Movie posters: basics a novice collector should know

This Style B half-sheet movie poster for ‘Casablanca’ made $45,000 + the buyer’s premium in April 2018 at Heritage Auctions. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Movie posters were intended to be ephemeral, as they were replaced weekly in glass cases outside theaters to announce current and coming attractions, but they’ve earned enduring status as collectibles.

By the 1960s, poster collecting had taken off in earnest. Posters that ordinarily would have been discarded instead were being salvaged and appreciated as a form of art. Today, rare and early original movie posters, as well as examples from iconic movies, command great interest — especially those that display strong imagery and graphic appeal.

With movie posters, size matters

Before spending large sums of money on expensive posters, new collectors should educate themselves, starting with some of the basic nomenclature. Vintage movie posters were most commonly produced in single-sheet size, known as a one-sheet. They typically are oriented in portrait-style (vertical) and, until the mid 1980s, measured 27 by 41 inches, including the border. After this time, they were shortened to 27 by 40 inches (sans border), allowing for modern printing techniques to print images from edge to edge. Even larger-size posters were printed for billboards, railroad and bus stations and other high-traffic areas. For blockbuster releases, multiple one-sheets were often created to be displayed together as a three-sheet or a six-sheet poster.

This ‘King Kong’ poster, style A, designed by Roland Coudon, brought $27,500 + the buyer’s premium in March 2018 at Julien’s Auctions. Photo courtesy of Julien’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Collectors and poster sellers routinely mount posters on linen before framing.

Horizontal half-sheets were also a mainstay in cinema advertising until the advent of multiplex cinemas. They measured 22 by 28 inches, were printed on cardstock and displayed in theater lobbies back when most cinemas only had a single screen or two. Movie studios first mailed one-sheets and half-sheets to theaters, folded or later, on, rolled up in cardboard tubes. Half-sheets are popular with collectors as they are easy to frame and don’t take up much room.

Also on the smaller side, photographic lobby cards were made from around the early 1910s and were printed on heavy cardstock. The standard size was 11 by 14 inches but they were also made as 8-by-10s and customarily released in sets of four or eight cards per movie.

Often several variations of movie posters were made, varying the artwork style or imagery on each. Most studios would release two versions, identified as Style A or Style B and noted as such on the poster’s lower border. A few studios did as many as four styles, adding Style C and D to the mix.

Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ (Paramount, 1958), one sheet, 27 x 41in, Saul Bass artwork, sold for $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2012. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

In most cases, interest in a poster owes more to the film than the poster style itself, however some style versions with limited production runs can be quite collectible, owing to the nature of supply and demand. Early movie posters were generally not dated but in 1940, the National Screen Service, which was in charge of distributing most movie posters until 2000, began assigning a four-digit number that includes the year of release (77 for Star Wars, for example) and a number for that film (21).

Poster collecting is highly subjective, with some collectors primarily interested in a favorite movie, actor or director. Some collectors specialize exclusively in the Star Wars or Harry Potter series of movies, while others gravitate to genres like horror (a whole subgenre exists just for Universal Studios monsters), Westerns, foreign language films, rock music or the silent film era. There is no wrong way to collect; one can collect posters according to subject matter, the films’ stars, or just for their visual appeal.

This ‘Dracula’ (Universal, 1931) title lobby card, graded in very fine condition, 11 x 14in., sold for $114,000 in July 2019. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

There is even a collecting market for movie posters not authorized by the movie studios. In the 1980s, pop-up movie houses using videotapes began to appear in Ghana, but they did not have access to either the official movie posters or printing presses of any type, so artists hand-painted posters for the movie showings on repurposed flour sacks after previewing the films for inspiration.

The renowned magician and escape artist Harry Houdini was known to have commissioned posters early on for his films, with imagery that dramatically depicted his escapes. These posters are highly desirable with both magic collectors and movie poster collectors.

Starring magician Harry Houdini, the 1919 silent film ‘The Grim Game’ is represented by this poster that realized $20,000 + the buyer’s premium in June 2016 at Potter & Potter Auctions. Photo courtesy of Potter & Potter Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

One of the highest-grossing and most coveted movie posters is an insert poster (14 by 36 inches) for Frankenstein (Universal, 1931), which brought $220,000 in July 2013 at Heritage Auctions. As a general rule, all movie posters from the 1930s are highly desirable.

There are many reproductions and bootlegged posters out there, and some posters have been reissued. On the list of things to be aware of is that nearly all pre-1980 single-sheet posters were folded, never rolled. Novice collectors of vintage posters should proceed cautiously as they increase their knowledge and build confidence in their ability to identify authentic productions. Always buy from well-established auction houses or dealers who have an excellent reputation and will stand behind what they sell. Network within the hobby, get to know other collectors who will share their knowledge, and pay attention to current market prices. You’ll find a wealth of information at your fingertips, free of charge, in LiveAuctioneers price database. Click, search and learn.

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