Before we dive into how movie posters have evolved, lets first look at its history and origin. Movie posters as an art form has its roots in the early 1900s and have been used since the earliest public exhibitions of film. They began as outside placards listing the films to be shown inside movie theaters and began to feature some hand-drawn illustrations over stills that depict scenes from the movie to represent a films stars, genre and theme. In the first two decades of the 20th century, African American audiences were ignored by film studios. Because of this there was a high demand for films geared towards black audiences. “Race Films” as they were called was a type of film from around 1915 to 1950s, produced for an all-black audience, featuring an all-black casts and played only in all-black theaters. Originally in the United States, film posters were printed by the National Screen Service exclusively for the theaters exhibiting them. Although costly and not always easy, print media became important for the film industry due to the high illiteracy rate at the turn of the century. Entertainment advertising needed to have vibrant colors and pictures with a limited amount of words to be appreciated by a large number of people. This prompted studios to implement the “fake color” process which colorized black and white still photos.
Many times, the studio provided these expensive studio photographs to be used on the poster usually of the leading actor or actress. However in the early days of film, there were no movie stars on posters because most actors chose to be anonymous. This pleased producers because it allowed them to control the medium. However, they eventually realized that more money could be made by advertising the stars on the posters that fans wanted to see and so posters changed. Around 1930s, typography became more bold in design and vibrant in color to make posters more interesting. They also now focused on the faces of the main characters and less on scene clips of the film. They also begin reflecting the status of the leading lady and leading man. Big band musicals were very popular at this time so many black singers and bands appeared in lead or supporting roles. But just as the style of cinema evolved, the design style of posters changed as well. And with the 1940’s came WWII where many of the stars served in the army. Even the actresses performed and dance with service men. And for actors not fighting, they were featured in films of war and patriotism. Race films vanished during the early 1950s after African-American participation in the war. This contributed to black actors starring in lead roles in several Hollywood major productions.
Illustrations were still very common but with more experimentation of fonts and layouts. Scene depictions were not very often used as settings, colors and character became more attractive to to audiences. Very few film posters survived the years of the Great Depression and World War II where theater owners received credit for returning posters and paper during the war. Because most black films were produced outside the Hollywood studio system, they have been largely forgotten. In all, approximately five hundred race films were produced. Of these, fewer than one hundred remain. Most film posters between the 30’s and 40’s became extinct. The film industry went through more changes in the 50’s and 60’s with the introduction of film color and photography. In one image the poster needed to boil down one to two hours of entertainment to one graphic or idea. So studios played around with conceptual ideas and subtlety with limited or no characters while using different colors and fonts. Posters didn’t get rid of illustrations, but type plays a more important role in layouts.
Because of the fast innovation of photography in the design industry, photographs first begin appearing on some film posters often taking up the bulk of the composition with typography playing a less dominant role. And although race films declined in the early 1950’s, blaxploitation films emerged in the 1970’s which were originally made specifically for an urban black audience, although the genre begin appealing across ethnic and racial lines.
The 1980s marked another dramatic change in films and movie marketing campaigns, with more and more employing photographs in favor of illustrations. Before this, film posters were created by the NSS from about 1940 to 1984. But when the American film studios took over the making and distributing of film posters, they became decentralized and posters started to look similar to how we see them today, with more balance of photographic picture, font, background, color scheme and tag line. As cinema progressed into a vastly defined medium, film posters were important in circulating a film star’s persona and embodying a film’s status. And although it’s difficult to classify black films into one genre, some films and stars began to take on a cult-like status with a dedicated fan base.
In the 90’s as computers and digital manipulation of images evolved, posters become quite formulaic and structured with simple or photographic background, slogans with actors names above the title. The early 90’s was also a surge of a new kind of black cinema involving the era of hood films and love stories. In the 2000’s and today’s internet age, digital media has overtaken print media. This is due in part because digital media has greater capability to target specific audiences, share content socially and reach anyone globally. This is why film studios have moved their focus to digital markets, as they have the ability to contain more information regarding films than a film poster ever could. The design of film posters is also effected by image manipulation.
Much of the layouts remained the same as in the 80’s and 90’s except for fonts and technology but become more formulaic. This is because film studios go through huge bureaucracy to make a approval and take little risk. Indy film producers tend to take more risk and are more creative. Posters today are about selling the genre and star power. From displaying a full on cast to just thematic elements. It’s now more important than ever to put recognizable stars on the poster to sell the film, especially internationally as foreign sales makeup the majority of the revenue. This is also why various sizes of the poster are printed for domestic and international markets. And as modern costs of printing rises, studios are choosing to promote their films online and through television. Even some theaters are going digital and replacing traditional poster frames with digital displays.
In closing, film posters have been powerful visual elements in promoting a film and most likely will continue. Because films are a unique type of product in which they have to be purchased before they are consumed and experience. So great effort is put into stirring up buzz and interest about a film before seeing it. However, film posters have become less valuable and obsolete in today’s digital world. Today, collecting film posters has become popular as old and posters are extremely rare and valuable. But it will be interesting to see the next evolution of film posters as trends and technology change. Share your thoughts on some of these forgotten black films and how you feel the future of black film posters will evolve.