1929 and the joys of the pressbook

Radio 4’s Spin the Globe researchers visited us to find out about cinema in 1929. It’s amazing how much you can glean about the era from its pressbooks, created to help promote the latest releases.

Bryony Dixon
Updated:

A recent visit by from the BBC Radio 4 programme Spin the Globe reminded me how much fabulous information can be gleaned from a movie’s pressbook – from the differing social mores and attitudes of an era to the way new films were received and marketed.

Spin the Globe is a history programme that takes a particular year – in the case of this particular episode, 1929 – and looks at all the events and stories from round the world. So apart from the big news, which was of course the Wall Street crash, this was also the year that the Academy Awards were set up and the year of the first Hollywood studio film with an all black cast, King Vidor’s Hallelujah!

The programme’s producer Sarah Taylor and presenter Michael Scott, who wanted to get a feel of where cinema was in 1929, were suitably impressed with the sophisticated marketing techniques expressed in the pressbooks held in the BFI’s Special Collections.

Hallelujah (1929) press book crossword

Hallelujah (1929) press book crossword

The pressbook was a more elaborate paper form of today’s press kit, generally provided as a lengthy print out or PDF containing information about the production.

The BFI holds a collection of around 25,000 pressbooks. The golden age for these is between the 1920s and the 1940s when there was plenty of money to expend on such promotional tools, and film-going was at its height.

Film distributors employed marketing teams to create and produce publicity material, including pressbooks (also known as press campaign books) which were intended to prompt and encourage cinema managers in the exploitation of the film product.

Each pressbook would carry information about the cast and the production crew, plot synopses, stories about the making of the film, background information, still photographs from the film and from behind the camera, and details of the availability of posters or other promotional aids such as lobby cards or ‘standees’ – life-size cardboard cut-outs of characters from the film, to be placed in cinema foyers.

Pressbooks would also contain other promotional ideas such as competitions, quizzes and crosswords, recipes, and tie-ins with local shops, as well as suggested text for local newspapers.

Pressbooks are important to the film historian, not only as a source of detailed information about a particular film and its production – not obtainable elsewhere – but also as social history, as a record of trends in graphic design, costume and the history of film marketing itself.

The ‘star’ image

An important component of the film marketing strategy has always been the film’s stars, ever since Edward L. Berways, generally credited with the invention of the press book, created a campaign to advertise Cleopatra (1917).

Fashion

Pressbooks can be a useful tool for the student of fashion and the history of costume. Lavish picture pages were produced to prompt tie-ins with local dress shops and milliners, and to show off the many beautiful costumes.

Graphic styles

The artwork employed by the publicity department was often influenced by the art movement of the day, for example art deco, art nouveau or orientalism.

Social history

You can learn a lot about contemporary social mores from information in the pressbooks. Here the publicists have quite openly used the term ‘negro’ to describe the actors – ie denoting people by skin colour rather than geographical origin, which would now be considered racist. 

Detail featuring 'Exploitation Hints' from the Hallelujah (1929) pressbook

Detail featuring 'Exploitation Hints' from the Hallelujah (1929) pressbook

Explore other 1920s pressbooks

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