Movie Billboards in Cairo, Spring 1999
Star Wars Special Edition Movie Billboards in Cairo, Spring 1999
In the Western world collecting movie posters is a popular hobby about which much has been and continues to be written. There are books, articles and web sites devoted to this topic as well as various professional and amateur associations that share information and trade posters. Poster collectors are a lively and well-connected group--unless the posters they collect happen to be in a language that is not written in the Latin alphabet. Then the field becomes far less populous. Arabic, Persian, Hindi and Chinese film posters are all artifacts that belong to major world film industries, but despite this little has been done so far to develop taxonomies, histories, chronologies or tools for their identification. This is obviously due to some extent to a lack of demand. In Egypt there is no established or organized market to serve the needs of collectors because the collectors are so few in number. This does not mean that there are no posters for sale in Egypt, but it does mean that a poster collector or film fan seeking a poster for a particular Egyptian film must do a lot of networking, footwork and sifting through stacks of paper to find what he is looking for, especially if it is something that is not of current or recent vintage. This resembles the situation that existed in the United States and Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, when most people thought of movie posters simply as attractive trash.
In Egypt movie posters have never had a serious collector following and several important periods of film poster design have come and gone without much recognition or discussion. In addition, some posters that are known to have existed at one time have evidently vanished entirely because no known copies remain. The collector is now an archaeologist of junk piles who due to the absence of reference materials faces real challenges recognizing and evaluating what emerges. Fortunately, there is no shortage of published material in Arabic about the Arabic film industry itself in and out of Egypt and it is almost always possible to determine the year and studio origin of the film a poster advertises. Even then, some films were redistributed under new names after their initial release and this sometimes complicates the proper identification of a poster. Other details such as the types and sizes of posters used in various periods, how to identify rerelease and original posters and the nature of the poster distribution system remain basically undiscovered for those of us who are not insiders in the industry. Moreover, there are aspects of Egyptian film poster production that have no parallels in the rest of the world. For example, Egyptian film posters were usually made in at least two editions, one for the first-class urban cinemas and one for the third-class and village cinemas. Second editions of certain film posters were produced to satisfy demand when the initial print run had been exhausted for a popular film, and in some cases the new editions were changed to give appropriate design prominence to an actor whose status had risen since a film's initial release, as happened several times in the case of actor Adel Imam. These are elements of the history of Egyptian film that ought to be explored
Vinyl billboards such as this one have become common -- Fall 2006.
The posters we display on this web site have been obtained with many hours hiking through the streets of Cairo. Our prices reflect the costs of our labor and transportation more than they reflect the prices we paid to sellers, although in some cases we have paid unusually high prices for items the sellers knew to be especially scarce and desirable and then the price paid to seller is also factored into our price. Since the market for Egyptian movie posters is quite scattered and diffuse, there is no way at this point to set realistic market values for our Egyptian posters and we do not claim to be doing this, even though the prices for the other posters on the Movie Poster Page are usually set with consideration for market prices found elsewhere on the web.
The wall of a Cairo film and poster distributor's office (1999)
An Arabic-speaking film buff or someone looking for Arabic wall decoration will probably be able to obtain similar posters in Cairo at prices much lower than ours, and we heartily encourage anyone who has the time and interest to do exactly that. Our web site is but the tip of a great and amazing iceberg and we would love to see more people investigate and disover this neglected area of world art, popular culture and advertising. As all collectors know, the thrill of the chase is one of the main things keeping our hobby alive. Often exploration and discovery are even more important than the collected item itself. Those who collect these posters are volunteer curators for a vanishing artistic heritage that no government or institution has shown any interest in preserving, although there are rumors that some Arab media outlets such as television stations have been attempting to stockpile Arabic movie posters. The more collectors know about what they have, the better. Once collected, these posters are removed from the trash bins and dusty piles where they presently languish awaiting eventual loss, damage and destruction. This is a worthy and pleasurable activity.
John Green, with special thanks to Pierre Sioufi
(photos by John Green)
For other articles about collecting movie posters, please see The Movie Poster Page blog.
A thorough taxonomy of poster varieties and their printing history has not been done for film posters in any part of the world. Even in the United States, Britain, Italy, Japan, Germany and France, where the high values of vintage film posters might justify such an effort, complete or scholarly research has not been done, and all too often rumor and hearsay determine what the collectors believe about the characteristics and provenance of their film posters.
In Egypt, where there is no real collector market and where a very large part of the country's film poster heritage has been lost forever, the situation is even worse, but due to the lack of a market or a strong research interest it seems to matter less. Moreover, the poster distribution system in Egypt, unlike the ones in the United States and Western Europe, is not necessarily controlled by the studios that make the films. Often the distributors print the posters. Posters are printed as needed and stored as inventory items along with the films, to be distributed with the films when theaters order them; this does not necessarily take place on studio-designated release dates. This is a decentralized system where there is no single record-keeping or production apparatus.
