The Art of the Movie Poster

April 15th, 2009

Sam Sarowitz talks about vintage movie posters, specifically their designs, how people collect them, and the most popular genres. Based in New York, Sam can be contacted via his website, Posteritati.

King Kong - 1933 Poster nationality: Argentine

King Kong – 1933, Poster nationality: Argentine

Our first book was called “The Independent Movie Poster Book” and that was published by Harry Abrams. The focus was all independent movies post-1980. We picked that as a cutoff because that was the beginning of the modern indie movie movement with Sex, Lies, and Videotape being one of the real keys to that. There are a lot of good designs in indie movies. There tend to be more interesting designs because there’s not as much money and they generally don’t have the star power of the major studios’ posters. In many cases, that ruins the creativity of the poster.

From a graphic design standpoint, a lot of the major studio posters are not very interesting because they’re plastered with big headshots of Tom Cruise or whomever. With the indie stuff, they have to be more creative. Also, it’s in tune with the indie culture to have of a more cutting-edge design. So that was that book.

Our second book was just called “Translating Hollywood” and it came out this past spring. We saw posters from over 30 different countries and the idea was to look at the classic films and then see the different poster designs for the same film. In many cases, we don’t try to have every movie poster from every movie. First of all, it’s impossible, and second of all, it’s not very interesting, so we focused on posters with good designs.

Our third book, “Art of the Modern Movie Poster,” came out this fall. It was published by Chronicle Books in San Francisco.

Collectors Weekly: Do people collect posters more for the design than the actual movie?

Sarowitz: It’s a little of each. People who buy posters either collect them or want to decorate with them. Those are the two primary reasons. They tend to want something that they have some visceral connection with, and that tends to be the movie itself – classic films, like Casablanca or Midnight Cowboy or anything from Metropolis from the ‘20s or even something very recent like The Royal Tenenbaums or Rushmore.

“A lot of people are convinced they’ll be sending their kids to college on these things.”

That’s how I personally got involved in collecting. I went to film school and have been a film lover all my life. I worked in the film industry and collected these things, and that’s how it evolved into a business for me. I primarily collected directors who I followed and that were influences. People tend to collect either from the movie, the actor, or the director.

I still collect posters. I’ve been collecting for probably 25 years and have a pretty big collection. My collecting interests have evolved a bit. I started out collecting directors like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Fellini, but now I’ve really gotten into the whole graphic design aspect. For a number of years now, I’ve been collecting Polish and Czech posters. Polish and Czech stuff from the postwar are really amazing and for me are a continuation of the constructivist mindset. Those I tend to collect just for the art, but I’m more interested in getting one when it has artwork that really appeals to me and is from a film that I know and like.

Movie poster collecting is a relatively new phenomemon. For the longest time, people didn’t collect movie posters. Even the major studios wouldn’t save them for their own films. It’s ironic because they’ll spend thousands of dollars buying them back and they were the ones who printed them in the first place. In many cases they didn’t even save a single copy.

In my mind, the real point when modern movie poster collecting took off was Star Wars in ’77. That was such a huge phenomenon and everybody wanted something from that film. I think that’s when the idea of having an original movie poster first caught on to a lot of people who never thought about it before.

Collectors Weekly: Is it still possible to collect movie posters from the 1920s?

Sarowitz: They’re around, they just tend to be rare and expensive, although not in every case. To my knowledge, the most expensive movie poster that was ever sold was the original German poster for Metropolis, the Fritz Lang film. It sold for over $700,000. I think there are only four or five of this particular style known to exist and one of them is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But there are many silent-movie posters that sell for under $1,000.

711 Ocean Drive - 1950, Poster nationality: German

711 Ocean Drive – 1950, Poster nationality: German

The reason that particular piece brought so much money is because the film is considered an all-time great movie. It’s a science fiction thing. It’s an amazing film that holds up every bit as future-looking, timely, and fresh today as it was 80 years ago when it was made. Science fiction tends to bring the most money in this field and then horror.

Movie posters from the 1920s are almost nonexistent. Once you get into the ‘30s, it’s the big universal horror stuff, like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy. An American poster for The Mummy sold for over $400,000 at auction a number of years ago. King Kong and all those classics are typically where the biggest prices are achieved at auction. In the 1950s, you get into the classic sci-fi stuff like Forbidden Planet, War of the Worlds, and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

A lot of people are convinced that they’ll be sending their kids to college on these things. I’m not so sure about that myself. I speculate some people are buying them to collect them but people are also buying them to decorate. The more recent ones have a lot less chance of appreciating in value than the older ones did because the older ones really weren’t collected and many were thrown away after they were used by the theaters. Nowadays no one throws them away, so it stands to reason that there will always be a pretty good supply.

