The Magic of Movie Posters

“Movies unfold over time and can take hours to communicate a story or effect an emotional reaction. Movie posters have to do this in just moments, as we catch a glimpse in passing,” says Matthew Bird, a faculty member at Rhode Island School of Design. “When they work best, they become invisible, leaving only the desire to buy a ticket.”

Much has been made of the romance of film as a medium. But movie posters hold a magic of their own, an art form at once both pure and commercial, timely and timeless. A new book, Cinema on Paper: The Graphic Genius of Movie Posters (Assouline, 2019), explores this form through more than 100 works from one of the most significant private collections of film posters in the world. “Movie posters are a special breed of graphic design. They capture and retain the memory of a film. They crystallize on paper in shorthand an overall conception of what is fleshed out on the big screen,” the book’s introduction states. “What the best posters do is connect fans to a rich storehouse of intimate and universally shared experiences.”

Dwight Cleveland began collecting film posters in 1977, when he was still in high school. Traveling the world hunting down rare film art, he eventually amassed the world’s largest archive, representing more than 100 years of film history. The posters selected for this book span genres from the turn of the 20th century to the early 2000s: comedies, musicals, Westerns, and sci-fi thrillers, as well as foreign films and cult classics. In some instances, Hollywood- and foreign-produced posters are shown side-by-side to illustrate cultural differences in viewpoints. The volume features a foreword by Ben Mankiewicz, the prime time host of Turner Classic Movies, and an introduction by Steven Heller, co-chair of the SVA MFA Design program, with quotes from graphic designers, movie directors, and more interspersed throughout.

A lovingly compiled addition to any contemporary art library, Cinema on Paper celebrates film posters not only as works of graphic art, but also as cultural time capsules that reflect design trends and popular culture. As Martin Scorsese is quoted as saying in the book, “Posters carry the DNA of their era. You’re confronted with an image that is speaking directly of, and from, its time. And it’s often speaking beautifully and gracefully, because that’s the visual language of movie posters at their best.”