The Daily Heller: What if Movie Poster Collectors Were Eligible for Oscars?

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Dwight Cleveland would be a definite nominee. He has compiled the most boffo collection of vintage film posters in the world. Since 1977 he has avidly discovered rarities from all over the globe—56 countries, spanning multiple genres. His archive includes every Oscar Best Picture winner and the top 100 films of all time, as rated by The American Film Institute and The Internet Movie Database. Cleveland has donated a significant amount of his collection to museums around the globe, too.

He is also one of the first collectors to document the narrative of women in early cinema and their historic contributions to film. It was, he notes, actually women who were the real power players of the industry during that time. Recent social movements inspired Cleveland to showcase parts of his collection where underrepresented communities played pivotal roles behind the camera.

Some of this collection is currently on display through October at Poster House in New York City in Experiential Marriage: Women in Early Hollywood.

A 2019 exhibition of Cleveland’s collection at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, FL, marked his first solo show and the first film poster showcase of that magnitude. Later that year, Assouline released his book, Cinema on Paper: The Graphic Genius of Movie Posters (I contributed a preface, alongside TCM host Ben Mankiewicz).

In addition to his passion for collecting, Cleveland, a Chicago real estate developer and historic preservationist, is enthusiastic about the impact of film posters on culture, how they’re celebrated as an artform in their own right, and how his collection depicts a 125-year panorama of American history.

What inspired you to become a film poster collector? 
As a naive high school senior, I fell in love with a portrait lobby card from Wolf Song (1929), with Lupe Vélez and Gary Cooper. The color saturation, Deco graphics and romantic embrace just reached out and grabbed me. Every poster acquisition for my personal collection has been like that for the past 45 years.

How has collecting these posters affected your cultural literacy? 
My résumé has transitioned from collector to archivist, preservationist, conservator, philanthropist and, now, with the exhibition at Poster House, advocate for women’s rights. My early love for foreign posters opened my eyes to the ways different cultures interpreted these films and their strategy for advertising them in their specific market. This has been an ongoing learning experience for half a century. Then, my research on all the women who played a major role in developing the cinema business—yet whose careers have been overlooked—really struck to the bone. My wife is Latina and I’ve witnessed the discrimination and misogyny over the years that she’s endured. No one has broadcasted the importance of the thousands of women’s stories represented in my collection until now. So the combination has molded what appeals to me visually and what I think is important from a social responsibility standpoint. My focus now is educating a new generation on the impact they can truly have through an intersectional lens.

Many like me in the design world see contemporary film posters as a field governed and hampered by strict industry rules.
I couldn’t agree more. Oftentimes, the legal contracts of the stars dictated graphic elements, like the star’s name had to appear above the film title or it had to be in a particular size font. The studios sold the foreign distribution rights in places such as Eastern Europe, where the artists became particularly adept at using their art to bypass the bureaucratic censors who had no aesthetic. The distributors, who could advertise any way they saw fit, gave these artists free rein in creating their own designs apart from the U.S. studio-created campaigns. As a result, they are much more thought-provoking.

Who are designers that you believe are leaders? 
In 1985 I circumnavigated the globe in search of film posters in far-off lands. I was really taken aback by the Italian designers, along with posters from Asia—Japan in particular. Because I fell in love with the graphics first, I was never fixated on U.S. posters being the best, but rather on what I thought in my mind’s eye were the best graphics. Very few of the Japanese are signed, but Anselmo Ballester, Ercole Brini, Angelo Cesselon, G. Di Stefano, Luigi Martinati and Sandro Symeoni are all Italian artists I admire.

What is most valued in your collection? 
The last one I acquired …

What is your criteria for selection and inclusion? 
If I have a visceral reaction to something visually, then I know it should be in my collection. A bit like porn, where I can’t necessarily define it but I know it when I see it.

Do you have an unattainable poster rarity? 
Most of what I like is one-of-a-kind and I don’t even know it exists until I spot it at a flea market, in an auction catalog or on a dealer’s website.

I’ve always believed posters are collected because of the relationship of the collector to the film, as a token or trophy or flag of allegiance. Is this true?
Very much so. The bigger the film or star, the more important this becomes. But I have several posters I treasure as much as anything that are from totally forgotten films with no one special in the cast or crew. Those of us who are most smitten by film posters value the ones that reduce the true soul of the movie onto a single sheet of paper. What makes this so intriguing is that the posters are usually designed before the film is even completed. The artists are given very little to go by for confidentiality reasons. This is why the most effective ones are so sought after.