In Bill Collage’s backyard is a pile of old movie posters. A half-dozen people are standing around, slipping posters from cardboard tubes, unfurling them, then laughing, sighing, moaning, occasionally calling out “Oh, my God!”
Many of these posters are tossed on to the pile, while some — the ones that resonate in some way — are put aside for safe keeping.
These are some of the hundreds of film posters discovered, stored in a back room, up a narrow flight of stairs, behind the screen of the Sag Harbor Cinema. They were stumbled upon at the end of March 2018, by photographer Michael Heller, who was on assignment to begin documenting the renovation of the cinema by the Sag Harbor Partnership, which had successfully acquired the historic cinema after it went up in flames in December 2016.
“We were going through the building using flashlights, like tomb raiders,” said Nick Gazzolo, a board member of the non-profit The Sag Harbor Cinema, during an interview this week.
The auditorium’s notorious dank smell had been made more acute by months of inattention after the fire caused extensive smoke and water damage.
Mr. Heller poked from room to room, up staircases, through the projection room, recording in broad strokes and great detail the extent of the damage and the remaining bones of the movie theater.
But, the new owners were unaware of what had been tucked away upstairs until Mr. Heller, stepping back down the stairs and into the damp gloom of the theater’s auditorium, innocently asked: “So, what’re you going to do with all those posters?” Mr. Gazzolo recalled.
“I thought it must be a treasure trove,” Mr. Heller said this week.
Well, maybe not so much.
Several members of the cinema board have been slowly doing their own survey of the posters — there were ultimately found to be two rooms filled with posters and Mr. Gazzolo estimates there are about 2,000 of them, with well over 1,000 different titles — and last week the odds were that more were landing in the “to go” pile than put aside for future use.
“I’d say we were getting nine bad to one good,” said the cinema’s director, Jamie Hook.
Some of the titles that wound up in the heap? “Chrome and Hot Leather.” Ever see it? “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Ever hear of it? Thought not.
But then, in the 10 percent that are being put aside, there are some gems, even if they don’t have tremendous retail value. And several of the board members who were unfurling and rolling posters in Mr. Collage’s backyard recognize that sometimes there is more than money that makes something valuable.
Like a film itself, a poster has the ability to be transformative.
“It’s kind of transporting,” said cinema board chair April Gornik. “The minute you see the poster for a movie that means something to you, you just go there. It’s not even real, it’s something like a dream.”
“I saw a lot of what made me want to work in movies,” said Mr. Collage, a board member and screenwriter.
“I found the ‘Cinema Paradiso’ poster, which was vastly important for me,” he said.
“It had always been a dream to work with Darren Aranofsky,” added Mr. Collage. So imagine his pleasure at finding posters for two of the director’s greatest films: “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan.”
And here’s where some cash value comes into play.
“I’m gonna get Darren to sign them,” said Mr. Collage, who eventually worked with the director on a biography of George Washington. Suddenly, the value goes from a couple of bucks to, possibly, a couple hundred. Or more. Depending on the attachment the viewer may have to the poster.
The poster for “Black Swan” is compelling for other reasons as well. It was, among the pieces unfurled last week, among the favorites of Jamie Hook, the cinema’s executive director.
“It’s a very cool poster. A very dark set of eyes set against a black background,” said Mr. Hook. “It’s very interesting.”
Indeed, the image is of the film’s star, Natalie Portman, pale white with red lips, tiara mounted on her head which sits upon a delicate neck, her eyes outlined in black with red at the irises. It captures a moment when the main character has experienced a pivotal transformation.
“I always think of an emotional resonance in terms of the character,” said Mr. Collage, observing what strikes him about advertisements for film. “I connect to the characters, not the plot necessarily.”
The same could be said for Ms. Gornik, who said she was struck by the poster for Pedro Almodóvar’s “Volver.”
“It’s just a beautiful poster,” she said.
It features the visage of a striking woman, dark black hair set against a spread of colorful flowers and, again, a set of eyes that reach out and engage the viewer.
“It’s interesting how thoughtful good graphics can be,” said Ms. Gornik, herself an acclaimed artist.
“So often a poster is a person’s first touch point to a movie,” said Mr. Collage.
And, for many, that triggers memories of favorite films.
For Mr. Gazzolo, he was pleased to find the posters for “Three Days of the Condor” and “Alomost Famous.”
“I loved them both,” he said.
But his favorite might be a promotional poster from the cinema that announced a double bill of “Born Free” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
“I think it’s just wonderful that those two were playing at the same time in this theater,” he said. “It’s interesting what makes a great poster; the art, the movie, …”
And then there’s “Pinocchio.”
“I think this may be the most interesting,” said Mr. Gazzolo, of a late ’60s poster that was apparently issued for a re-release of the Disney movie.
In particular, it features artwork that several characterized as “classic,” as opposed to the “slick” design of more recent Hollywood movies.
And there are other unusual connections.
“The house I’m renting for the winter has only one DVD, Mike Mills’s ‘Beginners,’” said Mr. Hook. “I came across the poster for it the other day and said, I should take this for the guy who owns the house, since it apparently means something to him.”
He’s also bringing home a poster of “A Cat in Paris,” a favorite film he saw with his daughter.
The future of the posters is still very much up in the air. While many fill Mr. Collage’s Dumpster, the others will be assessed by potential value. Mr. Gazzolo doesn’t see selling them on eBay for $3 each as an option. Instead, there’s the possibility of more posters being signed by those involved with the individual movies; perhaps auctioning the more valuable ones, exhibiting others in the new cinema’s gallery. There are so many, some could just be handed out as gifts.
But what are the Holy Grails?
“I think something with a real Sag Harbor connection,” suggested Mr. Gazzolo. “Maybe ‘All That Jazz,’” which starred the late Sag Harbor resident Roy Scheider, “or ‘Lolita,’” the poster for which featured a seductive Sue Lyons in the title role wearing a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses. The photo, which didn’t appear in the movie, was shot in Sag Harbor and the sunglasses were purchased at the Variety Store.
They haven’t found them yet. But there’s still time; and more than a thousand sooty poster tubes to open.
Mr. Gazzolo was impressed with the sheer volume of films produced and shown at the theater over the last few decades represented by the posters, and the prodigious amount of work put out by filmmakers.
“You look at them and say, wow,” he observed in wonderment, “there are so many bad movies.”