Related: History’s 6 Most Popular Movie Posters

The term ephemera means ephemeral which means not to be saved. The posters were advertising and that’s all they were. They used them and tossed them. They were paper. They got ripped up easily. They got damaged easily. It’s ironic to think that the companies that made all these movies didn’t even save one copy of these posters that now command in some cases thousands of dollars, but it’s not surprising. A lot of them didn’t even save copies of the films, let alone the posters. They didn’t save good copies of the films or take care of the negatives either.

Collectors Weekly: Do collectors tend to care who the artist was?

One Million Years B.C. - 1966, Poster nationality: U.S.

One Million Years B.C. – 1966, Poster nationality: U.S.

Sarowitz: In a few cases, people collect by artist. Norman Rockwell did some posters. Saul Bass is very famous. He did posters for Hitchcock and Otto Preminger. He’s probably the most famous American movie poster designer and most people who have graphic design knowledge are familiar with him, although it depends on your age. His stuff is great. There’s also Shepard Fairey, the guy who did the Obama poster. He did the poster for the Johnny Cash movie Walk the Line.

A lot of the foreign designers are very well known. Typically, while the designers are known, people collect more by film, by actor, or by director. Sometimes the subject can also be a reason people collect. We have one client who is planning on opening a museum of boxing and for years he’s been buying any posters with boxing images from us. We have another who likes the French Foreign Legion.There are plenty of people out there who like race cars or automotives in general. That’s a very popular collecting area. Posters featuring different sports are very collectible.

Indie or cult cinema posters are pretty popular, and that can mean everything from Wes Anderson films to Reservoir Dogs. That kind of stuff is collected on some level because those films are not as widely distributed as major Hollywood movies. The posters are harder to find and the designs tend to be more interesting. Those films seem to generate a little more of a cult following and a more passionate following than the major studio stuff.

Collectors Weekly: What about movie poster designs from different countries?

Sarowitz: The second book was the comparison book, “Translating Hollywood.” We picked out 50 to 75 different films and showed different posters from different countries, illustrating the design differences, how radically different they are. The focus of the most current book, “Art of the Modern Movie Poster,” is postwar movie poster design around the world. Postwar seems to be a crucial dividing time, particularly the Eastern European posters. That’s when they really changed.

Prewar posters from Eastern Europe were very traditional. Western Europe had beautiful posters but also very traditional. After World War II, they really got this cutting edge, and because of the Cold War, being occupied by the Russians and so forth, I guess that was their way of rebelling in a very subtle fashion. The Polish and Czech posters are really avant-garde. A lot of graphic design around the world was getting into modernism and that was affecting design in every realm of everything, from architecture to graphic design to clothing.

Young Frankenstein - 1974, Poster nationality: U.S.

Young Frankenstein – 1974, Poster nationality: U.S.

Designs changed less so in America. American posters typically suffer in comparison from a design standpoint. I’ve always attributed that to the monetary aspect of the film industry here. The demands are so intense that selling is what it’s about first and foremost. We have clients who are filmmakers and I’ve had conversations with them where they’ve talked about their frustrations with trying to get good-looking posters made, not just the ugly, generic posters the studios marketing departments feel they need to sell the film.

There are tons of European artists known for their work on movie poster design. In “Art of the Modern Movie Poster,” where we could, we focused on one artist in each country and gave a short bio on them and a recap of their careers. It’s hard to choose just one. Basically I just picked one of my favorites from each country.

There’s a gentleman by the name of Brini in Italy who does these very watercolor designs. In Poland, Roman Cieslewicz does really interesting work. In the U.S., they tend to not allow the artist to sign their names, so in many cases it was difficult to get credits for the American posters. Most of the European posters are credited. The U.S. doesn’t allow it, and most of the Japanese posters are not attributed either. Japanese posters are also great, by the way.

The U.S. prohibition on signatures is just all about nothing distracting the viewer from anything. There’s a really good documentary made a number of years ago called The Man Who Drew the Bug-Eyed Monsters, and it was about this guy Reynold Brown who did a lot of the great sci-fi posters from the ‘50s. He had done these beautiful paintings but labored in total obscurity.

Collectors Weekly: Where do you acquire vintage movie posters?

Sarowitz: Every which way. I’ve been doing this for 15 years full time now and I did it as a hobby for 10 years before that, so I’m pretty well-known. We get offered stuff very frequently, whether it’s one piece or thousands of pieces. There are also auctions and eBay, of course. I had a guy who walked in the door with 40 posters an hour ago and I just bought them. I bought about 2,000 posters a month ago from a guy in Connecticut. There’s a never-ending stream of people who have collections or discover collections.

Pre-Internet days, I used to travel a lot to buy. My most exotic buying trip was to a small theater in a small town in the desert in Morocco that an antique dealer in England knew. He used to go there with his family and found out about the theater full of posters and he contacted me. I went to Morocco and bought some of the posters, but it was actually a letdown from a buying standpoint. It was a great trip and I was glad I went but it didn’t turn out to be quite what I thought it would.

Collectors Weekly: What about ‘movie memorabilia’?

