On Becoming a Poster Collector

Note: The purpose of this article is PRIMARILY guidance in the selection of newer posters of the last ten years as investment purchases.

To collect posters as an investment, or hobby, one should know a bit of the history associated with these pieces of paper that are now valued so much. The information given here is by no means complete, and is for the most part, general. To learn more about specific aspects of the history of movie posters, there are the occasional poster books out there and best of all, the knowledge collectors and dealers have gathered over the years. .

A Brief History.......

Before the early eighties, posters were printed in limited quantities, usually in some multiple of the number of theaters expected to screen a film at the time of release, and then at various re-releases. The number of posters printed would vary by title, and with each decade that we go back, the numbers decrease. The huge volumes of paper destroyed during the WWII effort, along with the fact that print numbers were already low in those years, make posters printed prior to that period especially rare. In addition to the scarcity of the older posters, various poster production processes such as the stone lithograph associated with that era have pretty much disappeared, much to the dismay of many collectors.

Posters were printed in multiple sizes until approximately 12 years ago. Since then the industry has limited itself almost exclusively to the one-sheet. In the earlier years the one-sheet was printed in the largest quantities, followed by half-sheets, inserts and three-sheets. The 30x40 and 40x60 silkscreen heavy stock posters are even more rare, for they were printed in very limited quantities. Billboards and six-sheets were commonly destroyed and are extremely scarce today. Going back decade by decade, as the print number for each title decreases, the rarity of the posters increases.

Theater owners were once required by law to return posters to the studio or poster source, and many warehouses were instructed to destroy poster stocks at various times. National Screen Service, the primary distributor of most American one-sheets, stated its return policy on the bottom of most posters. Unfortunately for collectors, in the earlier decades many obedient and scrupulous theater owners actually did follow the rules stated in the fine print on the posters or the shipping containers - and these posters were eventually destroyed en masse.

As time went by, more and more people ignored the poster-return rules, and the items were no longer "strictly the property of company X, for advertisement use ONLY." At the same time, large numbers of returned posters did escape the mass destruction orders and remained in warehouses and theater exchanges, the central points of poster distribution for the studios. Many of these exchanges were later bought out by dealers, most of whom now make a comfortable living from a single warehouse purchase they made in the late seventies, at a great price.

By the early 80s the studios had recognized the market for posters among film fans all over the world, and began working with the poster companies, producing the massive printings that have become routine today for most regular release films. They now typically begin by printing 10,000 copies and go up from there (and up and up and up...) This radically changed the economics of poster collecting, as the enormous quantities printed and the lower art and quality associated with mass production have rendered questionable the collectibility of most new titles.

Today there is no shortage of poster dealers in every corner, eager to absorb these huge printing runs at wholesale prices and profit from the ready market for new-release posters among the enthusiastic masses of collectors and movie fans. For this reason, 80-90 percent of new posters today are not what would be deemed collectible, or even "eventually collectible." They are likely to remain in abundant supply for the next hundred years, while DEMAND for 90 percent of these titles will die off immediately after the regular release concludes its run.

Quantity is not the only factor, of course. It is still true that many posters from all previous decades remain in the $20 price range. A poster printed in low numbers in the 1940s for a film with no following and lackluster art is not likely ever to attain high value. Yet the tremendous and virtually unlimited size of modern print runs (except in the case of certain companies, see below), along with the fact that posters are are no longer returned, no longer destroyed, are printed on sturdier paper and last longer, all are factors that do tend to decrease the investment potential for most posters of recent vintage.

The potential value of current posters is further eroded by the existence of reprint versions of the most popular titles. Printing companies now routinely purchase the right from the movie studios to reprint these posters. As many popular titles get reprinted again and again, virtually indistinguishable from the original one-sheets, except for a difference in size of less than an inch, or perhaps by slight variations in clarity, color shade or thickness of paper, it is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish reprints from originals. In the case of many single-sided one-sheet reprints of titles of the last four years, telling the reprints apart from the originals is already virtually impossible for the untrained person. I have even seen dealers fooled by well-done reprints.

