History of Movie Posters

The Lure

Do movies create reality? Or does reality create the movies? As we go through the decades and take a panoramic view into the history of movie posters, we will see how films have entertained, educated and made us react. Such is the power of film. So to all the movie actors, directors, producers and studios of all time…congratulations! You have stood the test of time…and then some.

Movie posters are the bait that lures you into the theater. Motion pictures began more than 100 years ago, and today it is a multi-billion dollar industry. Movies and movie posters go hand in hand in helping the public identify their favorite films and stars.

The earliest forms of advertising for movies included hand painted crates and sandwich boards. The turn of the 20th Century saw a world with a very high illiteracy rate. Posters or advertising for any entertainment needed to have vibrant colors and pictures and a limited amount of words, so that the advertising could be appreciated by a large number of people.

In 1899, Georges Melies, a French magician, produced the first motion picture to tell a story. Melies filmed hundreds of fairy tales and science fiction stories. Other producers followed, and thus began a flourishing business. Motion pictures were popular at amusement parks, music halls, traveling fairs and vaudeville theaters. The posters for these films measured 28”x42”.

In 1903, American film director, Edwin S. Porter, directed The Great Train Robbery, an 11 minute movie describing a train robbery and the capture of the villains. The film was so successful it lead to “the nickelodeons”, which were stores that were converted into theaters simply by adding chairs. For 5 cents, you could see a variety of movies accompanied by piano music. These were so popular that the demand for movies kept growing.

At first, movies used advertising paper sizes from vaudeville, fairs, and the circus. These were one sheets (27”x41”), three sheets (41”x81”), six sheets (81”x81”), and the 24 sheet (246”x108”). With the growth of movie theaters, there was a need for more specialized sizes. This was when they created inserts and lobby cards.

Thomas Edison set the standard size at 27”x41” and this became known as “the one sheet”, which was used in glass display cases inside and outside of the movie theater. Many times, the studio provided a photograph to be used on the poster. There were strict rules for censorship and the photographs were rather tame and usually showed the leading actor and actress.

In the early days of film, there were no movie stars on movie posters because most actors in film chose to be anonymous. These were legitimate stage actors who felt embarrassed to be participating in this new medium. The producers were thrilled, because they believed they could control the medium as long as there were no stars.

By 1910, the studios began to receive mail addressed to these nameless actors. Fearing escalating costs, the producers continued to resist letting the public know who the actors were. This was a lost cause. The public demanded to know the names of the actors and actresses.

Producers soon realized that they could make much more money by acknowledging the stars that would bring the people into the theater, and so posters changed. Posters at this point reflected the status of the leading lady and leading man. The public would soon recognize the star status simply by looking at the movie poster. The size and placement of the print told the public just how “big” a particular star was. Actors and actresses took heed of this and started to become more powerful in demanding their due.

By the 1910’s, nickelodeons were being replaced by movie theaters. Lobby cards became smaller in size and were printed in sets of 8. The first were 8”x10” black and white stills. These were later replaced with 11”x14” color lobby card sets. These lobby card sets showed scenes of the movie and were placed in the theater lobby.

With more films being produced and more movie houses being built, another advertising medium became popular – the billboard. This “24 sheet” was exactly 24 times the size of the one sheet. It was already being used for circuses, fairs, and vaudeville. With the growth of the automobile, producers recognized that these billboards could be seen from great distances when traveling in a car.

At this time, they also created “window cards” which measured 14”x22” which could advertise coming movies. As part of the advertising campaign for films, in 1917 the studios created “press books” which could be part of a “press kit”, that would advertise the movie in an effective manner.

Robin Hood SKU 161The 1920’s were considered the golden age of the silent movie. Beautiful movie palaces replaced the movie theater. The posters of old were replaced by artistically aesthetic movie posters. Well-known artists were commissioned to design movie poster portraits of leading stars. Sadly, American studios never allowed the artists to sign the posters, like commercial artists were allowed to do on European movie posters.  Insert Robin Hood #00161

The posters of the 1920’s were specifically designed with portraits of the stars, the movie title, and the star’s name. There was an occasional slogan or two, but most of the emphasis was centered on the movie stars.

