Tomorrows, author Bruce L. Wright provides a witty and entertaining look at
the golden age of science fiction movies and posters. The book features seventy-five
full-color reproductions of classic and highly collectible science fiction posters, as
well as classic stills and lobby cards, and a profile covering each film including
production details and information concerning how the movies were marketed and received by
the public. In the following book excerpt, Wright discusses the joys of collecting science
fiction movie posters.
The Golden Age of Science Fiction Movie Posters
Movie posters are among the most sought-after of all collectors' items,
and science fiction films from the period 1950-64 constitute one of the hottest categories
in movie poster collecting. Many people feel that science fiction posters of this era are
the last truly interesting vintage movie posters.
The 1920s and '30s were golden years for movie posters, as they were for
American illustration in general. Most of the major studios printed their own posters,
usually in richly colored stone- or zinc-plate lithography, and the best work of studio
art departments was fully equal to that of contemporary giants of illustration such as
Maxfield Parrish and Franklin Booth. By the 1940s, however, American movie posters had
entered what historians Stephen Rebello and Richard Allen have termed a decade of
marked aesthetic decline. Lush and imaginative painting was gradually supplanted by
photo montage and dully executed art. During the same period, the expensive and
painstaking stone-lithography technique was replaced by faster and cheaper offset
printing, which generally failed to reproduce the rich tones of the earlier process.
The 1950s science fiction boom, however, produced posters in marked
contrast to the generally drab look of those for serious film. Most '50s SF
movies were exploitation vehicles targeted at teenagers; they were not, to say the least,
regarded as important by film studios. Moreover, it was a common practice among
bargain-basement studios (particularly American International Pictures) to use poster art
to help sell movies to distributors. This required poster artists to produce paintings
well in advance often before the film was actually made. Such conditions made for
posters that usually have little to do with the film they're selling, but also gave the
artists freedom to devise eye-catching and imaginative works. Its artistic merits may
vary, but at least 1950s SF poster art gives you the distinct impression that the artists
had fun producing it.
Poster Market Trends
Since the mid-1980s, the science fiction poster market has quite literally
exploded, both in the number of active collectors and the prices commanded by key titles.
What was once a fairly relaxed hobby has now taken on something of the atmosphere of the
Chicago commodities exchange (not that I'm bitter).
In retrospect, however, it's clear it was bound to happen, for several reasons.
First, public interest in science fiction of all sorts has risen
enormously in the fifteen years since Star Wars forever changed the pop-culture landscape.
There aren't any census figures on SF fans, but judging from the way the hobby has evolved
in the last decade or so, it seems certain that the number of serious collectors has
doubled or tripled. Those of us who remember the halcyon days when The Beast From
20,000 Fathoms (available on VHS)
one-sheets changed hands for $20 and a hearty handshake, are understandably upset about
the jostling hordes of new collectors with whom we now have to compete. A more
philosophical attitude is that our taste has been confirmed; our hobby has arrived
which is little enough comfort when you're confronting sticker shock over a
thirty-five-year-old piece of paper.
Second, these crowds of collectors are competing for truly rare items.
Movie posters, unlike comics, toys, baseball cards, and other high-dollar pop
collectibles, were never produced for the public in large quantities. Golden-Age comic
books, for instance, were produced in runs of up to a million per issue; by contrast,
press runs for 1950s one-sheets rarely exceeded 5,000 or so. Other sizes were made in even
smaller press runs.
Moreover, these posters were not sold to the public. On the contrary,
theaters typically returned posters to the National Screen Service for credit against
future posters; NSS, in turn, recycled these posters to other theaters, often until they
fell apart from constant handling. (Posters that weren't returned were supposed to be
destroyed by the theaters, although this rule was about as strictly enforced as the
do-not-remove notices on mattress tags.) Granted that comics, posters, and other
collectibles all have fallen prey over the decades to neglect, greasy fingers, rough
handling, and paper drives, vintage posters began from a far smaller base of copies in
Finally, in the last few years, the science fiction poster market has
become of interest to speculators who are aware of the above facts. I'm not using the word
speculator in a pejorative sense (although many long-time collectors do); I
simply mean that some persons pursuing and buying the finest SF posters are doing so in
the expectation of making an eventual profit, not out of any particular love for the
posters or the genre. At least part of the tremendous rise in the value of the top posters
is due to such speculation. The major speculators have filled the pages of Movie
Collector's World with increasingly hysterical-sounding advertisements boasting of
the wheelbarrows full of money they'll spend on your posters (never as much as you would
make by selling them on your own, by the way).
