Hollywood Collects Itself

From posters to Polaroids to 35mm prints, industryites mine the past for fun and profit

Talk about irony. When studio heads Jon Peters and Peter Guber decided to decorate their new Columbia offices in 1989 with posters from the studio’s past hits, they discovered Col didn’t own any pre-1970. If they wanted them, they’d have to buy them through private collectors or auction houses.

That’s how Hollywood used to operate. Today studios have plenty of posters on hand, along with props, wardrobe, clapboards and everything else — and all of it has a price tag. “(Selling memorabilia) is another form of publicity,” says New Line’s new media exec, Nevin Shalit, who helps coordinate the studio’s regular online auctions. “It gets people excited about the film and helps build a bond with fans.”

That attitude has changed everything, argues Dan Strebin of Santa Monica’s Folio Gallery, a leader in classic movie posters. “When I got into this business 30 years ago there were little more than 500 serious collectors worldwide,” he says. “Now there are well over 10,000. It’s unbelievable how much it has grown.”

One such collector is Showtime prexy Robert Greenblatt, who became addicted to film posters when someone gifted him with an original one-sheet from 1953’s “The Bandwagon.” Since then he has gathered more than two dozen rarities, including a “Sunset Boulevard,” a “Dial M for Murder,” an Italian “Some Like It Hot” and a French “Modern Times.”

While good, Greenblatt’s are not the kind that top every collector’s wish list, like the 1932 one-sheet for “The Mummy,” which netted $453,000 at Sotheby’s in 1997, or the one-of-a-kind “Frankenstein” six-sheet, owned by a New York collector, which is said to be worth $1 million.

But that’s OK with Greenblatt, who says his collection is based on aesthetics rather than resale value. “Part of the enjoyment is actually seeing them displayed,” he says. “I think the art is extraordinary. It speaks to me more than having some painting or lithograph.”

According to Derren Julien of New York’s Julien Entertainment, that’s pretty common among industryites. “Unlike rock ‘n’ roll collectors,” says Julien, who’s coordinating one of the largest sales of pop culture memorabilia on Dec. 17 at Christie’s, “Hollywood collectors tend to buy things they connect with on an emotional level, as opposed to looking for items that will hold their market value.”

Scorsese and his old masters

So for every Steven Spielberg, who collects cinematic touchstones like “Citizen Kane’s” Rosebud sled, there are at least a dozen industryites who would rather buy objects relating to personal obsessions. Martin Scorsese, for instance, who has one of the strongest memorabilia collections in the world, specializes in the great cinematic masters (most notably Italian directors); and Peter Jackson, who now controls warehouses of “Lord of the Rings” material, has a passion for “King Kong” tchotchkes.

Meanwhile, Sharon Stone looks for ’50s exploitation one-sheets (along with classics); Kurt Russell prefers Elvis Presley memorabilia; Nicolas Cage gathers vintage comicbooks; Tom Cruise and Ron Howard prefer Oscar-winning film memorabilia; and Quentin Tarantino scoops up anything that’s, well, Tarantino-esque.

Says helmer Brett Ratner, “I just look for stuff I love. I always have, ever since I was a little kid.”

The stuff Ratner loves generally has to do with bad-boy cinema, from Bruce Lee’s nunchackus to the soap from “Fight Club,” from Sammy Davis Jr.’s jewelry to enough Jackie Chan items to, as he says, “open a museum.”

He’s also a “Raising Arizona” junkie and has collected items from that pic, including Nicolas Cage’s goggles and the camera used for his mugshot in the film.

“My prized possessions are these Polaroid pictures taken by continuity people and wardrobe assistants of actors in their wardrobes,” he says about a passion that started when he won about 200 of the original “Godfather” continuity Polaroids at an auction for about $200. Now he says he could sell each one for $1,000 a piece. But he won’t.

There are more obscure items found in industry collections, including illegally obtained 35mm celluloid prints of rare films, which has been an open secret within the industry for years. Technically, those prints belong to distributors, which means they’re deemed pirated material once they’re in the hands of collectors. Mel Torme, for instance, was said to have a massive collection of 35mm and 16mm prints. So did Dick Martin, Rock Hudson and Roddy McDowall, who nearly went to jail after the FBI confiscated his collection in 1974. Indeed, at least two contenders for this year’s Academy Awards are known to have warehouses of celluloid. Ironically, like McDowall, many of those collectors are also passionate preservationists and they often lend their films to festivals.

But once a collector, not always a collector, says helmer Joe Dante, who hoarded posters and just about everything else. “I collected for 10 years when I really couldn’t afford it,” he says. “Then I became successful and really collected for about five years because I suddenly could afford it.”

And where’s his collection now?

“Mostly in boxes,” he says wistfully.

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