Moonlight and Honeysuckle SKU 160TALKIES!!!

With the advent of radio in 1926, the public demanded that movies be heard as well as seen. Although some movies from the late 1890’s used some sound in their films, it was very difficult to adjust the sound to the action of the film. The jazz singer in 1927 had a few songs sung by Al Jolson, but in one scene Jolson actually spoke a few lines. There is an old expression “how can you keep them down on the farm after they’ve tasted Paree”. Thus, once the public heard sound, they demanded this new medium called “talkies”. With the talkies, movie attendance skyrocketed. This meant more movies, more advertising dollars and more movie posters.

The 1930’s ushered in what is now known as the “Golden Age of Movies”. This was the birth of the great Hollywood musicals, legendary gangster films and even popular horror movies. Sound recordings got much better. Many would later say that some of the greatest movies of all time were made during the 1930’s. This culminated in 1939 with one of the biggest money makers in film history, the legendary Gone with the Wind.

What is known as Art Deco was very popular at this time. This colorful type of art is popular for using geometrical designs and very bold colors. Movie producers decided that their posters should also have this Art Deco look. There was more creativity going on at this point in movie poster history. The posters varied in sizes, and they experimented with different styles of letters. During the 30’s, the studios generally produced two styles of one sheet and half sheet posters, each with a different kind of art work. Paramount Studio posters were known as “Style A” and “Style B”. MGM used “Style C” or “Style D”. Universal Pictures were known as “Style X” and “Style Y”. Sometimes there were more than two styles released, especially when the movie was a major production.

With the 1930’s came the Great Depression. Many feared that movies would suffer during this time because people would not want to spend their money to go to the movies. The exact opposite happened. The Depression made people want to escape reality, and movies became even more popular. One of the biggest stars of that decade was the adorable Shirley Temple, who lit up the screen and made people want to “look for the good ship lollipop”. The musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and others were also an extremely popular form of entertainment. (We’re In the Money)

Captain January SKU 1743As movies became more popular, the movie studios made even more money and the stars benefited greatly. There were other businesses like theaters, film exhibitors, and movie poster companies that all flourished at that time.

With the 1940’s came WWII. Many of the stars during that time like James Stewart and Clark Gable served in WWII. Many of the actresses of that day like Hedy Lamar, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and others would perform, and dance with service men at the Hollywood Canteen. The actors who were not fighting in the war, made war movies that stirred up our patriotism.

During the 1940’s, war movies dominated the screen. After the war was over, there was the “reflection” and “aftermath” of the war and how it affected people. We saw this with movies like Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of our Lives.

History of Movie Posters

Best Years of Our Lives, The SKU 1517


Then, in the late 1940’s, we entered a new arena: the age of television. By this time, TV had attracted a large number of movie goers, so the studios responded by reducing the number of films made. Many of the great directors and stars of that time found themselves out of contracts with the studios. This was a devastating blow to many actors.

With the coming of the 1950’s, and to fight the popularity of television, movie studios created more fantasy films. The studios that once produced the war movies were now making science fiction, comedy and grade “B” drive-in movies. Although the drive-in had been around since 1933, it reached its peak during the 1950’s with over 4,000 screens in the United States alone.

Blob, The SKU 1959Gentlemen Prefer Blondes SKU 651Television continued to bite its way into the movie industries’ money and profits. People could stay home and watch movies and television shows. All kinds of wonderful entertainment were produced for television, so movie studios had to come up with some other ideas to get the public into the theaters. Two of the processes that they created were CinemaScope and Todd-AO. This allowed the movies to show bigger, more expensive and more spectacular scenes. They were perfect for the epics that were made like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments. They also started making 3-D movies which came with special 3-D viewing glasses. Director, William Castle, was the master of this kind of “gimmick production”, as it was called. He even offered “barf bags” and “buzzer seats” to go with his movies, many of which were horror films.

