Monday, February 18, 2013

Film Advertising in Early Cinema: Part 1

This is the first part of an article from the March 1917 issue of Moving Picture World that provides an insightful and sometimes humorous look into the early years of movie advertising. In today's age of multi-million dollar movie ad budgets and sophisticated social media campaigns, it's a fascinating first-hand account of the relatively simple origins of what has become a very complex discipline.

Due to the article's length, I'll be dividing it into three parts for this week. My own comments and context of the article are in bold.

What did you think of the article? Let me know in the comments.

TEN YEARS OF FlLM ADVERTISING by Epes Winthrop Sargent

APPROXIMATELY ninety five per cent, of the history of film advertising has been written in the past ten years (1907-1917) and more than fifty per cent, of the whole in the past five. Although it is twenty years since the motion picture was brought forward as a public entertainment, it is only within the past five years that the pictures have been handled as an amusement proposition should be.

The first movie poster ever made is believed to be an 1890 French lithograph printed by renowned illustrator Jules Cheret to promote the short film program"Projections Artistiques." Early film posters were merely stated the film's name and showtimes, with the imagery focusing on the live theatrical acts which made up most of an evening's bills.

First Movie Poster Ever - Louis Lumiere's L'arroseur Arrosé from 1895
Poster for the 1895 film L'arroseur Arrosé
The first known poster to promote a stand-alone movie was for 1895's L'arroseur Arrosé, also considered cinema's first comedy. Shot by early cinema pioneer Louis Lumiere,  it is also the first poster to depict an actual scene from a film.

Looking at the final film below, it's clear that despite its crudeness by today's standards, at least the poster is accurate as to what viewers would actually see, unlike some of today's misleading film posters and ad campaigns.

L'arroseur Arrosé (1895)

Film Advertising falls naturally into two parts, advertising to the exhibitor on the part of the manufacturer of film and the exhibitor's efforts to reach an enlarged public. The manufacturer was the first to perceive the value of printer's ink in its various forms.

Back in 1896 little or no advertising was done on behalf of the film. Later the Clipper, then the chief organ of the exhibitor of amusements, was used as a medium, and this was followed by direct appeal to the exhibitor through circulars or bulletins. It was all limited in scope and, for the greater part, rather amateurish. At the start there was not much to be advertised, to tell the truth. Production was comparatively small and decidedly irregular.

The adoption of the release by dates helped somewhat to regulate advertising on the part of manufacturers, but there seemed to be small need for great endeavors. There was a demand greater than the supply, sales were good and intensive methods were not yet needed. The condition was much the same as that which confronts the pioneer farmer working the virgin soil. The rudest sort of cultivation brought rich returns.

But these returns were too great to escape the observation of the speculator. Companies multiplied and in proportionately larger ratio than the demand increased. More advertising had to be done to sell the same amount of film, but this advertising was largely written by someone untrained to the work and much of it was crude, though better than nothing.  

Even so late as 1909 things were dormant. The manufacturer used the trade mediums, he got out a more or less ornate bulletin, but there he stopped. He did not even realize that there was another and more productive form of advertising which has come to be known as "service."

With the formation of the Motion Picture Patents Company, which controlled nearly the entire output of film, there was adopted a rule that no manufacturer should give to the exchange or exhibitor any advertising matter of any description.

Most of the units of the company went further than this and even where exhibitors were willing to pay for cuts of scenes or for still pictures from which cuts might be made, the request was looked upon as a nuisance and this service denied.  It was not until 1910 or 1911 that the Edison company began to seek to accommodate the live wires with cuts, generally electros of the cuts in their publication.

But one concession was made in that in 1909 arrangements were effected whereby the A. B. C. Company, of Cleveland, got out a one sheet for each release. This paper cost fifteen cents a sheet, but even at that it represented a considerable loss to the companies since a certain edition had to be purchased outright, the stuff being sold to the exchanges or exhibitors on behalf of the manufacturer.

It was not until the advent of the multiple reel that this advertising through service really began. Here was something that could be advertised to advantage. It paid the maker to have his release boomed by the exhibitor, and there began the change that reached its climax in the present national advertising on the part of the manufacturer.

Just how valuable this national advertising is to manufacturer and exhibitor is more or less a matter of personal opinion, though it would seem that the return is more general than specific. It has helped, however, to break down the barrier of the business office and to give the films their proper place in the reading pages.

Ten years ago few papers mentioned the pictures, though  there were a few which made a practice of writing up the pictures and then holding up some company for payment. Seven or eight years ago, for example, a New York paper sent around a page story and asked a certain company a four figure sum for its insertion.

This arguably reflects the perception of the media and upper classes in the early 20th century of films as a lowly undesirable diversion. Many theatre actors who performed in early films did it solely for the money and felt that the work was far beneath their abilities.These methods do not obtain today to any marked degree. Public interest in the pictures is too great to permit them to be ignored, and the house advertising satisfies the hungriest business office, but the manufacturer contributes indirectly to this work a greater sum weekly than he was occasionally asked to pay some paper. Also he gets more for it.


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