18 April 2018 – Need slammed into opportunity one day in early 2016. It started with a conversation between Ed and Susan Poole, founders of Learn About Movie Posters, and Linda Thurman, the author of Hollywood South: Glamour, Gumbo and Greed. The three met when Thurman was researching her book and discovered the rich Poole Collection of poster images, some of which became illustrations in her book.
Ed and Sue explained the need for preservation and research of movie posters and paper. Since 1995 the Pooles have written and published more than 20 research books on film accessories. With the millions spent in the U.S. on film preservation, they had not been able to find a single organization dedicated to film accessories preservation—no poster preservation societies, no groups to preserve film accessories.
They found many museums and preservation institutions were reluctant to devote resources to film accessories because of their fragility, difficulty with identification, thorny provenance, and long-accepted status as an unimportant necessity of the movie business. The rare exception might be collections celebrating a prominent individual or classic film.
The concept of a research center intrigued Thurman, an experienced founder and board member of nonprofit organizations. The recently-retired studio executive was looking around for an interesting project.
After a crash course in film accessories, Thurman accepted the challenge, and the Institute for Cinema Ephemera was born. A year later, the name was changed to Movie Poster Archives.
Immediately, the challenges of preserving movie posters became obvious and compelling. To quote Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: “Attention must be paid.”
The first challenge was the magnitude of film accessories. For a medium size film, hundreds of different film accessories are created: pressbooks, insert cards, promos, portraits, heralds, lobby cards in sets, mini lobby cards, jumbo lobby cards, half sheets, window cards, mini window cards, jumbo window cards, 30x40s, 40x60s, one sheets, 2 sheets, 3 sheets, 6 sheets, 12 sheets, 24 sheets, door panels, banners, standees, and sometimes varying sets and several styles. Plus rarities such as trolley cards, secondary printers, and local or regional production.
Complicating the matter, from the 1920s until the 1970s, an average film usually stayed on the market for up to two years, going from studio theaters to ‘A’ theaters to regular theaters to neighborhood theaters then by bus or train to smaller towns and rural communities. Then studios disposed of the paper accessories that survived.
Throughout the industry, original movie paper was not for sale to the public. The result is that certain silent film posters bring incredibly high valuations since there may be only 1 or 2 in existence.
In the 1920s, poster exchanges arose to handle the wide variety of accessories needed to continually supply rural theaters. Local businessmen started buying up movie paper when the film was first released and later supplying the rural theaters.
The monolithic National Screen Service appeared in 1940. It supplied the movie trailers to all theaters nationally and expanded into handling movie paper. By 1947 all of the major studios contracted exclusively with NSS for accessory distribution. Lawsuits from poster exchanges ensued. Eventually dozens of poster exchanges shut down, each with hundreds of thousands of posters in stock. Despondent and defeated, they hauled their inventory to the dump.
In a move that changed the course of movie paper history, some smart businessmen bought truckloads of these posters, creating the first collecting dealers.
National Screen Service continued to dominate accessory distribution until 1984, when the advent of multiplex theaters made it too costly to continue. Distribution went back to the individual studios. Once more, the gradual elimination of all the NSS warehouses, each holding hundreds of thousands of posters, created an opportunity for dealers and collectors to acquire truckloads of movie paper. The surge in availability expanded the poster collecting hobby exponentially.
These historic documents were in the hands of movie poster collectors and dealers. The two major liquidations–of poster exchanges and NSS exchanges—made a wide variety of movie paper available to the public.
The knowledge base about posters and movie paper was lacking, to say the least. Institutions such as museums and preservationists continued to focus on film. The few institutions that received donations had no resources to learn how to read the markings, date or verify any of the information, and therefore no system for cataloging them.
Film accessories were normally produced on cheap acidic paper that is costly to maintain. They are also a pain to store, a pain to handle and a pain to present. Because they are such a problem, and cost so much to properly preserve, institutions have quietly allow them to decay and disintegrate so they can be removed from their inventory.
A new day dawned in 1995 when Ed and Susan Poole began organizing the chaos. They released the first reference book on the industry in 1997. Since that time, they have released an additional 21 industry-related reference books, in addition to posting over 200,000 pages online.
Their work continues as consulting archivists and researchers for the Movie Poster Archives. With 400,000 items in the Archives, more staff and resources will be needed.
As digital displays threaten the very existence of new movie posters, the preservation of the historic posters is all the more important.
Linda Thurman and Ed Poole