NOTE: This article was written in preparation for MOVIE GEEKS UNITED's episode on poster art; you can listen to that episode here, where this particular discussion between Jamey Duvall, Jerry Dennis and I begins at around 24:15...
I've been a movie poster collector since I was 8 years old. The first one I bought was for Mel Brooks' BLAZING SADDLES, purchased at a Florida wax museum in 1974; it was rolled, and not a real movie poster--a reprint, though a very good one, and in the right size (now, in 2013, I have a REAL folded one). The first ACTUAL movie poster I acquired--and for me that means one that was put up at a theater showing the film--came in 1980, when I was 14, and it was for David Lynch's THE ELEPHANT MAN (I asked the manager of my local movie theater for it, as he was changing the posters out, and this query changed my life; I later gave this treasured poster away to my favorite friend Lisa Mateas). Thereafter, I started gathering one-sheets--as I quickly learned they were more professionally known--in a piecemeal fashion, here and there. But I only wanted REAL ones--ones from the theaters I was attending. In 1983, by chance, I felt compelled to break this rule when I purchased a beautiful REVENGE OF THE JEDI poster, many months prior to the film's release. Weeks later, I learned I'd landed a treasure: George Lucas had decided Jedi didn't take revenge, and so he deemed his production RETURN OF THE JEDI. I was a STAR WARS fan, but apparently not much of one, because as soon as I could, I traded that one now-extremely-valuable poster in for 40 more (courtesy of Jerry Ohlinger's Movie Material Store, an NYC institution that had bought a booth at an Atlanta sci-fi convention--probably an early version of Dragon Con). This launched me into another world--the often maddening one of a collector. Over the next three decades, I acquired nearly 1000 more one-sheets, many through Atlanta's now-defunct Paper Chase. Some have been sold in dire times, some have been given away as loving gifts, some have been stolen, some have been damaged and destroyed (when I think of many of these posters I've lost or given up, I wince with horror and then have to take a pill to go to sleep). At present, I have a collection of around 700 one sheets--approximately 200 of them rolled, and the others folded.
So, after nearly 40 years of this nonsense, I would safely say I'm an authority.
For the purposes of this article (which I'm extremely excited about), I should say, first off, that I'm only selecting from AMERICAN movie posters, 27" x 42." I'm doing this in order to not drive myself crazy (because I've seen some French, Italian, Indian, African, Russian, German, and especially Polish movie posters that are just astounding...but I cannot include them here, because they would take over the earth, and honestly, anyway, I've rarely encountered them in poster form--most of the time, I've seen them only as JPEGS--and I'm sort of doing this post as a kind of starting place for those wishing to get into collecting specifically American posters)...but there are FOUR exceptions here on this rule, because (1) I couldn't find an American version of the 1926 poster for FAUST, the 1927 poster for METROPOLIS, and the 1962 JULES AND JIM--none that conformed to my size requirements, at least, and (2) I once owned an American version of the poster for the film ROMANCE that looked exactly the same as the German version pictured here. I am also only selecting true one-sheets--not half-sheets (28" x 22"), inserts (14" x 36"), subway posters (varying sizes), lobby cards or anything else. That is, as well, so as to not drive myself crazy (this is also to the reader's benefit; unless you have a particular madness, you definitely wanna limit yourself to framing 27" x 42" posters--though, nowadays, most posters are 41" long, just to let you know--if you're a collector with an eye towards displaying your pieces, you'll wanna take this into account if you're planning to change your posters up). Inserts and half-sheets are very cool, though, if you want to fill up wall space that doesn't conform to true one-sheet size.