Ten Commandments, The SKU 1685Fan magazines were also popular at this time. Photoplay, Motion Picture and Movie Mirror were pioneers in this area, and the magazines had color photographs of all the major movie stars. The movie companies also adopted this kind of advertising and soon the posters began to look more like color photographs. Since there were so many cars on the road at this time, the posters were designed to be seen from long distances. This was a very important way to advertise the movies.

The coming of the 1960’s brought the boomer generation to their teen years. There were so many children from the post-war baby boom that a lot of the movies were very “teen” oriented. Teen idols from the world of rock and roll crossed into movie stardom. Elvis Presley became very popular at this time, not only for his music, but his movies. There were also a lot of “beach movies” with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. Action movies also became very popular and we saw the introduction of the infamous double agent, 007, James Bond.

Blue Hawaii SKU 4505Dr No. Movie PosterTelevision was held to stricter standards than movies. Shows like I Love Lucy were not even allowed to say the word “pregnant”.  A woman would be called “with child” or “having a baby”. Lead characters were never seen in one bed. The Dick Van Dyke Show which ran from 1961 – 1966 saw Rob and Laura Petrie in twin beds.

The movies, however, could be more risqué and go places that television dare not go. Simply put, the censorship guidelines were not as strict on movies as they were on television, and this brought people into the movies.  During the late 1960’s, we saw the birth of nudity, profanity and excessive violence on screen. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s was also a time when a social consciousness began to pervade film making. Problems facing our country like Desegregation and the Vietnam War were addressed in both film and film posters.

Midnight Cowboy - FFF-09557The 1970’s was actually a launching pad to the era of the blockbusters of the 1980’s. Movies like The Godfather, Rocky, Star Wars and Star Trek were born. Although the posters of this time continued the use of photography, drawing and painting styles were sometimes used and famous artists like Ansel Adams, Frank Frazetta and Bob Peak created some popular posters of this time.

Star Wars - FFF-09502Because movie posters were now printed on a clay-coated paper, they had a glossy finish that was smooth to the touch.

The 1980’s was the age of special effects, which was the key to the success of The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi, Back to the Future, Batman, ET, Ghostbusters and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Return of the Jedi - FFF-09588Back to the Future SKU 5872Raiders of the Lost Ark SKU 463Until the 1980’s, most movie theaters featured only one movie in their theater at a time. All their advertising space was centered on that one movie. With the 1980’s came theaters which featured several movies, and therefore, the lobby advertising had to be divided equally for all the films. As a result, “mini sheet” posters became popular because they could be produced in smaller sizes.

The video rental market also became popular in 1985 and gave the producers another chance to make more money for their movies. This gave birth to the video posters which appear to be similar to theater “one sheets”, and some of them are absolutely gorgeous.

With the rise of the video market, we also had the birth of re-releasing of older films. The studios released them on video cassette.

With the 1990’s came the computerization of special effects. Because of this, the 90’s brought two of the biggest money making films in history, Jurassic Park and Batman Forever.

Batman Forever SKU 1181

Advances in the animation field also resulted in some of the biggest box office successes, such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and Pocahontas. This gave rise to the billion dollars a year merchandising industry. If you brought your daughter to see Beauty and the Beast, she just might want a Belle doll. McDonald’s also made small toys representing characters from many animated films.

Beauty and the Beast SKU 4938Lion King, The - FFF-01539The one sheet continues to be used extensively today. Some studios have shortened it one inch to 27”x40”. Many studios have decided to use the “mini sheet”. These are not standard in size and can be used to replace many of the old favorites, like inserts, half sheets and window cards. “Mini sheets” are sometimes used as promotional giveaways, much like the Heralds in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Stand ups, mobiles and counter displays are also used. In addition, posters made for cable TV and network television movies have also had an impact.

The movie poster is still the state of the art for advertising film, and some of today’s posters offer the finest in color, art and graphic detail.

As a movie poster collector, I love movie posters. The best ones will make you want to see the film. Some of the posters might even be better than the film. It should always be remembered that in many ways, movie posters are modern works of art.