Sex sells, the saying goes, but what if sex is what you’re selling? For the producers of adult films during the genre’s golden age (1970-1985), the secret to hot ticket sales was an eye-catching poster.
And during that 15-year heyday, there were some beauts. Though many of the films were coarse, poorly made “weekend wonders,” the posters promoting them often were gorgeous works rendered by artists with genuine talent. In fact, it could be argued that in many cases, posters for adult films were more artistic, authentic and creatively conceived than their mainstream counterparts.
“Theatrical hardcore adult movies weren’t a thing until Alex De Renzy’s Pornograpyhy in Denmark, which was released in U.S. theaters in 1969. But if we’re talking about softcore adult movies, those really started with Russ Meyer’s The Immoral Mr. Teas a decade earlier,” says porn historian and graphic artist Robin Bougie, author of two volumes of Graphic Thrills: American XXX Movie Posters (FAB Press). “And that had a movie poster just like any other theatrical film would have, because how else are you going to let people know about your low budget movie in 1959?”
But adult film producers had to be extremely careful when it came to the images on their posters. While the films themselves were sexually explicit, the posters had to remain somewhat staid. “It’s actually uncommon to see nipples and such, and you never see penises or vaginas,” Bougie observes. “You have to remember that the main place these posters were displayed was on the sidewalk out in front of the theater, and in the lobby of the theater, which could sometimes be seen from the sidewalk. So if a theater didn’t want to get in more trouble with the city and local police, they had to be very cautious.”
Porn poster artists approached their work in a variety of ways. Some created collages of sexy (but not sexual) images from the movies themselves. Others placed the focus on the film’s biggest star, with either a drawing or in a photograph. And then there were those who created fully painted posters. These tend to be the most visually striking, and of great interest to collectors.
“My Graphic Thrills coffee table books focus specifically on 1970 to 1985 because that’s really the window of time that the adult movie theaters flourished, and that’s what you need for one sheets–a theater to display them. But in the very early years, 1970 to 1973, I find the art and design of the posters somewhat rudimentary and staid. Almost like they were warming up and weren’t quite sure what was allowed and how racy they could get. By the last years of the adult movie poster, 1983 to 1985, I feel that pornographers were getting somewhat lazy and were no longer trying as hard to make cinema anymore. They weren’t striving as hard for legitimacy or putting the money into hiring a good poster artist.”
The artistic approaches used to promote adult films back in the day are a master class in design, even if the artists never considered their work as such. The media they used—oil, watercolor, airbrush—were often combined with a novel use of fonts and color to create an unforgettable image, and one that could easily be viewed from across the street.
“The aesthetics are wonderful in so many cases,” Bougie enthuses. “The colors, the fonts, and the way sexuality and sexual iconography is used to pique interest in the viewer. There’s a lot for me, an artist myself, to learn from the way the older generation put together commercial art. Their work is solid, and in many cases the posters were better than the movies they were advertising.”
In many ways, the evolution of adult film posters mirrors the evolution of the industry itself. Early posters were often minimal, quick affairs, as were the earliest black-and-white porn films. As adult films became more legitimate–and lucrative–producers poured more money into them. They shot in color and with sound, sometimes in exotic locations, and invested in sets and costumes. They also heavily promoted their most popular stars, such as John Holmes, Annette Haven, and Seka. But most importantly, they came to realize the value of a visually striking poster.
The artists behind adult film posters for the most part remain anonymous. Most did not sign their names, and those who did used either a pseudonym or perhaps just their first name. Many were embarrassed by their association with hardcore porn, despite the gorgeous images they created, and refused then and now to talk about that aspect of their career. “They were usually family men and women, just average folks looking to use commercial art to pay their bills. It was just a gig to them,” explains Bougie, who has spent years trying to track down poster artists. “I was politely asked by some of the old-timers still working today to not out them in Graphic Thrills for fear that being thought of as a porno artist would affect their ability to get G-rated commercial art gigs. It’s a valid fear, unfortunately.”
Nonetheless, Bougie has managed to identify the artists behind many of the most stunning and evocative adult film posters. “It was different for each poster and each producer,” he notes. “In some cases, I’ve found that it was the directors themselves that had a side career as artists or graphic designers, and they would make posters for their own movies. Sometimes they would just hire local artists they knew, and other times there were agents that represented commercial artists or graphic design firms.”
One of the bigger names to make a buck painting posters for adult films was pin-up queen Olivia De Berardinis, who painted the posters for Angel Buns (1981) and A Girls’ Best Friend (1981). De Berardinis also provided interior illustrations for a number of men’s magazines during that period, including Hustler, Swank and Club.
Another prominent poster artist was Elaine Gignilliat, who later enjoyed a prolific and lucrative career as a romance book cover artist. The adult films for which Gignilliat painted posters include Dominatrix Without Mercy (1976), Sex Wish (1976), Night of Submission (1976), Call Me Angel, Sir (1976), Oriental Treatment (1977), A Teenage Pajama Party (1977), Virgin Dreams (1977) and Summer School (1979).
Despite their artistic and pop culture appeal, adult film posters are not as popular among collectors as more mainstream movie posters, Bougie reports. While certain posters, mostly for more rare films, can command hundreds and even thousands of dollars, a plethora of vintage posters can be found online for as little as $25. However, there are forces afoot that could change that.
“I think the popularity of cable shows like HBO’s The Deuce and the DVD/Blu-Ray company Vinegar Syndrome, which has restored and released dozens of vintage adult films in recent years, has made the market take a little more notice of these collectibles as an investment,” says Bougie, who has around 40 posters in his personal collection. “But I think that’s a small price to pay for these movies becoming better known.”
(Robin Bougie is the publisher of Cinema Sewer, a long-running ‘zine that covers the history of adult films and their creators. Visit him at cinemasewer.com.)