The National Screen Service (NSS): A Dinosaur of Film Advertising
September 14, 20163 min read
The National Screen Service (NSS) was founded in the 1920s as a competitor to the big film studios in the creation and distribution of movie trailers. By the 1940s, the NSS produced and distributed nearly every movie poster produced in the United States. In an effort to catalog their posters, the NSS developed a date & code system that was used, in varying forms, from 1940 until the late 1980s.
In the 1920s and for most of the 1930s, studios produced and distributed their own film posters. The invention of "talkies" in the late 1920s caused an explosion in the popularity of films and made the task of film advertising a serious business. The National Screen Service maintained a focus on movie trailers until, in late 1939, they signed a contract with Paramount Pictures to produce and distribute a majority of Paramount's movie posters and other advertising materials. This deal started a tidal wave that would result in the NSS cutting deals with all the major studios and independent film makers to produce and distribute film posters. RKO signed with NSS in 1940, Loew's in 1942, Universal in 1944, Columbia in 1945, United Artists and Warner Brothers in 1946 and finally 20th Century Fox in 1947.
Apart from a few years in the 1940s, and until 1977, the NSS numbering system featured two numbers (representing the year of release) and, after a slash mark, there would be a number indicating when the film advertised was released in that year (numbered in sequential order). Therefore, the 60th film released in 1975 would be numbered 75/60.
After 1977, the numbering system was altered to get rid of the slash dividing the code. The first two numbers remained the year of release and the last four digits represented the films sequential order of release for that year. The picture above and to the right is from The Secret of My Success which was the 26th film released in 1987. The NSS code on the left, from Alice in a New Wonderland, was the 36th poster released in 1975.
At one point, the NSS handled 90% of the US poster production and distribution. In the 1980s, the NSS was dramatically scaled down and NSS numbers faded with them. Once again, the studios produced and distributed the majority of movie posters. In 2000, Technicolor purchased the last few NSS offices.
What about posters from the 1940s to the 1980s that do not have an NSS number?
The lack of an NSS number on a vintage one sheet, half-sheet, insert, 30x40 or other US movie poster printed during the NSS era (1940s to 1980s) is something that a collector should take note of.
There are a number of vintage, original US movie posters that were produced by the studios themselves that are just as authentic as the ones produced by NSS. These were often advance posters self-produced by the studios for promoting a film or produced as a giveaway (and, while authentic, weren't printed for distribution to theaters). Posters printed in the United States for use outside of the country also did not include an NSS number.
The NSS numbering system has gone the way of the dinosaurs. Instead of a commodity like fossil fuels, collectors are left with valuable paper advertising our favorite, and not so favorite, films.