View Full Version : A Movie Poster Primer

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01-04-2009, 01:58 AM
This article is supposed to give some of the basics for somebody looking to pick up some movie posters or other theatrical advertising material.

Posters come in several different sizes. Here are most of the common ones that you will see come up for sale.

One sheet
The most popular is the One Sheet. Before the mid-1980s, this was standardized at 27”x41”, but more recent one sheets are actually 27”x40”. 1 sheets look great on theater walls and add a look of authenticity. Newer stuff is mostly double sided these days. That means that an inverse image is printed on the back of the poster. This makes the poster look correct and stand out when back lit. They really look nice with the correct backlit frame. You can buy frame rails in 27 and 40/41 inch lengths. Plexiglass is ok but UV resistant is best if any sunlight is coming in. These things do fade. I would suggest making the frames 27x41 so you can swap out posters freely.

(By the way, both of these are posters of "lost" movies. There are no known copies of the movies themselves, and these are the only known 1 sheets. The actor in the right picture is Richard Dix, a well known silent star.)

Half Sheet
The half sheet poster is approximately the size of a one sheet, generally 28”x22”. One nice thing is that Michaels and Hobby Lobby both sell pre-made frames in this size, so mounting is a snap. These posters fit nicely into areas where a regular one sheet won’t fit.


Three Sheet
The three sheet is three 1 sheets joined together. The size is 41”x81”. These posters were generally placed in special cases in the lobby or under the marquee to draw interest. You see the modern version in today’s multiplex as the lobby advertising that is hung higher up. Three sheets are rarer than 1 sheets, but generally cost about the same as they are more difficult to mount. Some of the internet frame sites, such as Graphik Dimensions carry 81” rails, so you can make a frame. Here plexiglass becomes a must for the glass. You also need something really sturdy for the backing. I have been using 1/8” masonite, but a thicker foamboard should work. The 3 sheet shown here with masonite and Plexiglas weighs in at just over 80 pounds. As you can see, it is a floor to ceiling presentation. A three sheet can really do wonders for a home theater lobby.


The insert is a tall, skinny poster of 16”x36”. It is a good fit for narrow spaces and columns. The selection is more limited and there isn’t much available post 1980.


Lobby Cards
Lobby cards are 11”x14” and originally came in sets of 8. Earlier sets had a title card and seven cards showing scenes from the movie. The sets are all too often broken up and sold individually and you can spend a lot of time looking for a card to complete a partial set. The title card is the most desirable and there are collectors that only collect title cards. Title cards fit almost anywhere. I like to pepper them in the washroom near the theater as it gives some variety for your guests to contemplate. There are also 16x20 jumbo lobby cards and 8x10 mini lobby cards, but they are rare.

<NOTE: Need to get some title card and scene card images in here. They are currently packed away>

Window Cards
These are the penny candy of posters. They were printed on cheap 14”x22” paper and had a large white margin on the top where the local theater could add information. They were intended to be passed out to local businesses to place in windows. Most of the survivors have theater info printed on them and are generally faded and torn. They tend to go cheap, though.

8x10 glossy photos
The other penny candy. There are a lot of these out there, and they tend to go very cheap. They generally are an 8x10 photograph of a frame of the movie with the name of the film noted at the bottom. Not many dealers deal with these, but when you find them, there is generally a very large selection.

Other sizes
There are various billboard sizes available in 6,9 and 24 sheet varieties. 6 sheets often come up, but at 81x81 they are hard to mount. 24 sheets are extremely rare as this is a standard billboard size and most of them got pasted up there. Once used, they can’t be recycled. Then there are various lobby items like standees, heralds, door covers, etc. There are also bus displays and the like. Given any arbitrary space, sooner or later some Hollywood publicist eventually found a way to exploit it.

These are the advertising catalog aimed at the theater owner. The pressbook contains examples of all the posters available, and also sample newspaper ad graphics. It is fairly common to find these with one ad cut out, but they are a valuable resource for the person who is seriously collecting a single film or a limited genre.

The NSS:
From the early 1940’s until 1984, all movie paper was controlled by the National Screen Service. They did not sell posters, but rented them out for use during a movie’s run. You will find two things distinguishing an NSS poster. The first is a copyright notice that reads something like:

Property of the National Screen Service. Licensed for display only in conjunction with the exhibition of this picture at your theater. Must be returned immediately thereafter.


Of course a fair amount was never returned, and has been discovered in the back of old theaters over the years. Most of it was returned, and the NSS maintained a number of large regional warehouses. After the NSS collapsed, the paper was sold in large auction lots to collectors and this is the source of most of the early paper.

