Ballyhoo: The Art of Selling the Movies

Posted by on Apr 17 2012 | Exhibitions, Motion Pictures

Street hawkers "selling" Huckleberry Finn outside the Coronado Theatre in 1931.

Dazzling marquees, large cut-outs of stars, eye-catching posters greeting passersby, street hawkers, parades, and star appearances (or look-alike contests) — just a few ways Hollywood studios encouraged movie-theater owners to create a buzz in towns and cities to “sell” movies during the Golden Age of cinema.

Ballyhoo: The Art of Selling the Movies, an exhibition on view now at George Eastman House, highlights the innovative lobby displays, outdoor advertising, and merchant tie-ins that were a hallmark of film exhibition during the era of the corporate studio system, which was at its peak between 1925 and 1950. The featured images are drawn primarily from the publicity stills and photographs collected by Ray Rueby Sr., and the studio publicity departments of Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

During the 25 years that are the focus of this exhibition, studios devised bigger, brassier, and glitzier productions to entice patrons facing the Great Depression and a world war.  The publicity efforts that accompanied the films are, in this exhibition, the star of the show.

Attention-grabbing signs for "Private Hargrove" at the Astor Theatre in 1944.

The motion picture industry was considered a wild and uncertain concern in its first two decades. By the early 1920s, as smaller concerns merged into fewer and larger corporations, the industry became stable enough to be considered a legitimate business by Wall Street investors. During these formative years, motion picture studios created a system of vertical integration that allowed them to control every aspect of the business — production, distribution, and exhibition. Corporate ownership of movie theatres and block booking ensured regular exhibition throughout the country.

“We sell tickets to theaters, not movies.”

- Marcus Loew, Loew’s Inc. (1920s)

Studios also provided pre-packaged publicity campaigns to their theatre chains to help fill theater seats in a highly competitive market. Much of the publicity was carried out at the site of exhibition, the theaters themselves.  In the age of the “movie palace,” theaters could be alluring structures in their own right, but exhibitors continually refashioned their facades and lobbies to attract audiences week after week.

Theater managers adapted the studios’ strategies — provided to them in the form of pressbooks — to their own venues. Theater managers worked with local merchants on cooperative campaigns (tie-ins) to advertise films in shop windows, stage contests and giveaways, and display merchandise from stores in theatre lobbies. Upon entering the lobby itself, moviegoers encountered creative displays embellished with movie stills and even three-dimensional recreations of movie settings.

Ballyhoo is part of the See: Untold Stories exhibition, which showcases the Eastman House collections, on view through Sept. 16, 2012.

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    Nancy Kauffman is the Archivist for the Stills, Posters and Paper Collections in the Moving Image Department.

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