This is a guest post by Josie Walters-Johnston, Reference Librarian in the Moving Image Research Center.
The Moving Image Research Center (MIRC) is the point of access to over 1.2 million moving images held by the Library of Congress. These items include theatrical films, newsreels, television programs, education and industrial films, documentaries, television commercials, and much more. We are also the point of access to hundreds of archival boxes full of movie papers and manuscript materials meant to complement the study of the physical film and television titles in our collection.
This is the first in a series of blog posts that will highlight the various manuscript and paper materials available to researchers in the Moving Image Research Center.
Lobby cards, as their name implies, were usually located in the lobby of movie theaters. Sometimes they were hung in elaborate frames or displayed on an easel near the box office. As a form of direct marketing, lobby cards were meant to be seen and experienced up close. Distributed by the publicity departments of film studios and later by the publicity distribution giant National Screen Service, the lobby card was one of the many tools employed by theater managers to sell a studio’s film and to get people in the seats.
The first lobby cards appeared in the early twentieth century and resembled glorified b&w still images. The cards were printed on card stock-like paper using the rotogravure process. This process produced b&w, sepia, or brown toned images; color could be added to the images by hand or stencil. Lobby cards varied in size, but 11”x 14” eventually became the standard.
The images selected for use on the lobby cards were meant to provide spectators with a sense of the film’s plot. As film and printing technologies advanced, lobby cards became more artistic and grand in their design. By the 1920s, the majority of cards produced were printed using the photogelatin process which produced photograph-like images that were sharp and highly textured. This advance in technology allowed lobby card designers to select images that mirrored the tone and atmosphere of the film itself instead of just the plot. The creation of decorative borders, tinting, coloring, and lettering became the norm and enabled the publicity departments to capture and convey the emotionality of a selected scene.
Lobby cards were distributed to theaters in sets of eight. A complete set would include one title card and seven scene cards. The title card typically included the title of the film, the production company, the main actors, and sometimes, the director. Additional information such as a tag line, a line of dialog, copyright information, card set number (e.g. 4 of 8), and the distribution information could also be found on the lobby card. Although eight was considered the standard number in a lobby card set, some sets included as few as four and as many as sixteen.
The production of lobby cards ended in the late 1970s to early 1980s, however these cards remain a fantastic tool for investigating the history of advertising and marketing in the film industry.
In addition, lobby cards are considered by some to be an art form. Contemplating why a specific image or scene was chosen for lobby card use, examining the card stylings of a specific studio, or discussing the lobby card work of a specific artist elevates the medium to an artifact, which is one of the reasons why lobby cards are popular among film memorabilia collectors.
Our collection of lobby cards has been acquired through copyright deposit, purchase and gift donations. The majority of our cards are stored on-site in the Moving Image Research Center. These items can usually be retrieved within 24-48 hours advanced notice. Additional lobby cards, mostly from the silent era, are stored at the National Audiovisual Conservation Center in Culpeper, VA and require at least two weeks advanced notice to retrieve.
Locating the lobby cards involves consulting our Inventory to Archival Boxes and searching the Merged Audiovisual Information System (MAVIS) database. The Inventory to Archival Boxes is an active document that is continually updated as new items are received or as boxes are fully inventoried. MAVIS, on the other hand, can only be accessed in the Moving Image Research Center. We are happy to search MAVIS for you or, if you will be in the Washington, DC area, we can show you how to search MAVIS on your own. For more information about how to access and utilize the lobby cards in our collection, please contact the Moving Image Research Center at (202) 707-8572.