Thursday, March 30, 2017

Creating Desire: The Art of Selling Movies by John McElwee

Movie ads a "great lost art?" Well, why not? But one can't help but speculate on what goes into that everyday ads meant to entice the public  through times good and bad into movie theatres. Though McElwee touches on that, it's not really his main concern. Rather, his intent is considerably more panoramic, taking the reader  through some sixty years of movie making: from the early days of Hollywood, through the Depression, up to the 1960s. The ads run the gamut: whether silent films, the advent of talkies, pre-code films, technicolor, teen films, the drive-in movie craze, etc.. Since most of the images derive from press books, some are nothing more than minimalised posters while others are cartoon-like in nature or  simply photographs and text. It's a mixed bag artistically, sometimes gaudy, sometimes stunning, but always interesting, evocative and, in their own way, enticing. And, at least until the 1960s, almost exclusively in black and white. However, by the end of the 60s, newspapers, as McElwee points out, were unable to compete with TV and more up to date advertisements and media. Of course, in the digital age, those ads have pretty much been consigned to the dustbin of history, which only makes their retrieval all the more welcome.

Though other books have concentrated on film posters, I can't think of any that confine themselves to everyday newspaper images as McElwee's book does. That alone make the book as invaluable as it is fascinating. After all, for most, it wasn't the colourful posters encased in the lobby of movie theatres that attracted the public, so much as the  black and white ads that they perused over their breakfast cereal. And films weren't the only thing being sold in those ads, but local businesses seeking to capitalize on what had become, for many years, the country's favorite pastime. I only wish McElwee had gone into a bit more detail about the politics behind the ads, as well as the techniques deployed in the ads to entice potential viewers. Though there are hints, as in the disclaimer by one movie house regarding Chaplin's Limelight, the theatre making it clear they tempting providence, or patting themselves on the back for being "controversial"- judged correctly, a potentially good selling point: "We realize he has been the subject of much controversy. We do not presume to judge his moral or his politics. However, we do recognize his genius." Clearly, there are various ways to sell a film, but the bottom is creating desire. If nothing else, McElwee's book should be commended for its historical value and approach. The details of which will no doubt be the subject of someone else's analytical skills.

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