A Beginner's Guide to Vintage Movie Posters
Everyone has a favourite movie, whether it's an acclaimed masterpiece or a guilty pleasure.
And most people have had a movie poster taped to their bedroom wall at some point over the years.
But for some collectors, an original print featuring the looming face of Boris Karloff is more beautiful than a Picasso painting.
Over the past 30 years, the vintage movie poster market has become a booming area.
Although it was once considered a hobby for true cinephiles only, now serious art collectors are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the rarest and best examples.
However, many experts believe that the market is still undervalued, and it remains highly accessible for new collectors.
So if you want to get involved in collecting vintage movie posters, here are a few things to think about.
Originality is Key
If you're simply looking for some cool art for your wall, there's nothing wrong with a modern reprint. But if you're seeking something rare and possibly valuable, originals are the only way to go.
These original posters were only ever intended for promotional use in movie theatres, and were never made available to the public.
They were designed by the studios, then printed by the NSS (National Screen Service) and distributed to movie theatres via a series of exchanges across the U.S. When a film finished its run, the poster would be returned to the local exchange, ready for use by another theatre.
These NSS posters included an official statement, ending in the very certain terms: "This material either must be returned or destroyed immediately after use."
The constant wear and tear on posters meant the majority fell apart, or were damaged beyond repair with numerous tears, pin holes and tape marks. Due to their rarity, those that survived intact eventually became collector's items.
Studios began printing and distributing their own posters to theatres in the mid-1980s, meaning the end for poster exchanges and the NSS.
The popularity of vintage movie posters then began to grow in the 1980s, as the archives of the now-defunct poster exchanges made their way into the hands of private collectors.
Where to start?
As in any field, the age-old adage remains: "Collect what you love".
Spaghetti Westerns, motorcycle gang movies, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Star Wars posters from Eastern Europe – there are literally hundreds of niche areas for collectors to indulge themselves in.
Admittedly, unless you're sitting on a Scrooge McDuck-sized pile of gold, you're probably not going to be competing at the top end of the market, where the rarest examples change hands for six (or occasionally seven) figure sums.
But original vintage posters can still be acquired for relatively low prices, meaning the movie poster hobby remains accessible to most collectors.
A great area for beginners can be lobby cards – smaller promotional posters which were originally displayed in sets in theatre foyers.
These can be picked up individually or in complete sets for far less than posters, although anything in mint condition will always be an expensive purchase for a collector!
The grade of a poster is intrinsic to its price, so if you're looking to build a collection that could increase in value over the years, it's important to buy the best examples to can find.
Posters are usually graded using a 10-point system created by Jon Warren, author of Warren's Movie Poster Price Guide.
Investment-grade posters are generally considered those in Excellent to Near Mint Condition (C8 to C9) or higher.
Anything graded C7 or lower will usually have clear flaws which will put of many potential buyers, and you'll notice a large price jump between the grades of C7 and C8.
However, if you're simply looking to put together a collection of posters you love, without worrying too much about making a profit in the future, then these slightly lower-graded posters can prove to be an affordable way of picking up rare examples.
Collecting terms to look out for
As with any hobby, the terminology used by movie poster collectors can be a little daunting at first. Here are a few of the terms you're likely to come across.
The vast majority of U.S posters are printed in this size, measuring approximately 27" x 41", and supplied folded with one vertical and three horizontal creases.
Other rarer sizes ranged from insert posters measuring 14"x36" and half-sheet posters measuring 22"x28", all the way up to three sheets (41"x81"), six sheets (81"x81") and even 24 sheets (9 ft. x 20 ft).
Aside from one sheets, all other sizes of U.S posters were produced in much more limited numbers, meaning they can be incredibly rare today.
Studios produced posters for movies in a variety of designs, which were known as 'Style A', Style B', etc. Studios also produced 'International style' posters for foreign markets, which often featured slightly different artwork and do not include U.S ratings.
Lobby cards were smaller posters printed on card stock for display in theatre foyers. They were traditionally printed in sets of eight, with a title card and seven scene cards depicting moments from the film.
From 1939 until the mid-1980s, the NSS (National Screen Service) printed and distributed almost all movie posters in the U.S. Posters issued by the NSS were printed with a unique number, which corresponded to the year and the particular film, e.g. '56-137', meaning the 137th film of 1956.
Methods used by collectors to conserve their posters. Linen-backed posters are mounted with wheat paste onto acid free paper and adhered to canvas, whereas paper backing involves mounting onto Japanese rice paper, and then onto a piece of acid-free backing board.
Both techniques prevent deterioration, and can increase a poster's appearance by flattening out creases and wrinkles. In both cases, the conservation should be carried out by a professional.
Re-strike posters aren't reproductions or fakes, but they're not worth much either. Often the NSS itself would issue re-strike posters for sales purposes, meaning they come from the same authorized source as the originals, and can look virtually identical – but hold a fraction of the value.
