This 1950s Studio Came Up with Posters First, Then Adapted Movies from Them

American International Pictures Credit: Vanity Fair
Here's a really interesting way to greenlight a movie...

What's your ideation process like? For me, I try to come up with a problem and then figure out the characters that populate that world. Then I move more into putting the beats into the story. And I only dig into that if I know the ending up front, because otherwise, it feels like a waste of time.

But I am aware that everyone has their own process. Especially executives. 

Today I wanted to look at one movie studio from the 1950s that had its own process. They did things backward. And it worked for them. 

Check out this video from The Royal Ocean Film Society, and let's talk after the jump. 

This 1950s Studio Came Up with Posters First, Then Adapted Movies from Them

What are some of your favorite movie posters? I have to admit, my office is covered in stuff from the 1950s. I am obsessed with those pulpy movies that had high concepts and salacious art to sell to us. Turns out, movie studios were very into them as well. 

Back in the day, movie studios owned theaters. There was a landmark Supreme Court case where it was ruled that the vertical integration of theaters was an unjust monopoly, and it was broken apart. When that happened, movie studios lost a lot of the money they made by marketing and showcasing their films. Theater owners used their power to change the way films were distributed. 

Movies were shown in double features. The A-movie was usually an expensive blockbuster. Those movies made money for studios by having high box office sales. The B-movie was the second movie shown that night. It didn't take the box office, but instead, the studios that made B-movies were paid a flat fee to show their work. 

There was much more money to be made if you could make an A-picture that was popular. But many studios lacked the funds to get the butts in seats needed to make those kinds of films. So instead, they focused on B-movies with flat fees. 

Well, that wasn't good enough for American International Pictures. They, as a studio, were not interested in these flat fees. Instead, they decided to make two cheap movies, and sell them both to the theater as a package. But they knew the only way to get a theater to buy those movies was to have an excellent marking package that got people excited to watch the movies. 

So instead of buying scripts, making movies, and commissioning posters... they reversed it. 

They had their marketing department come up with lists of titles. From there, they picked the best titles and sent them off to artists. Those artists would make posters with crazy monsters, sexy ladies, and dashing heroes. Once they had a poster they loved, they would then put it in front of focus groups. They'd use feedback to change aspects of the poster, adding characters and elements people expected or wanted. Once the poster was finished, they'd commission a writer to do a script based on it, and find a filmmaker to shoot a low-budget feature. 

These posters overpromised sex, action, violence, and the size of movies. But they drew people in. Many would sit for what they assumed would be an incredibly high blockbuster, only to get two very cheap B-movies that they were lured into seeing via the posters. 

The thing was, cheapo monsters and sex guaranteed success. And they could embellish with lines like, "Leave the children at home..." or, "If you're squeamish, don't watch this movie..."

AIP started with horror movies, but eventually expanded to teen films. They'd have posters of teens in swimsuits or hotrods, and add pop songs to trailers. Teenagers swarmed to these films, and the studio could make these low-budget movies so fast, they were always tapping into the culture of the moment.  

This reminds me of how Hitchcock sold Psycho, telling people they were not allowed to arrive late because it would be too shocking. 

You can get mad at them for baiting people, but you have to admire how well they knew their audience. And I think this is an incredibly creative way to find stories. Even now, one of my favorite writing exercises is to go to a museum, see a painting, and try to jot down the scene it depicts. Also, I think AIP's strategy didn't just stay in the 1950s. We see clickbait everywhere nowadays. Between salacious headlines and images on Twitter to even movie posters that sell sex, have hyperbolic reviews, or even trailer shots that are not in the real movie, this practice never left us. 

And if you are trying to sell a spec, let me tell you, the more fun the title, the better. 

Let me know what you think in the comments.      

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