The speculators have arrived for one reason they believe that, in
view of their limited quantities, their historical and esthetic significance and their
popularity, the best 1950s SF posters are significantly undervalued. The most expensive
comic book sells for about $100,000; the most valuable baseball card also takes six
figures. By contrast, as of mid-1992, none of the posters in this book sells for more than
about $5,000 or about one-tenth of the price of a really crummy Andy Warhol
lithograph, to look at it another way.
Auctions and the Market
A related factor that affects pricing is the advent of
major poster auctions. Auctions have been around for awhile, but the 1990 entry of the
international auction house Christie's into the poster market in particular helped to
attract the attention of wealthy speculators and collectors of typically hyperinflated
1980s art, such as those crummy Warhols I just mentioned.
To people with the ability and the desire to shed hundreds of thousands of
dollars on decor, a few thousand for a cheery robot poster is no big deal, particularly
not if they expect it to appreciate. (I should note that most posters included in major
auctions tend to be classics of the 1920s through 1940s, but representative examples of
the best 1950s SF posters are nearly always featured.) The result is that prices in
auctions tend to be significantly higher than in other settings, such as collectible shows
or collector-to-collector sales.
Of course, relatively few posters change hands in these auctions, and
relatively few collectors participate in them. Nonetheless, auction prices are important,
for a simple reason: they serve as a benchmark for the rest of the hobby. It's human
nature to accept the highest price you've ever heard for an item as its true value, if you
already happen to own that particular item.
In fall 1991, for instance, I knew of several Invasion of the
Saucer-Men (available on VHS)
one-sheets for sale in the neighborhood of $1,000 to $1,200. In the December 1991
Christie's auction, however, a Saucer-Men one-sheet sold for about $2,000. For a few
months, MCW and The Big Reel carried no paper for sale on this title; you could almost
feel the market holding its collective breath. Then, in early 1992, I began seeing
Saucer-Men one-sheets offered for sale once again at its new official
price of $2,000 or more.
To sum up in country-simple language, there are probably more persons
searching for the best 1950s science fiction posters than there are copies of these
posters in existence. That's the recipe for today's market, in which a poster selling for
$600 in January may well go for $1,200 in July.
And whither poster prices? Don't I wish I knew. Will prices continue to
soar until each bug-eyed monster commands the sort of money currently associated with
Rembrandt etchings? Or will people one day decide that The Day the Earth Stood Still
isn't worth as much as a Hyundai? A lot of long-time collectors (like me, for instance)
have devoutly wished for such an event, in dreamier moments, but it smacks of wishful
thinking. There has to be a plateau out there, somewhere, but there's little evidence that
we've found it yet. And most collectors will agree that, each time we've thought a piece
has gone as high as it could possibly go, it's promptly gone higher.
Forbidden Planet is a good example. There was a slightly tattered
specimen of the one-sheet priced at $450 in a Houston collectors' shop for years in the
mid-1980s. My friends and I often chuckled over the dealer's optimism; what blockhead
would pay that much? Many collectors were astonished when Forbidden Planet
climbed into the vicinity of $600 six years ago; shocked when it broke $1,000, about four
years ago; truly discombobulated as it hopped, skipped, and jumped to $3,000 to $4,000 by
late 1991; and now, with reports of a 1992 auction price of $6,050, there's just no words
for how collectors feel if they don't have it yet.
(Forbidden Planet is available on VHS and DVD)
Hundreds of original sci-fi film posters at GoCollect.com:
Yesterday's Tomorrows is printed by Taylor Publishing Company. It
is out of print, but used copies are available online at Amazon.com, check price for Yesterday's Tomorrows. A
special thank you to Taylor Publishing for permission to share this book excerpt.with our
Attack of the 'B' Movie Posters
(The Illustrated History of Movies Through Posters Series Vol. 14)