Publicity and Promotion


The film industry did not advertise its movies directly to the general public until around 1913, late for a large, consumer-oriented industry. When films first emerged as novelties in the late nineteenth century, pioneering companies like Edison, Biograph, Lumière and Pathé were initially more interested in selling machines. Their movies were not advertised to the public but listed in catalogs that described content and listed price. Exhibitors devised their own promotions and stunts, some of which—like contests and giveaways—influenced the studio publicity that followed.

The emergence of the nickelodeon around 1905 fundamentally changed the film industry and its advertising strategies. As the number of these first cheap movie theaters exploded during the nickelodeon boom (1905–1907), exhibitors started advertising to fight off competition, whereas producers battled alleged patent infringement in court to force competitors out of business. Exhibitors draped homemade posters outside their theater facades, hired barkers to shout about their program, distributed homemade flyers, and borrowed publicity stunts from the likes of P. T. Barnum (1810–1891). They did not, however, advertise in the press, largely because it was too expensive.

From about 1908, exhibitors produced their own weekly or monthly bulletins, listing forthcoming attractions, providing information about their theaters, films, and promotions, alongside local news and local advertisements. The film-related content of these bulletins increased between 1905 and 1913, focusing more on plots, sets, performers, and the inner workings of studios. From around 1910, these materials came directly from trade papers such as The Moving Picture World or from studio publications such as the Essanay News , which increasingly offered audience-friendly information about movies, actors, and forthcoming productions. Some studio bulletins even contained pages that could be cut out and used as posters. By 1914, the public could purchase these periodicals at theaters, a development emphasizing the studios' greater interest in promoting their films and actors to the general public. These studio publications and distributor magazines such as Mutual's Reel Life became more and more like the fan magazines and the pressbooks used to coordinate the publicity of a single film.

By 1913, major changes in film publicity were underway. That year, two relatively new but important companies, Mutual and Universal, formed advertising departments staffed with major New York executives to promote their films directly to the public for the first time. The November 1913 full-page advertisement for Mutual's serial, Our Mutual Girl (1914), in the Saturday Evening Post (circulation, over two million) was the first of its kind to be targeted toward the American public. Both companies set up poster departments and commissioned artists create in-house styles that would distinguish their releases from those of other companies—something later emulated by Hollywood studios. These early advertising and poster departments established practices that continued into the classical era: they supplied theaters with posters, provided them with tie-ins, and offered suggestions for motion picture exploitation (stunts, theater decoration, contests, and the like). Other major studios quickly followed suit: in 1915, MGM hired famous illustrators for their newly-formed poster department and that same year Paramount opened its exploitation department, offering posters, lobby cards, displays, tie-ins, and ideas for stunts. Although stunts appeared spontaneous and novel, they were often studio-designed. Studios encouraged exhibitors to organize beauty contests, competitions, parades, and so forth to support their films, which turned the lobby where audiences waited between shows into one of the most important promotional spaces.

Newspaper and magazine advertising—again pioneered by Mutual and Universal—also started in 1913, winning over a medium that had previously regarded movies with hostility. From then on, press advertising was a vital component of any film's publicity campaign. Studios provided newspapers with press releases and carefully-drafted promotional stories about their stars and new releases. In turn, major press syndicates like Hearst or the Tribune Company started working with the studios, even collaborating with them to produce serial films like The Perils of Pauline (1914), and reprinting their stories each week. In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood established a similarly close relationship with radio. Stations promoted films by playing their theme songs and presenting abridged movies or full scenes from current releases (sometimes featuring the original actors) on shows like Lux Radio Theater (NBC, 1934–1935; CBS, 1935–1955; sponsored by the soap manufacturer) and Cavalcade of Stars (DuMont, 1949–1952). Besides reorienting the address of film publicity towards the public, these advertising strategies helped improve cinema's cultural standing. Newspapers no longer attacked the film industry but promoted its stars, studios, and new releases. This transformation cemented the industry's new, clean, middle-class image, which its publicity departments strenuously fought to maintain through the classical era. This required constant work, with studios investing most of their resources in controlling the information disseminated about their stars, creative personnel, and the production process.

