Feb 23, 2017

Book Review--The Art of Selling Movies

The Art of Selling Movies
John McElwee
GoodKnight Books, 2017

In the early years of cinema, movie theater owners in cities and towns across the USA found that drawing crowds was just as much an art as the film itself. Before radio ads and TV commercials, pen and ink advertisements in print media were the primary tool for attracting an audience to the latest release. In The Art of Selling Movies, Greenbriar Picture show blogger, author, and film historian John McElwee shares sixty years of ads and the history behind them.

Many of the ads are from McElwee's own collection, the result of an obsession that started in childhood. The images are beautifully restored, reportedly due to new technology which enabled the full restoration of details. This is important, because seeing all the elements, from the fine points of faces, to the tiny print of sensational ad copy, to the delicate background patterns and dramatic fonts, is key to appreciating this form that McElwee calls a "folk art".

The preface and introduction to the book are kind of rough going, both could have used a good edit, which is a shame, because they offer fascinating information about the history and evolution of newspaper movie ads. The rest of the book is all advertisements and other promotional images, with shorter, and more comprehensible blurbs that share a remarkable amount of information given their brevity.

The ads presented cover the heyday of newspaper film advertising, from the silents to the early sixties, when television took over shilling for cinemas. Seen all together, this is a fascinating document of changing times, covering jaunty silents, racy pre-codes, and the dark film noir of post-World War II, all the way to the swinging sixties. You see how much has changed in those years, but also how similarly the methods of sex and sensation are used across decades.

McElwee shares interesting tidbits about the way ads were used in various decades and even how they were made. He describes circuit artists creating remarkably detailed work for small town theater owners, who would use their own creativity to make ads memorable and impossible to resist. There were tricks of the trade, like arranging the most important image in the top right or center of the ad and always making sure actors were portrayed looking into the ad, as a gaze towards the edges could take a reader's attention along with it.

For the most part the book is easy on the eyes, with varied layouts and clean lines. Some pages can get a little crowded, with too many ads competing for attention, but for the most part this is a pleasing visual presentation.

I thought this was a great education in early print film advertising. It was mesmerizing to examine all the details in these ads which were created with care, only to be discarded a week later. Thank heaven there are historians like McElwee who cared enough to preserve this interesting bit of film history.

Many thanks to GoodKnight Books for providing a copy of the book for review.


  1. Hi, I'm considering buying this book, but I'm curious about the introduction. Your review says the intro is "rough going" - what did you mean? How long is the intro, and is it a good survey of the history of movie ads? Thanks very much.

  2. Hi Matthew. I found the intro. to be very awkwardly written and kind of difficult to get through because it essentially didn't have any flow. That said, the information was solid. If you are interested in the history of movie ads as created by individual theater owners, I wouldn't let that turn you away. I consider it more of a disappointment than a deterrent. It is well researched and once you get to the meat of the book, enjoyable to examine as well.