I most prefer posters that (a) have fine art which also transmits some of the story, (b) make an intelligent use of color and negative space, (c) are detailed and endlessly lookable, (d) are representing at least decent movies and (e) sometimes are so sparse as to command attention (I have a particular respect for those movies that can convey their power through text and design only). In judging the movie poster as an art object, I look at: (a) originality, (b) color, (c) lack of color, (d) quality of lead painting/drawing and/or photography (and inclusion--or exclusion--of major stars), (e) typography, (f) copy/tag line, (g) layout and placement of credits. I should also point out that I didn't go after the most popular movies or movie poster images (thus, no JAWS, LORD OF THE RINGS, GHOSTBUSTERS, JURASSIC PARK, or E.T. here, for instance). I should also say here: as a collector, I prefer movie posters that have some wear to them--and that, again, feel like they might have been hung up at theaters playing that movie in the day--so I have no real use for reprints, and have a particular love of FOLDED posters (pre-1990s, at least) as a result (I have also not included any representatives of the current trend of poster re-dos, like those put out by the Alamo Drafthouse; they're very imaginative, but they're not real movie posters and are more like art objects and are NOT advertising relics). Also, one more note: almost all silent era posters are wonderful to look at--a tidal wave of riches from that time period; however, I've included only a few on this list (they are spectacular, though).
I need to say this, too: Obviously, my eye leans towards the 60s and the 70s (that's the era I grew up in, so this is understandable, I hope). I particularly love that era's Warner Brothers/Seven Arts output (the greatest run of any ad agency ever--a brilliant combination of treated photos, superlative layouts, subtle color choices, and dynamic logo designs). But I also adore the explosion of fancy art post-STAR WARS, all throughout the 80s. The 1990s and early 2000s were the worst years for poster art, because they relied too much on bad photos of the main actors (in order to sell home video copies, I guess). The 1940s and 50s were largely blah, too; even though the art was accomplished, they were also too concentrated on the stars...that is, until Saul Bass came along and showed the industry a new way of doing things. Saul Bass, of course, makes many appearances here (he's the greatest or at least the most important artist of this realm, ever, though John Alvin, Frank McCarthy, Drew Struzan, Birney Lettick, Jack Davis, Richard Amsel, the Bemis Balkind agency, and the absolutely incredible Bob Peak give him much competition). A special thank-you goes out now to the astounding International Movie Poster Awards Database for their valuable archival and organizational skills!
Movie poster art is getting more and more creative at present, excepting major studio releases (which seem stuck in this sort of fake-burnished, dark brown mode, which matches their largely dull movies). But I am seeing more posters I like these days. Anyway, here are my top 50 favorite movie posters, in order of preference; the following 150 titles are listed alphabetically:
The Top Fifty:
1. Petulia (68, Richard Lester) (Art: Bob Peak) (Tagline: "People bugged by people will do extraordinary things")
2. Pennies from Heaven (81, Herbert Ross) (Art: Bob Peak)
3. Chinatown (74, Roman Polanski) (Art: Jim Pearsall)
4. Blade Runner (82, Ridley Scott) (Art: John Alvin)
5. Anatomy of a Murder (59, Otto Preminger) (Art: Saul Bass)
6. 3 Women (77, Robert Altman)
7. Reds (81, Warren Beatty)
8. Rosemary's Baby (68, Roman Polanski) (Design: Bemis Balkind)
9. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (66, Mike Nichols) (Design: Warner Bros.)
10. Lost Highway (97, David Lynch) (Design: Bemis Balkind)
11. Lawrence of Arabia (62, David Lean)
12. The Rain People (69, Francis Ford Coppola) (Design: Warner Bros./Seven Arts) (Tagline: "Rain people are very fragile....one mistake in love and they dissolve...")
25. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Apiatchitpong Weerasethakul) (Art: Chris Ware)
30. Frogs (72, George McCowan) (Design: Diener-Hauser)
39. Broadway Danny Rose (84, Woody Allen)
40. Tales From The Crypt (72, Freddie Francis)
The Rest of the List (150):
The Brown Bunny (2003, Vincent Gallo)
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005, Judd Apatow) (Design: Crew Creative Advertising)
The Grey Fox (82, Philip Borsos)
Monterey Pop (69, D.A. Pennebaker)
Salesman (68, Albert and David Maysles)
The Social Network (2010, David Fincher) (Design: Kellerhouse; photography: Frank Ockenfiels)