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Publicity: From painting to poster

By Alicia Dietrich

Finished film poster for 'Kidnapped'
Finished film poster for 'Kidnapped'
The star system emerged around 1910 when film producers began noting the public’s preference for individual actors. People wanted to know who the “Biograph Girl” was (Florence Lawrence) and the real name of the girl with the golden curls they knew as “Little Mary” (Mary Pickford). They also wanted their photographs.

The studios quickly learned the value of controlling their own publicity. By establishing their own photography studios, they could create a consistent look for their stars that the public would associate with the studios themselves. They hired teams of publicists to control the dissemination of those images to newspapers and magazines, especially the all-important fan magazines. At one point there were more than 300 motion picture fan magazines in print.

These publicity departments planted stories with gossip columnists like Ed Sullivan, Hedda Hopper, and Louella Parsons and set up “publicity stunts” to attract attention. David O. Selznick’s head of publicity, Russell Birdwell, once flew the entire population of Zenda, Ontario, Canada to New York for the premiere of The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).

But perhaps most importantly, the publicity departments created movie posters and “campaign books” or “press kits.” Press kits were prepackaged sets of advertising layouts, film stills, plot synopses, star biographies, and other tools and ideas for use by the movie theaters to attract local attention to the movies they were playing. Press kits are still in use today, although they are now almost always delivered digitally.

Unfinished painting that served as basis for 'Kidnapped' poster.
Unfinished painting that served as basis for 'Kidnapped' poster.
Here you can see an unfinished painting by F. C. Madan that served as the basis for the poster design for the film Kidnapped (1938).

The finished poster is just one item from the “Publicity” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which opens tomorrow at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at