History of Movie Posters » The Poster Collector

History of Movie Posters

| Poster Collector | 9 Min Read

The movie poster is thought to have originated in the 1870s when Paris artist and lithographer, Jules Cheret, introduced a printing technique that produced images with intense colour and rich texture. By the early 1890s, Paris streets were plastered with lithographic images hawking everything from bicycles to cognac to circus performances. These artful graphics became instant collectables, spawning exhibitions, journals and dealers.

What Was The First Movie Poster?

Perhaps the very first movie poster was the one created by Jules Cheret, in 1890, for a short film called Projections Artistiques. The lithograph poster depicted a young girl holding a poster announcing the times of the show. Two years later, he created another poster for Emile Reynaud’s Theatre Optique called Pantomines Lumineuses.

However, it is the poster for L’Arroseur Arrosé (also known as The Waterer Watered and The Sprinkler Sprinkled) a 1895 short black and white silent film, that is considered the first poster ever designed to promote an individual film. Although posters had been used to advertise cinematic shows since 1890, early posters were typically devoted to describing the quality of the recordings and touting the technological novelty of these shows. This poster for L’Arroseur was different, illustrated by Marcellin Auzolle, and shows an audience laughing in the foreground as the film and is projected in the background onto the cinema screen. It shows the moment the gardener is splashed in the face and is also the first movie poster to depict an actual scene from a film.

How Have Movie Posters Changed Through The Years?

Since the dawn of the Hollywood age over 100 years ago, movie posters have been used as a medium to promote films with a commercial intent of getting people to buy tickets. Over the years the style of movies has evolved and with it, the design of movie posters has also changed. Since the 1920s through to the modern-day will examine how the process has changed from the original hand-drawn images by artists and illustrators to today’s modern computing software produced photographic illustrations.

1920s This decade was the golden age of the silent movie, giant architectural masterpieces began to replace drab movie theatres, and poster design moved from being simple advertising to an art form. More precise printing processes were developed, allowing for more detail. The movie poster design stuck to a fairly traditional type for the time period with most movie posters being hand-drawn illustrations over stills that depicted scenes from the movie. After the invention of the radio, filmmakers began experimenting with putting sound and film together.

1930s Following the rest of the country, movie posters reflected the new art deco era, which favoured geometric shapes and bold colours. One very noticeable change was the elimination of detailed backgrounds, shifting instead to blank white spaces. Contrary to the expected reaction, the Great Depression actually caused more people to come to the movies as a means of escape.

One very noticeable change in this decade was the elimination of detailed backgrounds with a shift towards to blank backgrounds. We see a growing tendency towards illustrations focusing on main characters of the film, particularly faces, over depictions of scenes. There was a shift towards bolder typographic with designs.

1940s Immediately following the Great Depression along came World War II, and movie studios responded by attempting to create an atmosphere of great patriotism. Though they lost significantly less business than most industries, their advertising budgets had to be cut back. Also, fewer movies were produced after the invention of the television.

We rarely see scene depictions anymore with character illustrations becoming the most prominent feature, and typographic treatments are a little more subdued after the experimentation of the 1930s.

1950s As soldiers returned from the war, the demand for fantasy rose. Subject matter changed from war to science fiction and comedy. Because television was continuing to draw audiences away, studios had to resort to new innovations such as wider screens and 3-D movies.

We start to see poster designers trying conceptual approaches, such as the Love in the Afternoon poster which is free of characters, emphasising typography and subtle clues as to the movie content forming the type’s background.

1960s This decade marked a period of films featuring teen idols and the beach movie genre. Another growing genre was action movies, and, because of the lack of censorship guidelines, more adult-oriented films were able to be produced. The release of the James Bond series in 1964 with Dr No, helped to drive the action genre forward.

The posters from this decade don’t go as far as getting rid of illustrations altogether, but type plays a more important role in the layouts. Poster designers changed the content of the designs to match that of the films.

1970s This decade continued the trends seen in the 60s, with posters continuing to use photography and phasing out painting. With the popularity of Star Wars and Star Trek, movie fans began collecting posters from their favourite films.

