Most of the movie posters within our Catalogue are from the twentieth century. They are 100% guaranteed original vintage posters used by a movie studio to publicise their film at the time of release.
Many movie poster buyers have either been caught out, or confused, by a series of numbers that appear in the bottom right of a lot of U.S. posters from the 1940s through to the mid 1980s.
In this blog post, we explain the background to these numbers, and, how you can use them to learn more about your poster.
First, we need to start with a bit of history on the distribution of movie posters in the United States.
Prior to the late 1930s, movie studios were responsible for the distribution of marketing material (such as movie posters) to the great number of individual cinemas / movie theatres across the country that would be showing their film.
This required every studio to have a warehouse in each major city to store, and manage the distribution of, their own marketing material.
The National Screen Services (NSS) had been formed in the 1920s to provide movie trailers. In 1937, the NSS expanded to provide a centralised service for movie studios. Starting with Paramount, NSS eventually took over distribution of movies and marketing material for all of the major studios.
In order to manage the huge amount of material now passing through its hands, the NSS began allocating a unique reference number to each film. This number was used on all marketing material associated with that release of the movie.
Within this blog post, we are going to use a few posters from our Catalogue to show how this ‘NSS Stock Number’ evolved over time.
We provide high resolution photographs of every poster we sell. By moving your mouse pointer (or if on a mobile or tablet, your finger) over the image, you can see a highly magnified view of the actual poster. We’ve used that within this post to show the NSS number variations on a few posters.
The Headless Ghost (1959) - Hand written NSS Number
The first standardised evolution of the NSS Stock Number, from 1942, gives the year of the film’s release and a unique number that was allocated to the film for that year. It has the format YY/NNNN.
In the example below, from "The Headless Ghost", we can see that the film was released in (19)59 and that it was allocated the unique number ‘159’.
As is common with most early posters, the NSS number has been hand scribed before printing. (The technical term is numbered ‘in plate’.)
Warning – The format of the early NSS numbers has caused confusion for years. Many of those interested in buying art for their home will be familiar with limited editions, such as art prints, which are usually numbered 'NN / NNN'. In that context, the first number gives the unique number of the print, the second the total edition size. Whilst original movie posters are printed in limited numbers, and for a limited period, they are not individually numbered. Our poster for “The Headless Ghost” is rare, you won’t find many of them around, but, it is not number fifty-nine of an edition of one-hundred and fifty-nine. (In fact, we would imagine there are actually less than one hundred and fifty still in existence.)
Star Wars (1977) – Printed NSS Number
As years passed, the hand-written NSS number was replaced by a typeset version. In the poster below, a ‘Style A’ poster for the original "Star Wars" film, we can see that the film was released in (19)77 and given the unique number ‘21’.
The original Star Wars film was so popular that the one sheet movie poster had to be re-printed several times. The NSS number is a great way of helping to identify which printing your poster comes from. (Only the first printing run used the NSS number ’77-21’ with ‘-0’ after it.)
Lord of the Rings (1978) – Slash removed from the NSS number
From mid 1977, NSS numbers were modified to remove the slash ‘/’ from the number. Everything else stayed the same, so the format now read YYNNNN.
We can see from the “Lord of the Rings” poster below, that it was released in (19)78 and allocated the unique number ‘0108’.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) – Re-Release NSS number
Whenever a film was re-released, it received a modified NSS number, using the format RYY/NNNN, or after mid 1977, the 'slash-less', RYYNNNN.
In the one sheet for "Raiders of the Lost Ark" shown below, we can see that the poster is from the re-release of the film in (19)82, which was allocated the unique number ‘0112’
In the 1980s, as the number of cinemas reduced and the number of poster variants was cut (eventually standardising with the one sheet and subway poster), the logistical challenges associated with marketing material for films lessened. Movie studios began taking back responsibility for distribution themselves, beginning the demise of the NSS and its unique numbering system. By the beginning of the 21st Century, the NSS had effectively disappeared, the remains being purchased in 2000 by Technicolor.
To wrap up...
So, there you are, those strange numbers demystified. You can now confidently pick out the year of a film's release, and, whether it is a re-release of an earlier title. For some posters, you can even learn about the printing run that the poster was produced in.
A final note... Do not worry if your one sheet for an American film from the 1940s to the 1980s does not have an NSS number. Some smaller studios did not distribute material through the NSS. Those that did often printed the same one sheet poster for use in the U.S. and use in other countries. One sheets from the period without NSS numbers are most likely to be for use outside of the States. They are known as ‘International’ posters.
You can explore the world of NSS numbers by going to our Catalogue and filtering for ‘U.S.’ posters. The high resolution images, together with the magnify function, allow you to see the NSS numbers very clearly.
Perhaps you will find a new poster to frame and hang in your home.
Adam and Art of the Movies team.