Printing and Design Tips: July 2010, Issue #108

A Trip to the Movies: "Standee" Displays

My fiancee and I have taken on a new part-time job: assembling standees at movie theaters. These are the large, point-of-purchase displays heralding upcoming films. They are huge, dramatic, and intriguing. They have to be. After all, their purpose is to entrance the child in you, and persuade you to spend your hard-earned money for a ticket.

They also offer a wealth of information on printing for those with an observant eye.

Standees are part signage (a marketing term for signs), part point-of-purchase display (like the displays you see at retail stores both holding and advertising stacks of “product”). Unlike posters, they are physical “things.” They take up space. They are three dimensional, and most of the time they are huge.

Some standees even include inflatable movie characters with little voice box recorders that are activated when you touch the figures. Or plexiglass structures most probably printed on commercial silkscreen presses.

So what do they teach us about printing? Everything from press technology (offset litho vs. flexography) to scoring to diecutting to the physical needs of such a printed construct.

On my first “job,” I had a most striking realization: The standee, which, when assembled, would be 10 feet x 9 feet x 6 feet, had arrived at the theater in a single carton. Realization #2: Paper is heavy (consider this whenever you forget to request a cost estimate for freight for a print job you're producing). The standee box weighed almost 100 lbs.

Upon opening the box I found a multitude of flat corrugated boards: strips of cardboard cut down (or folded) to fit exactly inside the box with no wasted room. Granted, I noticed that rough handling of the carton in some cases had banged up what would eventually be printed parts of the final display.

Closer inspection revealed that portions of the display with 4-color printing were composed of press ink on gloss stock laminated to corrugated board (after all, an offset press would crush the fluting of cardboard). Ink on areas coated with a single flat color (the sides and back of the display, for instance) appeared to be printed right on the corrugated board. I assumed this would be flexographic printing, since the rubber plates of a flexo press can print directly on cardboard. However, they can only print simple graphics, unlike the more detailed 4-color printing on the front of the standee. (Hence the standee included flexo for the back and sides and offset litho laminated to the cardboard for more complicated graphics.)

Following the instructions that came with the standee (picture a giant 3-dimensional puzzle), I noticed that scoring and diecutting allowed flat panels of cardboard to be folded and assembled into a structure with depth, height, and width. (As with all preparation of cover stock and other boards, scoring on the folds allowed for easy, accurate folding.) And the diecutting was evident in the tabs, which allowed folded sections of the display to be inserted into slots on other sections to construct the massive display. (All slots and tabs were diecut.)

Essentially, the standees were flat cardboard folded into boxes, and the boxes were stacked one on the other (and then bolted together with screws) to form pedestals and walls, and then 4-color diecut posters laminated to cardboard were affixed (with tabs folded and positioned into diecut slots) to create lifesize images floating at various levels (higher or lower than, close to or further away from, the structure of boxes and panels and pedestals).

Beyond everything else, these were physical structures when completed. Portions of the structures even had to be reinforced (with chopsticks glued to the cardboard) to avoid their flopping over. (The glue looked familiar, as well: hot melt glue similar to the glue used on perfect binding equipment.)

I thought about press runs and printing technology. After all, if the marketing company had needed only a short run of these standees to promote a movie, the 4-color images laminated to the cardboard would need to have been printed on large-format ink-jet equipment. Longer runs might have been done more economically on offset equipment. Diecutting had been done on a letterpress.

I thought about the logistics of designing a marketing structure and then tempering that burst of creation with physical requirements: How could a 10 foot panel fit onto a carton pedestal? (Use screws to bolt together two panels, and score and fold the panels to fit into the 3 foot (or so) by 5 foot (or so) box before assembly.

I thought about how it was a blessing to have assistance in the assembly of the structure and about the physical logistics of assembly. After all, if two huge, heavy assemblies of attached boxes had to fit together over a flat base extending out into the theater lobby, pieces and parts of the structure had to be put together in a certain order. The entire structure once completed was far too heavy to lift, just to insert a forgotten part.

I thought about shipping: The box, including all the pieces, had to weigh not more than a certain amount to ship. And by what method? And to how many theaters across the country?

I thought of the designers who came up with the concept but then had to break the concept down into little boxes with tabs and slots that could be put together. With holes strategically placed to allow standee assemblers to work arms and fingers into tight spots to put everything together.

I thought about the installers, like myself and my fiancee. After all, such a product has to be assembled—on-site, usually in one session over multiple hours.

And I thought about how it all had to come together and be magical, or children wouldn't be compelled to plead with parents to buy tickets.

All of this is printing technology: flexography, offset printing, laminating printed paper to cardboard, scoring and diecutting, postal regulations. None of this exists on the Internet; it is all physical. And as long as businesses are selling movie tickets, it will continue. And the same printing technology will show up in tradeshow graphics, point-of-purchase displays in retail stores, and even product packaging. It's all still there if you know where to look.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]