Uncovering Hollywood History: The Collection

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Growing up in Nebraska, I would spend weekends looking through the Omaha World-Herald newspaper to see what movies were playing. The print advertisements’ large titles and heroic portraits mesmerized me, while the teeny, tiny type showing the local theater names and showtimes forced me to scan the pages slowly. Decades later, thousands and thousands of blocks and plates used to print movie advertisements have survived and are now up for auction. It’s an already legendary find that famed collector and appraiser Rudy Franchi called “the ‘Holy Grail’ of movie memorabilia.”

The story of those artifacts was told in The Collection, a documentary film that gained attention in January via Kottke and other media outlets. The Collection goes behind the scenes, showing you the people who rescued the printing blocks and plates, how they cleaned and used them to make prints, and the collection’s potential worth. But because the blocks and plates currently have no home, this Hollywood story is far from over.

The Collection

DJ Ginsberg cleans printing blocks, as seen in The Collection.

The Backstory

What DJ Ginsberg & Marilyn Wagner found in a back room at Franx Antiques & Art in Omaha, Nebraska was like no other find. Boxes and boxes of Hollywood relics, covered in dust, had been preserved, and it would change their lives forever. In the fall of 1998 they purchased approximately 50,000 blocks and 8,000 plates used for printing and advertising some of the most iconic films in history, including, but not limited to: Dr. Strangelove, Foxy Brown (1974), Lady and the Tramp, Planet of the Apes (1968), Star Wars (1977), and The Werewolf (1956). KB Typesetting’s collection included blocks and plates to advertise movies from the silent era all the way up to the 1980s. You can see the partial inventory at the Hollywood Movie Legends website.

The Collection
The Collection

The collection’s inventory book.

Having recently spoken with Ginsberg about their find, I learned that not only did they acquire the printing artifacts, but they also have a detailed inventory book, and according to Ginsberg, the rights to the printing artifacts and the rights to re-strike prints. It’s all up for auction at Guernsey’s, and as an added bonus, they’re throwing in a 1938 Vandercook proof press for you to re-strike your own prints.

Capturing the Collection

DJ Ginsberg & Marilyn Wagner, along with the blocks, plates, and prints they’ve produced, all star in their own movie, The Collection. If you’re a fan of print media, letterpress, the printing process, movies, and typography—or all of the above—then The Collection is a must-see. And if you’ve seen it already, watch it a second time, because it gets better with each additional viewing.

Shot in Omaha, Nebraska over a four-day period in January 2016, Adam Roffman (director/producer) and Nathaniel Hansen (cinematographer/editor) dedicated a half day to research, looking through the plates and blocks to decide what they’d show in the film. The collection was so large, according to Roffman, that they didn’t have time to get through even a third of it. They spent three days filming, and the post-production happened in Newton and Allston, Massachusetts over a 5-6 day period.

The Collection

While filming The Collection, cinematographer and editor Nathaniel Hansen works on a shot with the camera suspended from a dolly track.

Roffman wanted to make The Collection to capture movie advertising history and media, subject matter he sees as visually rich, as well as important. “I thought it was amazing that such a treasure of a collection could exist without most people who love movies knowing about it.” In my conversations with Roffman, it was clear that he cares about these artifacts and also cherishes them, saying he could look at the blocks, plates, and printed graphics for hours. That makes two of us.

The Collection
The Collection

Priceless Artifacts

In the documentary, DJ Ginsberg suggests that the plates and blocks shouldn’t just lay dormant, but they should be used to re-strike prints. It’s a sensibility that Erin Beckloff agrees with. A letterpress printer, filmmaker, and educator, Beckloff co-directed the movie Pressing On: The Letterpress Film, chronicling how the modern world has communicated with print media. Beckloff calls the collection Ginsberg & Wagner acquired “the find of a lifetime” and the fact that the two of them kept the collection together—rather than selling it off piece by piece—proves to Beckloff just how much they care about the media. She sees that very same care and consideration come through in The Collection, and appreciates how Ginsberg wants to see the blocks and plates survive not only through preservation, but also through use.

