Info and FAQ
Introduction to Cinema Slides
Cinema slides, often referred to as “magic lantern” slides, are rectangular plates of glass featuring a transparent positive image, either hand-drawn or photographically reproduced, for projection on a movie screen. Slides are usually colored, often by hand. Slides that were used in a cinema are generally found in one of two standard dimensions. Slides used in North America measure 3 ¼ x 4 inches (82mm x 101mm), while outside the U.S. the standard dimension is 3 ¼ inch square (82mm x 82mm).
Slide construction can be found in two basic designs: a double-pane construction consisting of two pieces of glass held together by a tape binding around the edge, or a single pane of glass surrounded by a double thick cardboard frame. [For more details see Anatomy of a Slide.]
Within the context of the cinema, glass slides were typically used to advertise products and services, particularly local merchants, inform or communicate with the audience (e.g., “Thank you for coming” or “Please do not spit on the floor”), and most artistically, to promote upcoming film programs.
When were glass slides first used in cinemas?
Evidence is incomplete but it is clear that glass slide projection was often combined with motion picture projection from very early. Keep in mind that magic lantern projection developed during the seventeenth century and that projected motion pictures were the newcomer, arriving on the scene in 1895.
It bears mentioning that cinemas were not the first place where motion pictures were screened. Early projection sites included theatres, variety houses, itinerant showmen, traveling fairs, etc. Motion pictures could be included as a component of a program, which might include variety acts, musical performances, magic shows, and more. Glass slide projection would often have been a feature of such programs, being used to introduce acts, project song lyrics, illustrate lectures, communicate with the audience, or simply for the purpose of visual delight.
Advertising "Coming Attractions"
All evidence suggests that the practice of using “advance slides,” as they were known in the trade, to promote motion picture coming attractions started in the United States around 1912-13. This time-frame neatly coincides with the production of films longer than one or two reels, as well as the emergence of the star system. Both of these factors would likely have led exhibitors to encourage patrons to return again at a later date to see a specific production or the latest film featuring their favorite star.
Were slides commonly used in all countries?
Apparently not. My search is ongoing but thus far I have only been able to locate manufactured coming attraction slides in: Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore, Great Britain, and the United States. I have also located American or English-language slides in additional countries, Italy for example, but have not yet come across locally-produced native language slides beyond those listed above.
In addition to coming attraction slides, I have located advertising slides for commercial products and services in: Belgium, Israel, The Netherlands, and Spain.
I have little doubt that cinema slides were produced in more countries and languages than those listed above. The search continues. If you know of such examples, please head to the Contact page and share what you know.
Were slides only used during the silent era?
Not at all, though aesthetically speaking I consider the silent era through the early-1930s to be the Golden Era. I suspect (without evidence) that with the arrival of sound films in the late 1920s came an increasing reliance of trailers to advertise coming attractions. While film trailers were nothing new, their use came into practice not long after slide advertising came along, it seems reasonable to expect that the excitement of seeing (and hearing) a sound trailer was more effective with audiences than an old-fashioned glass slide.
Regardless, slides continued to be used in the United States up into the 1960s and even much later in other parts of the world. One need look no further than the Raging Bull or Easy Rider slides from Australia as evidence. Back in the U.S., after WWII the artistic qualities of coming attraction slides declined into a dreary and formulaic affair. One can imagine the only place that slides were used might have been third-run cinemas or drive-in theatres.
Who created these slides? Where did they come from?
The physical manufacture of cinema slides evolved over time. During the 1910s, at least in the United States, cinema slides developed as a sideline at companies that published slides for multiple purposes, such as lectures, song lyrics, travelogues, advertising, etc. Early film trade literature abounds with advertisements offering slides directly to exhibitors.
As motion picture advertising became more established, certain slide manufacturers began to focus their business exclusively on the needs of film distributors and exhibitors. During the 1920s many of the smaller slide-producing companies merged or were absorbed by larger concerns and by the end of the 1920s there were only small number of dominant players. Later, into the 1930s, slides were advertised in studio press books and made available as promotional items that could be purchased, just like posters and lobby cards, directly from the studio.
An alternative to the mass-produced slides were custom-made or venue-created slides. It was quite common for exhibitors to order slides from a local manufacturer (most large cities had several) to create slides that were specific for their venue, or maybe even a specific program on a particular day. These unique one-of-a-kind slides are not uncommon and there are many examples in Starts Thursday!
Exhibitors also created their own slides. It is not a complicated technical feat, and kits and raw materials for making your own custom slides were readily available. These examples are seldom as artistic as professionally produced slides but they provide wonderful insight into film programming and promotion of their era.
Are slides valuable or expensive?
For the most part, no. While they are not particularly, common you can find dozens for sale on eBay at any given time. Values range widely by content, but slides never approach even the lowest prices for paper movie collectibles such as posters and lobby cards. Besides their size and obvious fragility, there really is no good way to display a collection.
In general, and just like any collectible, demand is determined by condition and content. An important film, with popular actors or an important director, with attractive graphics and in great condition may be interesting to a collector. A cracked or damaged slide with generic graphics and a no-name film and actors may find no demand at all.
The best way to ascertain the value of any particular slide is to search eBay for completed sales of comparable slides. Looking at asking prices for current sales can be misleading since eBay is full sellers asking ridiculous prices for unremarkable slides.
Do you buy slides?
I have a personal collection that I enjoy adding to. I am not a dealer and the slides on this website are not for sale. If you have an inquiry, please feel free to reach out to me via the Contact page.