Advertising for each individual film was another important component of studio publicity. Each film's ad campaign was distilled into a pressbook, which was sent out to exhibitors with the film itself. Pressbooks first appeared in 1913 for George Kleine's imported Italian feature Quo Vadis? (1912) and were quickly used for all movies, no matter how small their budgets. Everything an exhibitor needed to advertise the film was either in the pressbook or available through it for a small cost (colored posters and cardboard displays cost extra). Throughout the classical period, the pressbook was twelve to thirty pages long, filled with fake newspaper stories, photos, fashion displays, ideas for stunts, and free black and white posters. Newspapers also received pressbooks and were encouraged to reprint their featured articles, stories, reviews and photographs.

Pressbooks listed all the available tie-ins for each film. These were (and are) merchandise related in some way to the film—often branded goods, toys, copies of clothes seen in the film, sheet music, soundtrack recordings—or items only tenuously related to it, such as perfume. Serials presented some of the first opportunities for tie-ins, with magazines, dress patterns, cosmetics, and dolls among the most popular. Tie-ins soon took a variety of forms, from copies of designer gowns to soda cups, all designed to help bring the consumer closer to a favorite film or to preserve the movie experience. Essentially glorified advertisements, these goods capitalized on cinema's intimate appeal to the public, the attraction of its stars as role models, the screen's resemblance to the shop window, and the glamour of Hollywood.

Tie-ins proliferate today. Some of the most popular and long-lived products include Shirley Temple and Gone with the Wind dolls and Max Factor cosmetics, which have been in constant production since the 1930s. Most have been aimed at women and children, although some tie-ins target men, such as the branded merchandise associated with sports films and westerns. Fashion offered particularly lucrative tie-in possibilities: throughout the 1930s, Macy's carried studio-approved replicas of movie star gowns that capitalized on viewers' identification with films and their stars. Film companies submitted sketches to garment manufacturers as far as a year ahead of a picture's release to ensure hats and dresses would be in stores when their movies premiered (see Eckert). This practice seemingly violated the film industry's own Advertising Code, which limited advertising in pictures, indicating that movies were not seen as ads for these gowns. Bloomingdale's recently revived this trend, presenting window displays in the company's flagship New York store on 59th Street and Lexington Avenue for Moulin Rouge (2001), Down With Love (2003) and The Phantom of the Opera (2004). These were not copies of clothes from the films but were instead everyday items "inspired" by their stylized looks.

Film trailers also appeared very early on—around 1912—although they did not become standard for several years. More than any other publicity device, trailers responded to changes in film length and budget: they were not appropriate for short films that only played for a single day. For both serials and feature films, trailers were used to create anticipation and stimulate advance ticket sales. Trailers gradually became longer in the post-classical period when fewer films were produced and the double bill became a thing of the past. Classical-era trailers generally consisted of a male voice-over narrating clips from the film, with on-screen text superimposed over the image using hard-sell tag-lines and superlatives to sell the picture. These trailers generally relied more on the voice-over than on the visuals from the film.

By the 1950s, trailers primarily showcased footage from each film, although voice-overs remained. In keeping with the post-classical mandate requiring films to be individually marketed, trailers focused on the unique qualities of each film, which encouraged experimentation. By the 1960s, some trailers were highly stylized, emphasizing mood over story. For example, the ad executive Stephen O. Frankfurt's trailer for Rosemary's Baby (1968) bypassed the film's plot, featuring a silhouette of a baby carriage, accompanied by eerie crying and the tag line: "Pray for Rosemary's Baby." The trailer for Real Life (Albert Brooks, 1979) featured no footage from the film but instead used an ersatz 3-D comic vignette of its director-star directly addressing the audience about the realism of his forthcoming film. By the 1980s, this kind of experimentation was on the wane with trailers again emphasizing stars, action, and narrative. Since then, some trailers have even revealed the film's twist, as with What Lies Beneath (2000), which showed that Harrison Ford's character was the villain—something ad execs justified as the film's unique selling point.

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