The Collection

The Collection movie poster, designed by Adam Roffman.

It’s either ironic or romantic that The Collection, a short film about print media that has been digitally shared through social media and the web, has brought these artifacts so much attention. Maybe it’s less about irony or romance, and simply a perfect moment. For Beckloff, these materials were in hiding all along for a reason, and to her, the timing of the discovery and the attention it has received is just right. Along with The Collection, a number of documentary films about print media have debuted during a time when we use digital devices more and more, but see print less and less. (When was the last time you looked in the newspaper to find a movie’s showtime?)

The Collection

Movies such as The Collection, Pressing On, Doug Wilson’s Linotype: The Film, and Briar Levit’s Graphic Means have all, in one way or another, told the story of print media, sometimes in nostalgic ways. In conjunction with her movie, Levit chronicles design production and tools at a visually-rich Instagram where she has a healthy number of followers. Despite the popularity of digital devices, people still appreciate analog, and you can’t put a price on that. Levit, who is an assistant professor of graphic design at Portland State University, believes that what Ginsberg & Wagner found goes beyond the monetary value as depicted in The Collection. “The potential worth of the collection, which is discussed in the narrative, adds some intrigue. But for designers, that’s really only an aside to watching a press run these decades-old plates with beloved images and lettering.” Seeing the blocks and plates alive, used for putting ink to paper is the story here, and for many designers it’s the climax of The Collection.

Finding a Home

But it’s hard not to notice the collection’s monumental monetary value. In 1999, it was valued at 1.86 million dollars by Rudy Franchi. Franchi knows movie memorabilia. He’s been part of the PBS series Antiques Roadshow and co-authored Miller’s Movie Collectibles with his wife Barbara. Nearly ten years since that 1.86 million dollar appraisal, Franchi appraised the collection and gave it a fair market value of “between 18 and 20 million dollars” in January 2018.

When I first heard about the collection and its potential value, I couldn’t help but think of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Belloq’s lecture to Indy while holding a watch. “Look at this. It’s worthless—ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless. Like the Ark.” Before Ginsberg & Wagner found the collection, it sat hidden in a dusty storage room for decades, until it was uncovered at just the right time to be worth something significant.

And yet, there’s a twist to this story. This is a source collection: these “masters” were produced for Hollywood studios by KB Typesetting in Omaha, Nebraska and housed at KB Typesetting until they were acquired by Franx Antiques & Art in Omaha, Nebraska. Ginsberg & Wagner purchased this source collection and the rights to re-strike prints. It’s a very extraordinary find when you consider the reproduction possibilities, which Ginsberg brought up during our conversation, citing a blog post at the website of Balough Law Offices, LLC, where it summarizes Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc., et. al v X One X Productions, dba X One X Movie Archives, Inc., et. al.. The blog post’s title says it all, Frankly, My Dear, It Has No Copyright. In theory, the winning bidder of the Guernsey’s auction could make print after print after print, ad infinitum.

But what if the winning bidder doesn’t want to make prints, and instead, puts the collection into a new storage facility, keeping it boxed up for another few decades? Or worse yet, what if the collection does not find a home and it remains in boxes, becoming dusty and completely forgotten about? This is what pains Briar Levit the most, especially since rewatching The Collection. “
For me, the ending is a bit sad, because as the collection is yet unsold, I don’t expect there are many buyers who would be able to afford the estimated price tag of $8–12 million. This potentially living archive may remain on shelves for years to come.” These Hollywood artifacts have their own Hollywood story, but will there be a happy ending? Only time will tell.

Still images from The Collection and their caption information were provided by Adam Roffman. Images of the individual printing plates are presented two-up: in their original orientation (left) and also flipped (right) for right-reading. Photographs of the inventory book courtesy of DJ Ginsberg.