After 1984, you find that there is a mixed bag. Many studios took over direct distribution and sequencing numbers disappeared. The NSS still issued releases until they were bought out by Technicolor in 2000, but it trickled down to about 15% of releases.

The second piece of information was the sequence number. This number tells a lot about a poster. The format is generally something like XX/YYY. XX represents the year of release and YYY is a sequential number within the year. Thus 52/519 means the 519th film released in 1952. This can be cross referenced to show the movie was “The Lady Wants Mink”. Sometimes a poster will have a designation like R-62/203. The R means this is a theatrical re-release of Easter Parade.


Re-release posters are often less complex, with only a couple of colors overlaid instead of a full color litho. This also means that they are less expensive to purchase. The Easter Parade poster was bought at auction 5 years ago for $65. A first run 1 sheet will go for $650-800.

Occasionally, a really popular poster will have a special run made. For example, “Forbidden Planet” original release can be worth up to $10k, and will never be sold for less than $1k in any condition. The half sheet I show here was a special collaboration made in 1995. A group of collectors arranged for a 1 week special showing of the film. They also contacted the nearly extinct NSS and arranged for a number to be assigned (9503-56. This was how NSS was assigning numbers by that time. First 2 digits were year, then seq number. The -56 referred to the original release date.) We then arranged to have an extremely limited run of 100 posters made on heavy stock from a premier lithographer, using the original litho masters. The claim is that this makes it a rare and original poster, but I believe it to actually be a special fan edition reproduction. It doesn’t matter, because it looks great on my wall, and I can’t afford an original.

What to avoid:
First, there are a bunch of cheap repros out there. They get sold at mass market stores and are generally a different size 11x17, 16x20 or 20x24. They have no value, but worse, they simply look wrong. However, it may be the only way of getting an image of the 1932 Dracula on your wall, as the original will go for six figures!

Video and TV promotion releases don’t tend to have a lot of value, but they are often of reasonable quality and can be had cheap. They will usually have a banner touting the video release.

Bootleg and counterfeit posters exist and can be a problem, even for experts. Counterfeits are mostly in 1 sheets, and for popular titles of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Be suspicious of any Star Wars, Animal House, Grease, Saturday Night Fever, or any of the ‘80s John Hughes type stuff like Breakfast Club. I would only buy stuff like this from my most highly trusted sources.

A clue is whether the poster is folded or rolled. Virtually everything before 1980 was shipped flat and folded into quarters lengthwise and in half widthwise. After 1980 the great bulk was rolled and shipped in tubes. Be suspicious of anything that doesn’t follow that rule, although exceptions do exist.

Condition and grading
Poster dealers and collectors have come up with a set of standards for grading the condition of a poster. This section lists, and attempts to explain the reasons why a particular poster is graded at a cetain level. Note that posters are self graded by the dealer, so escalation of condition is common. As an example, I have only seen a couple of posters graded poor, and those were missing major pieces of the image.

The Poster looks like it just came off the press. Further, the press was properly aligned and no registration errors are detected. No blemeshis will be tolerated. This will generally only apply to newer rolled posters, and not many of them.

Near Mint
Minor blemeshies are detected ONLY ON THE EDGES. Modern posters are shipped in stacks, and denting of the edges often occurs in shipping, causing the poster to be lowered in grade. Folds are allowed on a near mint poster if the poster was originally folded, but no tearing at the folds is tolerated. The Lady wants Mink poster above is an example of an older near mint poster.

Very Good[/]A poster in Very Good condition will have minor blemishes in the artwork and small tears of less than 1/2" at the folds. Tearing at the folds of older posters is very common, especially where the folds cross and is allowable if not excessive. A very small piece of paper is allowed to be missing, generally 1/2" or less diameter and only on the edges. There can also be MINOR fading and discoloration of the paper. Note there is a big gap between Near Mint and Very good. For this reason, a large fraction of posters fall into this catagory.

Tears and holes no larger than a quarter are allowed on the borders. Moderate fading is allowed. Minor bleed-through is allowed. The major artwork must be free of tears and holes.

A poster in fair condition will have defects that affect the main artwork of the poster. However, most of the poster is there and it is recognizable as the poster. Significan fading can occur. A poster in fair condition may require professional restoration. A couple of notes here. The Kiss Me Kate 3 sheet shown above has 2 pieces of paper missing. One is on Kathryn Grayson's face. Yet, this poster was sold as Very Good. I bought it early in my collecting and didn't know better. I have a half sheet of 101 Dalmations that was sold in fair condition. It has some serious edge damage. There are a couple of faint bleedthrough stains from writing on the back. Finally, there are tape marks on the right 1/4 of the poster. I found that good mounting using a frame with large edges hid 90% of the defects and I have absolutely no problem displaying this poster, although I did hang it in a location where people can't get too close.

