What is a Pressbook?
By Kallan Benjamin and Connor Perkins
Pressbooks were created by distributors to promote their films in local markets. Sent directly to movie theaters, pressbooks provided promotional materials and suggested strategies for local exhibitors to bring people into the theater and maximize profits for both parties.
The digitized pressbooks in this collection date from the 1910s through the 1970s. Represented are major studios Warner Bros., MGM, 20th Century-Fox, Columbia, and United Artists, as well as several independent distributors. Early on, pressbooks were relatively short, providing information and pre-written articles about the film that exhibitors could send to their local newspapers to print. By the 1930s and 40s, the number of pages and methods of promotion had exploded. The pressbooks in this period usually included sections for publicity, advertisements, lobby displays and other decorations, as well as ideas for promotional stunts. The large publicity sections included pre-written articles and photographs for local newspapers to reprint in advance of a film’s premiere and additional material and reviews to run while the film was actually showing. These publicity sections could include multiple options for short, middle, and feature-length stories. Some pressbooks included material for the local newspaper’s Women’s Section, often to do with the female star and her film fashions.
Some pressbooks also included “fictionalizations,” essentially multi-part summaries of a film's plot in serialized newspaper form. Promotion did not stop at the newspaper, however. Pressbooks also sometimes included radio sketches for local stations to air, and pressbooks for musicals sold records with songs from the film for theaters to purchase and play. They also sold posters and accessories for theaters to decorate their lobbies and fronts with, including life-size cutouts of actors and stars. Particularly unique to this era of film publicity were the ideas for “exploitation” or “ballyhoo”—promotional stunts for theaters to put on for a given film. These ideas often included contests in various forms, but also parades or floats, collaborations with other local establishments like themed window displays, and dramatic lobby exhibits. One particularly dramatic suggestion for such an exhibit can be found in the pressbook for United Artists’ Hell’s Angels, which suggests that exhibitors ask their local airfield to arrange to display a full-sized airplane on top of their theater marquee—reminding them to first get permission from their building inspection department, of course, due to the plane’s weight.
After the collapse of the studio system, in the 1950s, pressbooks shifted back to a smaller size, mainly comprised of advertisements and short articles. The large collection of pressbooks here documents this shift and the heyday of ballyhoo and stunt publicity. In addition to the lighthearted nature of these over-the-top promotions, however, these pressbooks also shine a light on the darker side of this period in film history. Several of the pressbooks contained in this collection include indefensibly racist and sexist content, including representations of black- and brownface. Please see the description for Kid Millions for a discussion of why these materials are included in the collection, rather than erased or ignored. Through these pressbooks, we see the complex, contradictory nature—alternately light-hearted and morally reprehensible—of this period of film distribution, promotion and exhibition.
Thank you to Matthew and Natalie Bernstein, the Mary Pickford Foundation and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research for making the scanning of these pressbooks possible. These pressbooks and hundreds more have been preserved in the collection, United Artists Corporation: Series 5.4 United Artists Pressbooks, at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.