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Inside the Archival Box: Press Books

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A “showmanship manual” for Knock on Wood (1954), starring Danny Kaye and Mai Zetterling. Press books were called different names by different film companies, but the content and intent were essentially the same no matter what these kits were called. Box C-007, Moving Image Section.

As Librarian-in-Residence in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division, I have engaged in a lot of exploration of the Division’s collections. Among the many film and television treasures in the Moving Image Section are manuscript materials too—paper materials we have received as part of collections and items that were donated, purchased, and otherwise acquired throughout the years. In these manuscript materials are scripts, press books, tie-in books, scrapbooks, lobby cards, publicity notebooks, style guides, continuities, and so much more. Last year, we shared a post written by Moving Image Reference Librarian Josie Walters-Johnston about lobby cards, promotional images that were featured in—you guessed it—the lobbies of movie theaters to entice potential movie-goers. Today we feature another fascinating aspect of film advertising—press books.

Imagine you’re the owner of a movie theater in the 1950’s. You’re showing a new picture in the coming weeks. How do you get the word out and get people to come see the film?

You advertise, of course! But you don’t know much about creating eye-catching newspaper ads or lobby displays that will entice viewers and draw big crowds.

That’s where press books come in.

“Sell Audrey Hepburn”- A page from the press book for Secret People (1952), starring Valentina Cortesa, Serge Reggiani, and Audrey Hepburn in her first major film role. Box C-007, Moving Image Section.

Beyond information about the film, such as plot summaries and information about the cast and crew, press books featured ready-made articles and advertisements for movie theaters to send to their local papers—all they had to do was plug in their own theater information and showtimes. These ready-made advertising features often included promotional stills and posters that theater managers could order, as well as ideas for interactive advertising campaigns such as write-in or lobby contests, crossword puzzles, and coloring pages. Exploitation, as these suggestions were called, was designed to sell various aspects of the film in order draw crowds to the movie theaters, and often included highlighting the stars of the film. In the press book for Secret People (1952), for example, one of the exploitation suggestions is titled, “Sell Audrey Hepburn.” A rising star due to success on Broadway, Hepburn was a newcomer to film at the time—Secret People was her first major film role—and so the press book suggested drawing attention to the novelty and talent of this glamorous new actress, capitalizing on her growing popularity. Aside from making the job of promoting a film easier for movie theater managers, press books also allowed movie studios to control the words and images that were used to advertise their films. Press books could be a source of revenue for movie studios as well, as many of the stills and advertisements in the press books had to be purchased for use by movie theaters.

Press copy from the press book for Asphalt Jungle, starring Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, and Jean Hagen, as well as Marilyn Monroe in one of her first film roles. Box C-007, Moving Image Section.

Press books are fascinating cultural artifacts. They’re not only interesting as advertising material and as mementos of the trends and values of the eras in which they were produced, but they also often contained information and anecdotes about the production of the films that couldn’t be found anywhere else.

In a press kit for a joint release of Gunga Din (1939) and The Lost Patrol (1934), a sample newspaper article about the double feature tells the story of the “most unusual insurance check ever received by a studio as compensation for an accident to film players on location” after two of the elephants in Gunga Din were sunburned. The article reads:

“The seared epidermis on the beasts occurred when a summer heat spell descended upon the film company while filming scenes in the High Sierras near Lone Pine, California. Veterinarians were called in to attend the pachyderms, a claim for medical attention was filed and the studio received a settlement check for $20. Doctoring an elephant for sunburn follows much the same general treatment as for humans, except that there is more of it.” (Gunga Din and The Lost Patrol press book, Box C-007, Moving Image Section.)

Sample TV and radio announcements with a coloring page for kids in the press book for Gorilla at Large (1954), starring Cameron Mitchell and Anne Bancroft. Box C-007, Moving Image Section.

Other typical press copy included stills of scenes from the film with captions about where the film would be showing, biographical information about the stars, writers, and directors, and canned reviews from critics. Radio and television were also often part of the advertisement campaign laid out in press books: sample announcements for television and radio spots appear next to a coloring page in the press kit for Gorilla at Large (1954), pictured at right.

Edward L. Bernays, considered the “father of public relations,” is credited with creating the first press book. Hired to mount a promotional campaign for the 1917 film Cleopatra starring Theda Bara, Bernays created small advertisements along with a large press sheet for newspaper editors that was double the size of a daily paper. As he describes in his memoir, Biography of an Idea (Simon and Schuster, 1965), this press sheet featured stories and illustrations of the production that were “embellished with lurid headlines.” Bernays made a special effort to reach potential viewers who were not, as he called them, “movie habitués”—for example, students of ancient history and classic literature, milliners and dressmakers—by using his press sheet to draw connections between the film and fields such as education and fashion. This tailoring of the way a film was advertised to appeal to the perceived interests of different groups of people became a staple of press book advertising suggestions.

Exploitation suggestions and posters in a 1950 press book for a re-release of Mack Sennet’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) starring Charlie Chaplin. Box C-007, Moving Image Section.

An inventory of the Moving Image Section’s manuscript materials provides access to these press books, which vary greatly in size and detail. Press books were given different names by the various movie studios, so as you peruse the “Inventory to Archival Boxes” be on the lookout for press kits, exhibitor’s manuals and scrapbooks, as well as merchandising manuals and style guides. Merchandising manuals and style guides are a particular type of advertising campaign materials that presented the authorized colors, fonts, sizes, and design proportions for toys, clothing, and other merchandise related to a film. Materials located in the Inventory can be viewed in the Moving Image Research Center.

The promotional and advertising materials that accompanied so many films as they were distributed around the country and deposited at the Library of Congress for copyright are a fascinating part of the Division’s collections. I was surprised to learn at the start of my residency that the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division was home to so many paper and manuscript materials. It’s quickly become one of my favorite parts of the collection, and one that I firmly believe holds great value for potential researchers.

Learn more about the Moving Image Research Center on our website. Have a question? Use our Ask-a-Librarian form.

Interested in learning more about Edward Bernays and his career in the field of public relations? The Manuscript Division holds a collection of his papers.

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