A poster in poor condition will definitely need professional restoration. The standard says serious blemishes, staining, missing paper, etc. In reality, the poor posters are falling apart and even unfolding them to examine them will add to their problems. A poster has to be in really terrible shape before a seller will admit it. I've got a couple and they stay in their packing because they simply aren't worth restoring.

Care and feeding
Posters are susceptible to a number of nasties. Besides the lighted match, you need to worry about ultraviolet radiation, acid contact and mildew. Of the three, UV will kill a poster the fastest. Avoid direct sunlight, use UV shielded plexiglass and rotate fairly often. All paper is subject to acid burning over time. It also makes the paper brittle. Use an acid free backing material. You can also get acid free coating on plexiglass, although regular glass actually works better here. For mildew, the answer is obvious. Keep em dry and cool, especially when storing them.

One last thing. Don't let that framing shop dry mount your poster. Dry mounting will destroy the value of the poster. For one thing, dry mounting glues are acidic. It also makes the poster unshippable because it can't be folded or rolled. If your poster is in poor shape, there are places that will professionally linenback or paperback the poster to stabilize it. The two "lost" posters shown above have been linenbacked and restored.

There is probably a poster shop in the large city nearest you who keeps a small supply of posters. Other than that, I mostly deal with a small but reliable set of dealers and fellow collectors.

eMoviePoster.com - Vintage Movie Posters (http://www.Emovieposter.com) conducts twice weekly auctions. Bruce’s stuff is always fairly represented and he always includes huge jpegs that show a lot of detail on every item. When he was on ebay, his prices tended to be high. He starts every item at $0.99, but the market finds the right level. There are bargains to be found, but sometimes things go for crazy numbers, just like any auction. The site contains two invaluable features. First, Bruce has a public database containing every poster he has sold since 1989 including size, condition, release status and selling price. He also has an image database with 175,000 posters. This is a very good starting place.

Movie Posters, Movie Poster Auctions - Weekly .99 Cent No Reserve Auctions of Movie Posters (http://www.movieposterbid.com/) has an active auction going with items expiring daily. This is a place where the dealers go to trade with each other. Sometimes the initial asking price is too high, but often stuff will go way below market. This is strictly a bidding site, so you need to keep a lookout for problems.

I highly respect Rick’s Movie Posters in Austin Tx. Fun place to go and Rick is a hoot.

Most of this is for older stuff. That’s where my interest lies. There are dealers on eBay specializing on newer posters, but the new stuff tends to be released to the public in large quantities. Often there are different printings for consumer and theater use. The theatrical posters are virtually all double sided these days. Look for that.

01-04-2009, 08:23 AM
Wow! Thanks for the article! I was thinking of getting a couple of posters. Now I will know what to look for. :up :up

03-17-2009, 08:31 AM
Hey thanks a lot. U have provided here what i wanted now i have got idea what to do. Once again thanks. Keep it up .

Scott Greczkowski
03-17-2009, 08:35 AM
Amazing write up! Thank you!

03-17-2009, 03:11 PM
Very good article!

03-26-2009, 10:39 PM
:) Great post. I am a vintage movie poster collector and I too have old movie posters framed and hanging on the walls in my home. Does anyone else collect posters? visit my website for more information on what I collect or for a free appraisal.


Ralph DeLuca
Madison, NJ

11-21-2011, 06:01 PM
Since John is reviving old threads, I thought what the heck. Here is a French Grande poster. It is huge at 47" x 63", but it is something I have been chasing for years. The 1 sheet sells for $1500, and this was well under $100.

I know this is shamelessly bragging, but I can't help myself.


09-09-2012, 07:31 PM
For those of you thinking that poster collecting is not a serious business, check out this auction result of an item that just closed


I'd give my left testicle for this poster. Unfortunately, I doubt that it would be worth the $86k this poster sold for.

John Kotches
09-10-2012, 02:26 PM
There's no doubt it can be serious business, just about any type of collecting can.

I'm not even a hobbyist, but do like them as wall decorations in the basement leading to the home theater. Thankfully, I just get reproductions with inexpensive frames :D

09-10-2012, 05:48 PM
Well that poster is certainly out of my league. I also have posters scattered around the theater, but I get pleasure in having something different than the repros of the latest action stuff. I mostly collect for striking images from lesser known films, but am also getting quite a bit of stuff from classic musicals.

Reigster at SatelliteGuys