 1963, Original Movie Poster – photo by FFF Movie Posters

This decade was marked by the emergence of teen idols and beach movies such as Beach Party (1963) and Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961). Action movies were also a growing genre, and the release of the James Bond series in 1964 propelled it forward. The lack of censorship guidelines also brought about the production of numerous adult-oriented films.

Illustrations were still widely used for posters, but they more often served to adorn the type which became the focus of a poster. Designers ensured that the poster content matched the film they were promoting.

The 1970s

Star Wars: Episode IV New Hope Movie Poster – photo by

Technological development helped poster designers to make use of photographs in their work. Painted illustrations were slowly phased out as printers allowed the printing of more detailed photographs. Poster production became so much easier with more detailed posters as a result.

Posters featured a photograph of the characters, a scene, or items related to the film. Often, the type was inserted below or above these images, with photos taking prominence over textual elements.

Films like Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope released in 1977 had an enormous following. Such films had fans collecting not only merchandise but movie posters as well.

The 1980s

Blade Runner movie poster, 1982 – photo by Esquire

The development of special effects changed the movie industry. It allowed for more detail and the presentation of things in ways that are deemed impossible in real life. This also had an impact on what images would be featured in the posters.

Movie posters of this decade could be seen as the parents of the poster of the current time. Photographs were largely used for posters in this decade, but there was a balance between image and type.

The 1990s

Special effects had become even more developed with the help of computers. Films were able to feature even more fantastical elements with greater detail. Posters would also feature exotic creatures and sceneries created with the help of computerised effects. Nonetheless, movie posters followed a formula: photograph of a scene or characters, title and slogan at the top or bottom, and the names of main actors on top of the title.

The 2000s

Movie posters in the 2000s showed incremental improvements but continued to follow the formula that started in the 1980s. They followed the trends of photography and typography while following the same layout. When minimalism became fashionable at the end of the decade, poster designers took up the style as well. Films that featured minimalist posters include Up and The Dark Knight.

Collecting Movie Posters

When collecting movie posters, one must know a number of things. Below is a list of things one must know before collecting movie posters.

Collectable or Non-Collectable

The Dark Knight one-sheet movie poster, 2007 – photo by Original Film Art

Posters that fall under commercial and reprint are considered non-collectable. Commercial posters are released in large quantities and are intended to be sold or given out to the public. These aren’t meant to be used as advertising material in cinemas. These Maxi Posters, as they are sometimes called, measure 36 inches by 24 inches. Reprint posters are often easily mistaken a collectable material because they follow the industry size 40 inches by 27 inches. The original material used for display also comes in the same size. Like commercial posters, they are produced in large quantities and may be easily acquired through online purchases.

Collectable posters are anniversary posters (produced to commemorate the film’s anniversary), limited edition posters (released in small numbers and through partnership with specialised printers), video posters (distributed to promote the release of the film in VHS format and released exclusively to video stores and are not for sale), TV posters (same with video posters except that they promote a TV program and is distributed to video stores as advertising material only), and special promotion posters (released in conjunction with a product promotion, may have been intended for sale but for a limited number only).

Type of Material and Size

Posters can be printed on card stock, paper stock, and other materials. Paper stock posters are displayed inside cinemas and display cases in the malls or around town. They used to come in different sizes like the three sheets and six sheets posters and the 12-sheet posters used by Paramount. These sizes are no longer used for film posters. The ones still occasionally seen in billboards are the 24 and 30-sheet posters.

Card stock posters are more durable than their paper counterparts and also used to come in different sizes. US and UK markets no longer use half-sheets, inserts, lobby cards, window cards, 30 in by 40 in and 40 in by 60 in card stock posters. Cinemas in other countries still make use of lobby cards.

Film studios also print a variety of promotional materials including banners, stand-up/standees, campaign books, press stills, and static vinyl window signs.

Release Date

Gone With The Wind, 1939, Original 1968 Re-release 1 Sheet folded Movie Poster – photo by Original Vintage Movie Posters

Posters are released to promote a film. New posters may be issued upon the re-screening of a film. The newer posters may feature images not featured in the poster of the film’s first screening. For example, Gone with the Wind has seen several re-screenings after its initial release in 1939. It has been re-released three times in the 1940s, twice in the 1950s, thrice in the 60s, twice in the 70s, in 1980 and lastly in 1998. The 1961 poster is different from the 1980 poster. Fans of the film or actors would probably ensure they have a poster from each re-screening, but there are those who will see the earlier posters as more valuable than those of later re-screenings.

Other Factors: Condition, Type, Style and Printer

Mint condition posters would be more valuable in comparison with a poster considered to be in fair condition (damage may have affected artwork, but the movie title still makes it valuable).

Star Wars, Original advance silver mylar rolled 1 sheet movie poster – photo by Original Vintage Movie Posters

Poster type also determines value. Double-sided (posters with back to back printing) are quite popular with collectors. Other types include advance/teaser (often bearing just the title and the words “Coming Soon” or a similar phrase), character posters (features a character from the film, maybe released in sets), main/final posters (released at the same time as the movie and contains the main cast and production information), anniversary posters, and awards posters (posters that include any awards won by the film before its release).

Studios may request a printer to use a particular style in printing the posters. Lenticular posters are printed to create 3D images, not unlike a hologram. Mylar posters are often used for limited edition prints. These posters are printed on silver or golden paint coated mylar sheets. The image is then painted over the gold or silver paint with gaps to allow the paint to be visible.

Posters printed by certain printers make for collectable items. Some of the most recognised independent printers include Film Prints, Inc., S2 Art Group, and Kilian Enterprises.

More than Collectables

Movie posters may have served primarily as advertising tools, promoting a film with the help of pictures of a scene or the characters, and calling out to audiences with a variety of typefaces. They became collectable pieces for their art or because of the movie they promote. Posters may be rarely used to this day, but studios may continue printing maybe even for just the fans as the digitisation of practically everything has made movie promotion easier.

Movie posters are not just advertising materials nor are they just art collectables. They can be seen as a reflection of the sentiments of the era they come from, just as much as the films they promote.