Recently, we asked Ed Poole of LearnAboutMoviePosters.com about the seemingly growing trend of “Character Posters” and how long they’ve been around. We mean, of course, the trend of releasing multiple posters at the same time with a different character on each one. You can see countless recent examples of these including The Hobbit, The Avengers, and even the Peanuts movie.
Mr. Poole was kind enough to answer and his response was so perfect, we want to share the whole thing with you:
All the way back to the early days of cinema, studios created posters on individuals, but their intent was to build up the STAR more than the character. They called them Personality Posters. Here is a sample for you of Mary Pickford issued as a half sheet in 1919.
While they may be dressed as a particular character, the studio was promoting Mary Pickford. They would be hung in the theater and reused whenever the theater presented another Mary Pickford film.
The earliest I have on file is a 1916 personality poster of Theda Bara. Remember, they only started putting the movie title on posters in the U.S. around 1910.
Personality posters were widely used by the studios all through the 1930s and 1940s. You could see just about any MAJOR star in a Personality Poster. You can even find where artist would produce series of artist renditions of all the major celebrities. And most studios released these around the half sheet size or sometimes a little smaller.
Most of the time, they would leave off the name of the particular film, but not always… Here is an example of John Barrymore in the 1928 film, Tempest.
Personality posters were also extremely common in other countries, especially France and Italy. The studios used them quite often for major releases.
The first venture into what might be considered character posters would only use smaller sized posters and NOT full size.
For example, in 1950, a set of door panels were issued for the film All About Eve. These measured 20×60 and would be used on doors (hence the name door panels).
This stayed pretty much the same through WWII and into the 1960s. At that time, you began to see a few posters sold commercially. In the late 1960s, the star system fell apart. In the 1970s, there was a HUGE rise of commercial versions of character posters, especially after Star Trek and Star Wars.
Licensed commercial posters became another way for the studios to both promoting their celebrity and film while making additional side money. Here is an example of the commercial version of a personality poster of Farrah Fawcett as Holly in Logan’s Run.
Then, as you know, Star Wars blew the marketing lid off commercial posters of the individual stars, with literally HUNDREDS of different commercial posters.
If your initial question was only concerning theater issued movie posters for individual celebrities issued with the release of that particular film, the 1961 Italian release of the film King of Kings had 7 character posters issued, but they were actually part of a set of 12 double photo busts, each measuring 26×38, so this may not count.
The earliest that I have on file as a set is in the U.K. in 1966, for the film Grand Prix. While the main poster issued was a British quad (30×40), they issued 5 character posters in the size of double crowns (20×30).
Notice that these are still HALF the size of the regular issue. Commercial posters would continue to dominate this market and it would be the 1990s before we have any full-size character posters the same size as the regular issue on file. By that time, numerous films started using what is currently considered character posters, such as Space Jam and Batman.
By the 2000s, it was the rage of any blockbuster film, like Lord of the Rings, and it seems like major films continue to expand the number of character posters issued. In line with that, the new Suicide Squad movie has 11 (ELEVEN) character posters.
A huge thank you to Ed Poole for his answer and information. He also supplied all the images except for the ones involving the Suicide Squad. Ed and his wife Susan are film accessory researchers that are well-versed in collecting, preserving, and documenting all things film-related such as stills and posters. They’ve written many books, have organized a wonderful movie poster database and developed a members only movie stills research site. You can find more about them here and their film accessory research network at LearnAboutMoviePosters.com