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Did you know... that one-sheet posters were issued folded for many decades before studios began issuing them unfolded?

Return to Did You Know Archive
Added: 04/22/2013

We received the following question from a collector who only started collecting recently (but even if you are a long time collector you should still read our answer, because you may well find information you did not know!):

"I have a question about folded one-sheet posters. If a poster is folded, does that mean that it was never hung up in the light box at a movie theater? I can't imaging that they were using folded movie posters to advertise what was playing. And if I am right, then what did they use them for if not to advertise inside the theater light boxes?"

That's a good question! Studios did not begin issuing posters unfolded until the late 1970s (and even then, they weren't almost completely distributed unfolded until the very late 1980s when most theaters transitioned to using light boxes to display them). Why? I imagine it was surely because when theaters first began showing movies, they naturally wanted posters that corresponded to the films they were showing, so the film and posters usually traveled together from theater to theater.

This is because back then there were limited numbers of prints of each movie and movies were not released nationwide at the same time. Instead, major movies would open exclusively in a few large cities like New York and Los Angeles and after a long screening time there, they would next "go on the road", first to major theaters in other big cities, then to smaller theaters, and finally to bargain theaters that usually showed double bills. So many popular movies would often be in first release for a few YEARS!

During all that traveling from theater to theater of the actual reels of film, the posters for those movies also needed to move from theater to theater as well, so once the first theater was done showing a particular movie they folded up the posters for that movie and often put them into a pocket on the side of one of the reels, and send the reels and posters to the next movie theater! Often this was done via Greyhound bus, for in those days buses went from almost all towns to the next, at all hours of the day and night, so a theater could quickly pack up the film and posters after their last showing, put them on a bus, and the theater in the next town would have them in time for their first showing.

In big cities, posters were distributed to all the theaters from large poster exchanges, and the theater would send the film and posters back to the exchange after they were done with it (usually by a delivery boy or some such method) but the process still worked pretty much the same. When the posters would get worn out from being reused too many times, the exchange would substitute new examples of the posters.

That's a relatively short explanation of how the process worked. Sometimes theaters WOULD get some unfolded one-sheet posters, usually from lower budget productions, and very rarely from major studios, and sometimes they were sent without a vertical fold (and this is called tri-folded), but it is not clear why this was done.

It appears certain that in the late 1970s some theaters began requesting receipt of unfolded one-sheet posters (surely because they didn't like the foldlines!) and this was likely connected to the method of film distribution changing at that time, so that theaters could more easily get unfolded one-sheets, and by the late 1980s that eventually became how most one-sheets were distributed, with fewer and fewer theaters getting folded one-sheets.

Why are there ANY folded one-sheets from after 1990? There are likely two reasons for the folds. One is that there are likely a small number of theaters that still REQUEST to receive folded posters. Maybe it is a storage space issue or maybe they are theaters that have been around since the days of folded posters and they are just "used to them", but it seems certain that these are "machine folded" by the studios, because the folds are "too perfect". The other is that some theaters seem to receive them unfolded but then hand fold the posters AFTER use (probably because they can't bear to throw them away, but folding them makes them far easier to store).

BUT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO COME AWAY FROM THIS WITH IS THAT MACHINES FOLDS IN ALL PRE-1990 POSTERS IS NOT ANY SORT OF DEFECT (and the vast majority of them can only be found this way)!


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