Day 807: Movies On The Wall

originally published March 17, 2014

While an inherent nobility may lie in ‘art for art’s sake’, occasionally we should lease a dollop of contemplation for art for the sake of someone else’s art. Film posters serve the purpose of sufficiently piquing our minds (and wallets) to lure us into a theatre. But the best of the medium can take on its own artistic statement. I grew up watching the cartoonish caricatures of the Animal House and American Graffiti casts mounted on my wall, carrying on like the inhabitants of an unusually clean R. Crumb illustration. Luke Skywalker’s intense stare behind the barrel of his blaster nudged me to our Betamax almost daily for a re-airing of my childhood’s holy trilogy.

A brilliant film poster should shimmy the soul. Despite the fandom’s collective verbal vomit of scorn eventually spewed upon George Lucas’s prequel trilogy, we all let loose a squeal of unfettered anticipation when we saw the teaser poster for The Phantom Menace. A movie poster delivers more than a glamorous depiction of our favorite stars and it should do more than inspire our hunger to see the film it promotes. A great movie poster can legitimately aspire to be a piece of art in itself, much like the pinnacle of any room in the grand old house of advertising.

Alternately, it might elect to simply show Matthew McConaughey leaning against someone. He does that a lot.

Throughout the golden age of cinema, film posters were intended for theatres and no one else. Fans weren’t slapping promotional material for Chaplin’s The Kid on their living room walls, and one had to leave their homes to swoon at a life-size photo of Douglas Fairbanks. The posters were all produced by a company called the National Screen Service, and when a theatre was done with a film, the posters were to be returned along with the prints. Movies stayed in circulation for years at a stretch, so when Cleveland had had its fill of Casablanca, the posters would travel with the film reels to Pit-Scratch, Kentucky for their next run.

When posters were deemed too withered to remain in circulation they’d get tossed by the NSS. The only ones that would squirm away to collectors’ walls were the ones theatre owners pilfered themselves. NSS posters could be identified by their distinctive numbers, found stamped on the back and in the lower-right corner of the posters. Star Wars posters received the number 77/21, indicating it to be the 21st film released in 1977.

This system continued until the 1980’s, when the studios themselves took over promotional duties for their own films, sentencing the NSS into irrelevance.

For those with the space to stash a memorabilia collection, movie posters are an easy pick. The hobby was elevated from fan-boy fad to legitimate investment on December 11, 1990, when a Christie’s auction solely devoted to vintage movie posters – the first auction of its kind – raked in a whopping $935,000 for 271 posters. Someone paid $452,000 for a poster of The Mummy (that’s Boris Karloff, not Brendan Fraser) in 1998. The record was hit in 2005, when a recently unearthed poster from Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis was sold for $690,000.

Modern movie posters are tremendously common, and as such you won’t see a lot of drool puddled beneath collectors’ chins at anything released since the advent of the video store. There are exceptions of course – when Miramax first released Pulp Fiction in 1994, their initial poster featured a pack of Lucky Strikes on the bed beside Uma Thurman. Lucky Strike was ready to sue the film company (because I guess they hate free advertising?) so the poster was recalled and replaced with the offending brand name removed. Enough theatre employees lied about destroying them to create a black market of these posters though, which sell for $1000-$1500 on eBay.

Perhaps the best way to launch a fresh collection is to start with amassing lobby cards. These little 8×10 or 11×14 sheets were sent out by the studios for display in the box office or in the lobby of theatres. They would make up a set of 8-20 cards per movie, each displaying a still shot from the show. You don’t see this much anymore; multiplexes generally have the space for full-size posters on the wall. But lobby cards weren’t returned en masse to the NSS, so there are a lot of them on the market.

If you’re looking to slap a bevy of framed original posters around your house, keep in mind the standard size of a one sheet poster changed in the mid-80’s, shrinking from 27×41 inches to 27×40. No idea why – it just happened. If you’ve got the space, you could collect six sheet posters, which are assembled from four different pages and usually about 6 ½ feet squared. The most valuable movie poster in the world is a six sheet of 1931’s Frankenstein, of which there is only one on the planet.

That chunk of squint-worthy text at the bottom of a poster is known as the billing block. Each name you see in that block has been negotiated as part of the actor or crew member’s contract with the producer. Designers tend to use a condensed typeface in order to fit as many names as possible into the small space designated for the billing block. The contracts specify the heights of the credits’ letters (usually 25 or 35 percent of the height of the film’s title logo), but not the width. There’s a very strange and specific science to advertising.

Some posters are, as I mentioned, more deserving of a place on one’s wall than others. But while German expressionist films and 60’s art-house flicks inevitably landed some sweet artwork, there are several individual artists whose film poster work cemented their reputations and their careers. You’ve got the paperback pop-art of Robert McGinnis:

The cacophonic clutter of Jack Davis:

The glorious, almost era-defining brilliance of Saul Bass:

The fantastic sense of nostalgia and adventure in the work of Richard Amsel:

Then there’s the master of the character-montage, Drew Struzan:

Drew was responsible for one of the Star Wars posters from the first film and all of the franchise’s posters since. He produced dozens of iconic poster images, from Back To The Future to Blade Runner to Hellboy to that unforgettable image from The Goonies’ poster that features all the characters precariously hanging from a single stalactite. It pissed me off that such a scene wasn’t in the movie.

Drew Struzan is the Elvis of modern movie posters. He even has a slot on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of top 100 album covers of all time, having inked the cover of Alice Cooper’s Welcome To My Nightmare. If you want to start a killer collection, an original Struzan might be a good prize for your wall.

Or you could forget about amassing these things for value and simply display them for the works of art they are, and for the joyous evocation of cinematic bliss they have enticed you to enjoy.

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