That Thing You Drew - A Story of Movie Posters


For many people, unwinding on the weekend with a good movie in a cosy cinema is a luxury that is guaranteed to wash away the fatigue and stress caused by their daily workloads. Stepping inside the theatre building, moviegoers are immediately distracted by a wide selection of film posters. Posters are one of the most effective promotional tools for a film, usually created with bold designs and with a history that dates back almost a century.

Film posters are used as a marketing device to promote and create buzz for upcoming movies. Generally depicting scenes from the movie or illustrations focusing on the main characters of the films, they will also contain the film title in large prominent lettering. Posters might also contain tag lines from the movies; names of the actors, crew members, and characters; the date of release; and other promotional information.

In the early days, film posters were displayed outside cinemas to announce what movies were playing at a given time. The posters were also printed in a smaller size so that they could be used as for indoor marketing.

Before the 1940’s (WW II) film posters used to be distributed to studio representatives in each city before being delivered to the surrounding cinemas. In large cities throughout America this distribution process was relatively easy to do. However, in smaller towns bus services were employed to send the posters to designated theatres and to collect them later as soon as the films finished screening. Whilst the film reels were returned to the studio representative offices, the posters were usually left behind because they wouldn’t have been in a good state after being displayed outside for a week or so. Therefore, when the studios sent the film reels to the next theatres, they also had to send along a new set of movie posters for the films. That is why film posters made before the 1940’s are hard to come by.

Film studios responsible for distributing the movies at that time only had limited stocks of these posters and nearly all of them would have been given out to the movie theatres to be displayed. Even today the film studios are extremely reluctant to sell any of the original pre- 1940’s movie posters that they have managed to secure, no matter how much money is offered for them.

In order to regulate the production and distribution of movie posters, and in light of the scarcity of movie posters produced pre-1940, studios and printing agencies throughout the USA agreed to establish the National Screen Service (NSS) which was tasked with giving codes and numbers to each film poster before distributing them to the theatres. This coding and numbering process was made easier by advancements in the printing industry which made it possible to print thousands of posters at a time. This applied not only to new films, but also to older films whose posters needed to be reproduced - obviously only if the studio had the master copy of the posters. Those developments allowed the film poster business to develop rapidly up until the 1960’s.

Film studios often produce film posters in various sizes even though a standard size had already been determined in several countries. In the USA, this is known as the one-sheet, which measures 686 x 1020 mm in portrait format. Before the 1980’s, the length of this type of film poster was 2.54 cm longer and was standardized to ensure uniformity in displaying the posters, especially inside the movie theatres. In addition, the USA has also standardized a number of film posters that are used for outdoor display - posters at bus stops and subways, for example, are 1.5 times larger than the one-sheet posters. There are also halfsheet movie posters, usually in landscape format, two-sheet posters, inserts, lobby cards, window cards and several other sizes that have been derived from the dimensions of the onesheet poster.

In Britain, the common measurement used is a little bigger than the American one-sheet - around 762 x 1020 mm with a landscape format. Although still using the one-sheet term, Britain has also made popular the term ‘Double Crown,’ for smaller sized posters that are widely sought after by collectors in Western Europe. Another type of poster can be found in Australia, the ‘Daybill’ that measures 330 x 762 mm, and for Australian film enthusiasts, these Daybill posters are highly prized. Although various sizes have emerged in different countries, ‘one-sheet’ is still the most common size used for film posters, including in Indonesia.

From the designer’s point of view, early film posters made in the USA during the 1920’s were traditionally hand-drawn, so that no two posters of the same film appeared exactly the same as the strokes, lines and colours would differ each time they were drawn. Primary colours were typically used along with bolder typography for the film title and more prominently featured faces of the main characters.

Developments in typography and printing techniques during the 1940’s in the USA prompted the film poster industry to employ designs with stronger illustration, bolder colours and richer letterings. By this time, posters depicting scenes from the movies were rare, replaced with a different style of illustrations, especially ones showing the figures of the main characters or actual stills from the movies that would make moviegoers curious to know more about the films.

During the 1950’s, film posters took on a freer style and a more mysterious characteristic with poster designers adopting the conceptual approach of combining character illustrations, free graphics and bold typography. The backgrounds featured more vibrant colours and designs, as seen in the posters of Sunset Boulevard, Ben Hur and Rear Window. In the next decade, the 1960’s, the design of film posters remained more or less the same as in the 1950’s − the only noticeable difference being the use of photography in some of the posters made during the era. Dramatic colour compositions and illustrations adorn some of the more famous posters of the 1960’s, such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Robert McGinnis.

Some notable differences in design started to appear in the 1970’s, a time when the world’s design industry also began to undergo significant change. Hand-drawn illustrations on the posters were replaced by photographs. Film titles appeared at the bottom of the posters, followed by film credits that contained more than just the names of the actors and directors. In fact, this particular style had begun to emerge in the 1950’s but in a random fashion and was much more widely adopted in the 1970’s. Also at this time, a number of specific font types were used as the standard for writing the film credits and different types of frames were used to separate the illustrations from the text, as seen in the posters for Jaws or Star Wars by Drew Struzan.

By the 1980’s movie posters generally had the same appearance as the ones we know today. Larger illustrations that occupied most of the poster surface became the standard and were widely used throughout the world. There were no binding guidelines but in general the typography size, the positioning of the title at the bottom of the poster, as well as the full credits became standardized for each film poster. The 1980’s also saw the introduction of teaser posters, or advance posters that were released to signal the start of the promotional campaign for an upcoming film. The illustrations on these types of posters depicted some basic images without revealing too much of the film’s theme or characters. Text on these teaser posters was also kept to the minimum.

In the 1990’s, a lot of film posters began to use clear lettering for the film credits which were placed at the bottom of the posters. It also became common practice to write the actors’ names and insert taglines just above the film title. In the same decade, people were introduced to character posters, which were usually printed in a set. These posters were used as a promotional means to present the film’s ensemble cast and to convey important characters of the film without disclosing too much detailed information, just like the teaser posters.

Since the turn of the century the film poster industry has been relatively unchanged. Indeed, it is fair to say that for the past four decades the evolution of film posters has been rather slow. The style of design at any point in time is largely influenced by the most popular film genres, so the movie posters depict different types of images with no specific similarities in style. For instance, designer John Alvin was able to portray the dark character of the Blade Runner movie through his posters, but then successfully projected a sense of joy and happiness with The Lion King. Only a handful of designers can achieve a consistent style in each of their designs. Among these is Tom Jung, whose The Empire Strikes Back and The Lord of the Rings movie posters share some distinctive characteristics despite being released over the span of two decades. Some film posters made in the 2000’s even present a minimalistic side, such as the teaser posters for The Dark Knight or Buried.

Who would have thought that the line of posters on the cinema walls that we often pass by and take for granted have such a long and varied history – one that matches the evolution of the film industry itself. It is not surprising, therefore, to see avid movie aficionados spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars just to purchase a single, rare movie poster.

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Anton Adianto
Anton Adianto graduated from Parahyangan Catholic University majoring in architecture. His passion for writing, watching movies, listening to music, uncovering design, exploring the culinary world, traveling, delving into the philosophy of life, meeting people and disclosing all matters related to technology feeds his curiosity. Currently he resides in both Jakarta and Bandung.

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