An example of the fast movement of trends in the design industry, in the 1970s we start to see photographs playing a big role in posters for the first time, often taking up the bulk of the canvas with type thrown in below, seemingly as an afterthought.

1980s The 1980s saw the development of new special effects, which had an impact on what kinds of images were selected for advertisement purposes. New types of posters also had to be developed for advertising in the new video rental market. These were made specifically for display at retail video stores. Have a look at our article on the different types and styles of movie posters here, for more information on video posters.

This is the decade where we start to see the movie poster in a form similar to what we’re used to seeing today. Large photographic backgrounds are more common than ever, but type and imagery are more balanced than we’ve seen in previous decades with one element being favoured over the other.

1990s With the introduction of computerised effects in the 1990s, posters began featuring fantastic images of exotic creatures and locations. However, remained reasonably formulaic: we’ve got the photographic backgrounds, with slogans at the top, and the names of headline actors sitting quietly above the name of the film, usually towards the bottom of the poster.

2000s Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, we see the evolution of movie posters slow down as designers hit on a series of winning layouts. In the 2000s we see incremental improvements to keep up with trends in typography and photography, but the layout often remains the same. Towards the end of the decade, as minimalism comes into vogue, that influence can be seen in the posters of movies such as Up, The Dark Knight and Buried. It’s a move away from a more balanced layout that probably won’t prove to be particularly timeless — but it does cater to the trends of the day.

For more information on how the evolution of film has impacted on movie posters, resulting in the changes highlighted above. See our article – How Has The Evolution Of Film Impacted Movie Poster Design

Will The Movie Poster Survive The Digital Age?

As modern printing and distribution costs continue to rise for movie posters, many movie studios are choosing to promote their films through television and the internet. We have seen digital media start to overtake printed media. Although both share similarities in their fundamental aims, digital media has the capability to reach and attract a far bigger audience.

Digital media can be presented in a variety of formats such as social media portals such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, through the movie studios own websites, through film oriented websites like IMDb, various fan or review blogs and emails which can reach a global mass market. With internet usage globally surpassing over three billion users – around 40% of the worlds population – and with 50% of internet usage based on searching, it makes a clear statement as to why movie studios have chosen to focus on digital markets.

Through the use of film oriented websites like IMDb trailers and other promotional material can be placed readily and easily accessible to the masses. It offers the movie studios an opportunity to place a wealth of information that just cannot be placed on a movie poster. These are the advantages which have consolidated digital marketing above printed media.

As well as utilising digital media on the internet, many cinemas are now going ‘digital’ by replacing traditional movie poster frames with digital video screens. Digital movie posters offer the ability to show movie trailers, animated stills or simple animations to tease the movie goers and generate excitement. The panels can be rotated to show multiple movies in one frame thus eliminating the need for a single framed movie poster. I would expect autostereoscopic displays to be used in the future, depending upon how quickly the technology can be developed, which will provide 3D images without the need for any special headgear or glasses.

Movie posters have been powerful visual aids used in the promotion of the film’s using themes and narratives. Analysing movie posters in relation to major film stars and cult films, they had the ability to express the movies characteristics, for example, movie posters containing Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe reflected their iconic statuses that was instantly recognisable with audiences. This also applies to movie posters for cult films, which contain familiar attributes which devotees of the titles. Despite this, the movie poster as an industry is becoming increasingly dominated by digital marketing rendering paper formats obsolete. Digital marketing has the ability to contain far more information, in various different formats and can be instantly updated; this is unmatched by a printed movie poster.

Will this mean the demise and eventually end of the paper movie poster? Will this mean that those uniquely designed iconic masterpieces will no longer be available in a paper format? Ultimately, who knows but with a world more focused on technology and rumours that some studios are already limiting the print runs of movie posters, it could. However, the artistic creativity used to develop these posters will continue whatever the medium used to deliver the material, as it remains an important aspect for movies that strive for originality and artistic quality.

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