A collector accustomed to the American system usually wants to know about the authenticity of a poster when adding it to a collection: is it an original poster? In Egypt, if a poster is not an original the only other possibility is that it must be a rerelease, because the practice of reprinting film posters for commercial sale to the public has not yet been adopted there. Even a rerelease poster is an original, but it is an original made sometime after the original year of a film's release. All Egyptian film posters are original prints made for public advertising display. I have never seen an exception to this. However, the definition of an Egyptian "rerelease" poster is quite different due to the frequent lack of a centralized poster production system or official rerelease dates.
In the Egyptian system, identifying a rerelease poster is almost never possible through the use of rerelease information intentionally printed on the poster. Instead, one must rely on practical knowledge. An easy example is this poster for the film "Widad":
The picture on the poster shows that it is obviously a rerelease, because the singer Om Kolsum was much younger at the time of the film's original release in 1936 than she was when this picture was taken, probably sometime in the 1960s.
Since distributor names are usually printed on Egyptian posters, sometimes these can help with the identification of rereleases if the name of the distributor at the time of the film's original release is known. The names of the original distributors for Egyptian films are occasionally shown in the Arabic reference work
Directory of Films in the 20th Century in Egypt and the Arab world (dalil ol-aflam fil-qarn al-'eshrin fi misr wal-'alam al-'arabi), compiled by Mahmud Qasem, and if not found there could presumably be found in other sources.
For more recent films Egyptian poster designers have begun to use the American convention of showing a film's release date in the margins of film posters. If they continue to follow this convention, it may eventually be possible to identify posters for film rereleases using this information, but I have yet to see an Egyptian rerelease poster with an American-style rerelease designation printed on it.
Other details that can help with the identification of rerelease film posters are the paper used and the printing method. Stone lithography was once a common method of printing Egyptian film posters. This type of printing was usually done on paper with a rough surface on the image side and a rough surface on the back side. A poster made on this type of paper is not necessarily from the original year of a films release, but it will probably be older than posters for the same film made on other types of paper.
Egyptian film poster sizes can also reveal something about their ages. I have not catalogued all the variations in Egyptian poster sizes, but I have observed several commonly used standard sizes. Older Egyptian film posters are often printed on a 24" x 36" standard sheet, the standard size used until recent years was 27" x 39", and the standard size used most often now (beginning sometime in the late 1990s) is 26" x 38".
Larger sizes and billboard posters also exist, but I have not seen enough of these yet to be able to discuss the prevalent practices. An article by Marcus Field about Lebanese graphic designer Rana Salam's Egyptian billboard film poster collection is here.
John Green August 2005
People collect things for a variety of reasons. They collect film posters sometimes because they need to make affordable investments. Sometimes they collect them because they like the graphic art, and sometimes these two motivations are combined. I like to collect Egyptian posters because they are beautiful but fragile remnants of a colorful history.
Whatever the reason for its existence, a film poster collection has more meaning if the collector is aware of the subtle variations that often exist for posters advertising the same film title. Film posters can vary because they were made for different reasons, made at different times, made in different locations, made with different equipment, or made with different designs.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of owning a film poster collection is the research that goes into documenting and understanding these variations.
In Egypt, film posters sometimes change because the companies that distribute the films change. This may involve only a minor change in poster appearance such as blocking out the name of the old distributor in the bottom border and overprinting the name of the new one. This would happen in cases where the lithograph plates used by a former distributor are still available to the new distributor.
In other cases, if the new distributor no longer has access to the old distributor's printing plates (this seems to be the most common case), he will have a new plate made that resembles the old one as closely as possible. In both cases, artists draw the poster designs directly on the printing plate. Often the signed names of the artist or artists will be different for the old and new versions, but obviously at least one of the artists is a copyist.
Here is an example of a poster variation for an Egyptian film:
Information printed on the posters tells us that this transition involved changes in distributor, printer and artist. The distributor for Version A was The General Company for Film Marketing and Distribution, while the distributor for version B was The General Egyptian Institute for Cinema. The printer of the style A poster was The H.H. Gasour Arabic Cinema Printing Company, the printer for the Style B poster was the Al-Nasr Printing Company. The artist for the Style A poster was Gasour himself, the owner of the printing company. The Style B poster is not signed by an artist. Based on the loss of detail in the Style B version, I conclude that the Style A is the earlier version, but no printing dates are given on either poster so I don't know exactly how much time passed between the two versions.
Here is a similar pair of poster variations for an Egyptian film:
In this case the distributor did not change. The same distributor may have needed to print more posters after reusing his first litho plate for something else. Style A is signed by the artist Sami, and Style B is signed by the artist Walid Wahig. Neither poster tells us the printer name. Distribution was done by two companies, Farid Shawqi's Artists Union Company and Mohammad Hassan Ramzi's Nasr Films Company. The fact that two distribution companies were involved may explain the existence of two poster types, but if so I do not know how or why.
These varieties have nothing to do with anything that would be called a "rerelease." They were apparently brought about because of a change in distributor in one case and a poster stocking and printing requirement in the other.
There is plenty of variation in these Egyptian film posters, but it seems to be more more complex, small-scale and unpredictable than what I've seen in other countries.
John Green 14 July 2008
More Information about Egyptian Films and Posters
For other articles about collecting movie posters, please see The Movie Poster Page blog.