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A PSA from your Local Movie Theater

from the Academy Film Archive

Among the thousands of theater advertisements held at the Academy Film Archive, this brief advertisement, made circa the 1950s, points to a relatively unknown phenomenon at the time: seat cutting. This short policy trailer, or snipe, cautions moviegoers of the strict consequences of upholstery defacement.

As bizarre as this film may seem to us now, property damage was a serious concern for theater owners. Campaigns against cutting seem to appear in advertisements and trade magazines as early as the 1930s, all the way until the late 1960s. Anti-vandalism campaigns during World War II often portrayed defacing  theaters as being unpatriotic, even asking young patrons to be ‘spies’ in the ‘effort’ against vandalism.

The increase in theater vandalism in the 1940s was blamed by theater owners on societal changes during World War II, including parents working long hours for the war effort; as well as a shortage of teachers and theater personnel due to wartime jobs. Although this advertisement was created after the war, its patriotic tune points to an attempt at using good citizenship as an anti-crime motivator.

Sign of the Times: Seat Cutting in Theaters

Theater owners curtailed vandalism by enforcing curfews and threatening to fine or prosecute offenders’ parents. Some theaters offered rewards to audiences or employees for each patron caught slashing seats. Other creative methods included stationing extra ushers at children’s screenings, making speeches from the stage, and promoting recent seat upholstery repairs. While debates had arisen that the advertisements might actually encourage vandalism, these snipes have their place in a long history of cautionary public service announcements, including safety exit demonstrations, non-smoking policy statements, and most recently, pleas for the silencing of devices.

This snipe is one of the many promotional materials included in the Packard Humanities Institute Collection at the Academy Film Archive. The acquisition, which features an array of theatre advertisements such as this, was deposited at the Archive by David Packard in 2009. This historically significant collection contains over 60,000 media items and has transformed the Academy Film Archive into the world’s foremost repository of motion picture trailers.