Variety Lights(Luci del varietà) - 1957, Poster nationality: Italian

Variety Lights(Luci del varietà) – 1957, Poster nationality: Italian

Sarowitz: That’s a catchall category where we stick stuff that’s not quite regular stuff, for a lack of a better word. We have 3-D glasses and a Mickey Mouse mask and some photographs, some original stills, the Star Wars sketch. In the past, we’ve had a few props and costumes.

The big money is in the Academy Awards, but those are difficult to sell. The Academy has certain limitations on how they can be sold because they don’t want people getting them and then just selling them to the highest bidder. The Academy Awards have sold for half a million dollars, but it’s difficult. The Academy wrote a clause that after a certain year, you couldn’t sell them. They had to offer it back to the Academy first, and they would have a right to pay a dollar for it. But they do still sell.

The earlier ones do sell at auction occasionally, and I helped to sell one once many years ago. All that other memorabilia from the film industry can sometimes go for thousands of dollars. There are a lot of auctions that do that stuff. There’s Heritage in Texas, Bonhams & Butterfields in London, Profiles in History in Los Angeles, and Christie’s. They do posters and memorabilia.

Collectors Weekly: Is there a difference in design between A movie posters and B movie posters?

Sarowitz: Yes, that’s a really good question. I’ve mentioned that American posters are pretty lackluster. The best American posters tend to be the B movies because they didn’t have to have Tom Cruise’s picture, or Clark Gable’s picture, the star and a big image. They had to find another angle, another way to sell the film. In many cases, they could do that by coming out with lurid exploitative artwork. Some of the really Z-grade sci-fi films had great posters, like Attack of the 50-Foot Woman or Invasion of the Saucer Men.

Reynold Brown did a lot of that stuff. That’s when the artist could really have fun. Some people joked that they spent more on the posters than they spent on the films because the films are hard to watch in many cases. They’re pretty bad, but they would come out with great artwork. Generally genre films like film noir had really good posters for the same reason, and other B films will tend to follow that same pattern.

Collectors Weekly: If someone was new to movie poster collecting, what advice would you have for them?

Sarowitz: Buy things you like and want to enjoy and don’t buy from an investment standpoint. These things have appreciated tremendously since I started collecting. I bought my first vintage poster in about 1980 for $50 and it’s now worth about $5,000, but to expect that kind of appreciation to happen over the next 30 years, who knows, because it’s already such a collectible.

When I was buying then, it wasn’t a collectible. That’s why it was only 50 bucks. It’s not like that anymore. Everybody’s collecting everything. So buy things that are in your budget that you want to enjoy, and buy for that reason. Stay away from the whole speculating thing as much as possible. I think that’s the healthy way to go.

Collectors Weekly: What was that first poster you bought?

Sarowitz: It was for a movie called The Lady Eve. Preston Sturges is a writer/director who did these comedies that were just amazing. My dog is named Preston after Preston Sturges, by the way. I wanted to name my son Alfred Hitchcock Sarowitz, but his mom wouldn’t go for that.

(All images in this article courtesy of Sam Sarowitz of Posteritati.).

4 comments so far

  1. debbe Says:

    i have a steven spielberg film e.t the extra-terrestrial mca home video poster.has pepsi and et offer it reads availble on video cassette

  2. David Says:

    I have a small collection of about 50 posters. They are all from the movie theater I worked in while in college. The advice to collect what you like is a good. I worked in an indie movie theater, so my taste is less mainstream than Holly Wood big studio productions. I chose movies based on how many times I went to see them and their design. The value was not an issue and still isn’t. I enjoy them because of their artful design. Because I care for them very well they are all in near mint or almost perfect condition. They are ones that hung in the lobby of the theater I worked in. I keep them for sentimental reasons, and don’t think I could ever sell them.

  3. joni Says:

    Hello My name is Joni I have an original movie poster of Elvis Presley in Jail House Rock this poster has the nss at the bottom and it also has a white star burst on the poster that says “You can own this poster! Free* Offer inside each video of the MGM Elvis commemorative collection Shipping and handling required While supplies last” quote it has the date and place of the theater it was loaned to also I have noticed your posters do not have the white star burst on them.
    Can you tell me who i can contact about this poster it has been professionally framed also.
    Thanks Joni
    PS My dad was a hospital corpsman on the ship Elves went to germany on he stayed in my dad’s quarters with hi and my twin has a picture of elvis and my dad together. FYI
    Joni McClaren
    42 Myrtle Rd
    Griswold Conn 06251
    860-884-8262 or 860-705 – 6954

  4. matt cooper Says:

    One of the most interesting ways to find out about who collects what movie posters and why is to join or lurk around one of the handful of online movie poster forums. The forums are also a great place to see images of posters from the obscure to the commonplace, but usually always interesting. My criteria for buying a poster is price (rarely near or over $100), title and artwork. I am not a film fan, but rather just a fan of advertising. Movie posters are great to accent a room’s decoration, or they can be the entire theme.

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