As with any area of collectibles, the market is awash with fake movie posters. Spotting them can often be tricky, even for seasoned collectors, so your best bet is to always buy from trusted sources.
Check any online seller's ratings carefully, and if possible visit dealers, galleries or conventions to see the posters up close and get a feel for what's authentic.
Everything from the crispness of an image to the smell of the ink and the feel of the paper stock can help you spot original posters with a little experience behind your belt.
Talking to other people who share your interest is always the best way to educate yourself, and after all, making contacts and friends within the hobby is half the fun of being a collector.
However, if you're just starting out there are a few common sense tips you can follow.
Original U.S posters issued prior to the mid-80s will have a printed NSS number
Vintage posters were always issued folded to theatres – meaning if it's advertised by a seller as 'rolled' or 'unfolded', it's almost certainly a reproduction.
Reproduction one-sheets will usually be a few inches smaller than originals, which measure 27”x40” (or 27"x41" for older pre-1980s examples).
Most pre-1960s posters, and many examples up to the 1980s, will display their X or L shaped printing alignment lines in the corners. Modern printing processes no longer need these markings, and many fraudsters will forget to include this obsolete but authentic touch.
The most popular and collectible films also attract the most fakes, so be wary of posters for titles such as Star wars, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Scarface, Manhattan, The Shining or Rocky. If the price and the condition of the poster seem too good to be true, it probably is.
Monsters, Marilyn and Musicals
If you're looking to build a collection as a possible investment, there are a few areas which remain constantly popular and are more likely to hold their value in the future.
For collectors, nothing captures the imagination more than movie monsters. This popularity is down to the perfect combination of extreme rarity, stunning imagery and iconic characters.
Original 1930s posters featuring Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, King Kong or the Phantom of the Opera regularly fetch six-figure sums at auction.
Collectors also treasure lesser known early horror films from the era starring the likes of Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, like The Black Cat and the lost classic London Before Midnight.
A quick glance at the most expensive movie posters ever sold shows that anything linked to the Universal horror pictures of the 1930s will be highly sought-after – with later classics such as The Wolf Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon not far behind.
Back in 1997, a one-sheet for the 1932 classic The Mummy sold for a world-record auction price of $453,500 – a record which was only broken in 2014, when the only-known copy of the U.S one-sheet for London After Midnight fetched $478,000 at Heritage Auctions.
Unsurprisingly, posters for timeless classics such as Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane are also amongst the hobby's top-sellers, along with early MGM musicals like Flying Down To Rio and gangster films such as The Public Enemy.
Further niche areas that prove constantly popular with collectors include:
The films of Marilyn Monroe
Walt Disney posters for early Mickey Mouse animated shorts
Classic Film Noir movies from the 1930s and 40s
The films of Charlie Chaplin
The films of Alfred Hitchcock
James Bond movies
Posters designed by renowned artist Saul Bass
The Three Stooges movies
It isn't just posters from the 1930s and 40s that are in high demand. Today posters from the 70s and 80s are becoming far more popular, as collectors who grew up in that era invest their disposable incomes in a little nostalgia.
Back in the early 2000s, an original Jaws one-sheet could set you back around $150-$300, whereas today examples in top condition can sell for upwards of $1,000.
Modern trends to look out for include:
Classic Steven Spielberg movies such as Jaws, E.T and Raiders of the Lost Ark
Cult international films which received a more limited release in the U.S, such as A Clockwork Orange or Solaris
Posters created by renowned artists such as Drew Struzan or John Alvin
Films by renowned 'auteur' directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese or the Coen Brothers
Limited-edition 'lenticular' posters which change appearance from different angles
Even posters from the 1990s to the present day can be valuable if they're rare enough, and the film is considered a classic.
Good examples include the original 1994 advance poster for Pulp Fiction, withdrawn for featuring a branded pack of cigarettes without company permission, which can fetch upwards of $2,000; and the highly rare 2004 lenticular poster for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, featuring Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, which has previously sold for almost $4,000.
A recent phenomenon for movie poster collectors is the rise of fine art movie posters, created by independent galleries in highly limited numbers.
The most prominent of these is Mondo, which began creating posters in the early 2000s when the Alamo Drafthouse cinema in Austin, Texas commissioned the company to produce posters for special screenings.
Today artists are commissioned to reimagine the posters for both classic and obscure films, creating stunning new works of art printed using a silkscreen process, which in many cases are far superior to the originals.
These posters are printed in limited-edition runs of between 50 and 200 copies, and usually retail for a very affordable $50-$100 – but in most cases sell out in a matter of minutes upon release.
A passionate base of Mondo poster collectors has evolved over the past decade, with annual conventions dedicated to buying, selling and trading rare examples.
Mondo posters are at the forefront of this new fine art movie poster movement, with other galleries across the U.S and beyond following suit. Collectors looking to get involved should head to Expresso Beans, an online community resource which lists poster prices, edition sizes and information about the artists.
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