The question is, will anyone CARE, in 100 years, to try to distinguish the virtually identical originals and reprints? Probably not, and if they do, in the case of many single-sided posters, they won't be able to. There are dealers today who do not have the scruples to distinguish the originals from the reprints they get immediately after originals run out, and they have no interest in informing collectors about the various routes of investment they can take. Thus, although dealers are one of the best sources for knowledge about the history and practice of movie poster production and collecting, one must also be careful.


In light of the foregoing observations about the history and nature of movie posters, the best recommendation I, as a collector, can give the beginning investor is to concentrate if possible on vintage pre-80's material. Such items are relatively easy to authenticate, can still be found in large numbers at reasonable prices (especially material from the sixties and seventies) - and one knows that they exist in limited numbers. Much of this material will continue to increase steadily in value; some of it will suddenly go up exponentially due to events that are yet to occur and difficult to forsee.

A personal example I can give is my collecting of Audrey Hepburn, a case where I had no idea that my love for her, and the purchase of her posters, would prove to be such a great investment. Posters that could be found for $15 for Audrey's films in 1985 are now fetching an average of $600-$900. The Audrey phenomenon is exceptional, but this sort of thing still happens regularly. The next BIG ONE, as I like to call them, may be Liz Taylor. Despite the $600 price tag for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," much of the very beautiful Liz Taylor material is still under $100, and on occasion under $50. I have already begun my Liz collection, strictly as investment. Yet one need not approach poster investing in a purely calculated fashion; as in other collecting fields, it is always a good idea to buy what you love. This way, should an investment fail to perform as hoped, the personal pleasure of ownership will always be there to compensate.

If the goal is unsentimental investment, a domain that only the advanced collector should attempt to enter, one must consider the history of each film, its particular place in time, and its potential as a long-term nostalgic investment. The little kids who bought sci-fi and horror posters in the 50's now own some very valuable collections ("Forbidden Planet", $4500-5000, "Creature from the Black Lagoon", the same), but those posters remain good investment choices today for those who can afford them.

Investing in Contemporary Posters: How to Catch the Few Great Ones

If you love a new-release film, don't hesitate to buy its poster, but keep in mind that most of these affectionate purchases will not gain value in your lifetime. If you want to buy today's posters as investment, be wise. Here are some rules:

1. The title is important: It need not be a hit, and in fact most hit films end up having worthless posters, because they overprint them to death, but it is important to have a feeling for the types of films likely to have been printed in limited quantity, OR that are likely to be in high demand and lower supply. Festival films are frequently in this category, as are small independent features that are not picked up by major studios ("Roadside Prophets", "Johnny Suede","Suture"). Limited release films are a good bet ("Crumb"), as are those that receive short-term national attention, but a good eventual following ("Adventures of Baron Munchausen"). Foreign films are always good if they become popular.

2. CULT CULT CULT: This kind of goes with title, but the smaller and more tight the cult following for a film, the more the posters are in demand, the higher the prices go. "Brazil", "Blue Velvet", "Mad Max", "Bladerunner", and "The Hunger" are some of the bigger titles from the last 13 years or so which were originally printed in limited numbers, for very limited releases. These represent cult films that became huge hits, and acquired historical importance in that they managed to maintain cult status.

In this last year two candidates in this category were "KIDS" and "The Usual Suspects". After an initially limited poster printing, there was a huge rush for the posters and "The Usual Suspects" was immediately reprinted. The double-sided one-sheets for this film are very hard to find. Whether the two films will retain the cult status needed to maintain steady increases in the value of their posters is another question. In my opinion, "KIDS" will not, but "The Usual Suspects" could. "Clerks" is another such case. There are many more.

3. ADVANCE posters. These are usually a better bet for the films that do eventually get wide release, or are big hits even before they come out. Advance posters, also called TEASERS, are printed in far fewer numbers, and usually in better quality than the regular one-sheets. A great example is the limited, double-sided, laminated "Goldeneye" advance, where care was taken to create a poster of unique quality, rarely seen these days. Most films do not have advance one-sheets, but in cases where they exist, if you have a feeling for the potential of the film they are a wise investment. The "Pulp Fiction" advance is another very good recent example, because it is also a withdrawn advance (see below).

