When Cleveland Sold The Movies

ARTneo-Waldman-Going Straight (1916)

From the beginning of the motion picture era, the movie poster has played a key role in the success or failure of the film industry. Long before television and the internet, theater owners recognized that their box office receipts depended primarily on the quality of their posters.  Hollywood is indelibly associated with the growth and success of the motion picture business, but who realizes that the center of this critical poster business was far away from the glamorous movie capital in staid industrial Cleveland, Ohio. At its height during the golden age of the silent films, two Cleveland based lithographic firms dominated the business turning out up to 55 million posters a month.

In 1908, Thomas Edison turned to a Cleveland firm, Otis Lithograph, to create posters for his most important films. Edison was convinced that high quality posters would persuade the public of the growing dignity of the motion pictures and contracted with Otis to produce all the posters for his studios. Morgan Lithograph, Cleveland’s second major firm, was not to be outdone by Otis’ triumph and in 1914, signed a million dollar contract with that new upstart Universal Studios.

The posters manufactured in Cleveland took on a fresh cinematic look. One quickly sees the difference looking at an Otis poster for a Norma Talmadge film. Older theater posters had a staged formal appearance. Cleveland’s artists gave their posters a dramatic graphic flair. Composition was asymmetrical, perspective was flattened, and close-ups of the actors all gave the posters a new cinematic sensibility. The new action posters were perfectly in tune with the new action movies and transformed the business.

The lithographers pumped color and life into their work thereby establishing a taste and a market for a  modern look that would have been considered crazy only a few years before. The now mostly forgotten band of Cleveland lithographers brought a world of imagination and fantasy to poster art; a world which both captured and expanded  the film experience.

An exhibition of early Cleveland movie posters will be held in the second floor galleries of 78th Street Studios, curated by Larry Waldman and in collaboration with ARTneo.


Cleveland and the Birth of the American Moving Picture Poster:  August 19 – October 22, 2016


1305 West 80th Street  Suite 215 Gallery

Cleveland, Ohio 44102