4. Withdrawn posters/art: Once in a long while a poster will be recalled because of its art, or because of changes in the film, the production, etc. These posters almost immediately go up in price. If they happen to be advance posters with limited printings, they are even harder to find. The "Pulp Fiction" advance depicting Lucky Strike cigarettes and the word "harlot" on Uma Thurman's book (as opposed to PULP FICTION) is one such case. This original runs $75-$100, while the mass-printed regular one-sheet has remained at $25-35. The "Clockers" original one-sheet is another example. The poster design was a rip-off of the Saul Bass art used in the "Anatomy of a Murder" one-sheet. Mr. Bass was not pleased about this unauthorized use of his idea, despite the label of "tribute" that the poster artist later attached to it out of respect for Saul Bass. The original poster was thus withdrawn.

5. DISNEY DISNEY DISNEY DISNEY DISNEY! From the standpoint of investing, it is hard to overstate the signifance of Disney releases! This is the only company with numbered, limited quantity printings of their posters, on high quality paper. It is also the only company that STILL claims ownership of all its posters and demands that they be returned. Of course no one listens, and the odds are that Disney loves the associated collectibility.

While other posters premiere on the market at $15-20, Disney animation titles often jump to $40 within a week of their release, increasing steadily from there. Some recent crazy examples: "The Little Mermaid" advance one-sheet in rolled mint form now goes for over $200 and is simply not to be found; rolled advance "Beauty and the Beast" one-sheets average $120, while "Aladdin" advance posters are only a little less. Pocohontas crashed a bit, staying stable at $40, while "Lion King" and "Toy Story" are around $50. These are respectable returns for investments of five years or less. Most dealers already have waiting lists for "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", which has not been released yet!

Even some of Disney's non-animation releases have very limited issue posters. One recent example was "When a Man Loves a Woman", a Disney-backed feature for which posters were not easily found...

7. Foreign posters. While many one-sheets for current release films are printed massively here, many foreign countries still make their own posters for American films, with very different art, and print them in smaller numbers. For the classics the price of a foreign release poster will often (but not always) be less than the American originals, but in the case of newer titles the harder to find foreign posters are more valuable. Many American collectors still prefer not to buy a poster for an American film with a title and credits written in another language, despite the often superior art of the foreign posters, but this may well change as the world gets smaller and the American equivalents of such posters become less and less affordable to most collectors. In recent years the British and Australians have chosen to use the same art on American one-sheets for most titles, so they don't provide the art variety with the option of the English language anymore and are thus less exciting to the collector. The field of foreign posters is still a subject of debate, but their investment value has been proven in many cases.

And Finally, a Few Words on REPRINTS, REISSUES, and ANNIVERSARY posters...

The information above will be beneficial if you have an interest in investing in newer posters, but if you are attached to the great titles of yesteryear, and shocked to find that an original year "Wizard of Oz" or "Casablanca" averages $8000-12000, an original "Gone With the Wind" $4000-8000, an original"Singing in the Rain" $1000-1500, don't despair. Although a beautiful REPRINT is a useful way for decorating a dorm room or a home, to invest, you can still get original theatre posters for these films, by focusing on later RERELEASES (REISSUES) of these hard to get titles. The great films were often released once, twice, sometimes three times each decade, and with each rerelease, the price of the associated poster decreases. Yet rerelease posters can increase in value at the same rate as the original; there will always be demand for them among those who cannot afford an original. Rerelease posters often have different art, and some collectors (myself included) will seek out every rerelease poster for a favorite film, in order to have a complete set of the artwork associated with the film.

The limited issue ANNIVERSARY posters that come out for some of the classics are also good investment opportunities. In recent years limited issue collectible posters have come out for "My Fair Lady", "Lawrence of Arabia", "Spartacus", "Alien", "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "Midnight Cowboy", "Casablanca"- just to name a few. These posters are often of higher quality than the originals and have demonstrated a strong tendency to increase in value.

I hope this article will aid the beginning collector in making wise choices at the outset, after joining this incredible hobby. Movie poster collecting is exciting and aesthetically pleasurable, combining the best of the two worlds of art and nostalgia. Any further questions? Call 1-734 973 7303