Dialogue: The Minds Behind Mondo on the Rarity of Their Posters, eBay Flippers, Buying Hardships, and Future Plans

Dialogue: The Minds Behind Mondo on the Rarity of Their Posters, eBay Flippers, Buying Hardships, and Future Plans

May 04, 2012

We don't hide our admiration for Mondo, the collectible movie art arm of the Alamo Drafthouse, around here. We're big fans of the breath of fresh air they give modern movie poster art, and occasionally we're even lucky enough to premiere some of their posters on this very site. Having said that, at the end of the day, we're fans just like everyone else. When their sales go live, we're right there with you refreshing our browsers, hoping to score a poster. That means all too often we feel the sting of posters selling out before we even get to add them to our shopping cart.

Judging by the reactions to several recent Mondo sales, we're not the only ones that feel that sting. That's why we got in touch with Justin Ishmael, the Creative Director of Mondo, and Mitch Putnam, one of his team members, to talk about what, if anything, Mondo is doing to address the obstacles fans have been faced with trying to buy their art: Why the number of posters available is so small, what they're doing to improve the website, how they're dealing with eBay and poster flippers, and more.


Movies.com: Why are the print runs still so low? How do you define the rarity of Mondo without crossing the line between what customers want and what Mondo wants?

Mitch: It's a tough thing to answer. We've tried to increase the print runs incrementally over time. I know to some people it seemed like the run on, say, Thor for instance, was really small, but at the same time it's the biggest print run we've ever done with Martin Ansin, the artist that did it. It's a bigger print run than the actual movie poster was. It seems really easy in retrospect to say we did too small of runs on it, because obviously it kind of exploded with these Avengers prints. When we were starting to print them up, it really didn't seem that low. We normally do runs between 200-400 on most things, and it doesn't get too crazy on most things. We do have a couple releases a year in retrospect where we're like, "Oh, yeah, we should have printed more of those," and this is definitely one of those cases.

Justin: To add to that, it's in our contract. We were capped by the studio. We can't do more than this or more than that. It's not like we're sitting around going, "Oh, yeah, we're gonna screw people!" Our licenses and our deals are all for limited edition posters, so a lot of the time we're not the ones dictating we're going to make 400 or 500, it's the studio saying, "You can make this many, deal with it."

Mitch: Also, a lot of times we'll have the artist politely ask us to not print a whole lot. Like on this one, for example, we did actually have artists come and say, "Hey, don't blow this one out too hard. I've seen Marvel things in the past go either way, and I'd like to really see this stay a collectible." We don't make the decisions unilaterally. It's us, it's the artist, it's the studios-- it all comes together with research, and comparing to what properties have done in the past, to please a good number of people, but also keep it collectible, which we think is very important.

Movies.com: When a sale hits these days, it's always an instant clustercuss and the servers take a huge hit. What steps are you guys taking to solve that problem?

Justin: We pay the most money... when we go to web designers and we say we're paying this amount, they lose their minds. Their like, "Nobody pays that amount of money a month!" We were on six and now we're on ten servers, and we have an independent web guy that oversees our website. We've got another group out of Sacramento that does stuff, and then we have the main company that hosts everything. We maxed out their service plan. They had to make a new service plan for us. There's nothing out there that can support it. If there was a perfect site out there, we'd definitely use it.

Billion-dollar companies-- Nike, for example, their sites are crashing when they release Jordans and they're a billion-dollar company. It happens to other companies that sell out instantly, and we're even talking to some of their developers. We're actively looking for people to build something that doesn't even exist so it can support the traffic. And even then, people are saying don't expect it to be perfect. When you have thousands of people refreshing-- we almost have a million page views a day because people just sit there refreshing all day, so that's a huge, huge hit on a website.

Mitch: We're really trying. That's not to say we have unprecedented traffic, that's just kind of a limitation of ecommerce in general. We have talked to a number of web designers and it's a matter of so many transactions happening at once when the sale actually happens and it hits the database. The site can handle thousands of people just sitting on it until the sale happens, but then once the database gets pinged when the sale happens... like Justin was saying, everyone in this business we've talked to has said, "I don't know what to do to help you." We've been looking all over.

Justin: Honestly, for years. And the problem is if we move to something and it ends up being worse, we're stuck with that. We know the limitations. People are mad because they had it in their cart and couldn't get it, but we're upfront about that. There's a disclaimer on every page that says, "You do not have this poster unless you checkout and get a confirmation." And yet, people still act surprised when they have it in their cart but still don't have it. We try to tell everyone, super up front, this is how the site works, this is what's going to happen.

It happens to a lot of sites out there. Like we talked about earlier, Mitch and I tried to buy Jordans and were literally on their site for four hours. On Jordan drop nights, Finish Line, Footlocker, all those sites are crashed. Ours you can see it, theirs is down; white screen, this site does not exist-- and those are billion dollar companies. That type of traffic on any site is going to cause some kind of slowing or some kind of weird reaction from when you're on it on a non-drop day.

We know it happens. We've had artists, like Olly Moss, see if he can do it, and he's never been able to do it. I remember one time I told Mitch when we were going to release the poster, and he tried to do it and couldn't get one. There's no trick to it. It's random drop times, and it's totally random if you can get one or not. We're trying to make the best of what we can with what we have right now until we can get something built, but even when they say, "Yes, we can build you a custom site, but it won't be perfect and it will still slow down." I think the average the web guys said last time was, on a giant drop day like Avengers stuff, we're averaging 200 transactions a minute and they said they've never seen that before.

Mitch: I think the bottom line is we're trying our very best to find a better solution, we're just not finding answers from the people we've talked to.

Movies.com: Do you care who gets the posters as long as they sell out? Does it matter to you that half of them are on eBay before the sale is even over?

Justin: Half of 'em aren't. I don't want to split hairs, but it's not half. It's not 50%. I think regularly it's around 10-15%, on some bigger releases it's maybe 20%. And there's nothing we can do about it. Legally, what they're doing, there's nothing wrong with it. They're posting something they own onto eBay. Should they do it or does it suck? Yeah, it sucks.

Mitch: It's something none of us are happy about. We're obviously bummed to see something we put a lot of effort into be bought by someone who has no intention of keeping it or appreciating it, but almost all of us who work at Mondo have been around the poster scene long enough to see artists trying to deal with it, and there just doesn't seem to be a viable answer to stopping it. I remember Shepard Fairey saying, "I'm going to police eBay and shut down all sellers right away." And it lasted a few months until he said it was too monumental of a task to take on and he just quit doing it.

If there was a completely easy way, or even a doable way, of getting these posters only into our most loyal fans' hands, by all means we would do it. It's kind of just the nature of the beast with a collectible product. If you put out something that's worth more money immediately after you buy it, it's just something people are going to do.

Justin: It would be a full time job. We do police eBay for bootlegs. If someone puts a bootleg poster up, we don't want them fooling people, so we'll report them, but there's nothing we can do to report these [flippers] to eBay and have them pulled. Like yesterday. We had just announced [Stout's Avengers] on Twitter, five minutes later I saw on Facebook someone had posted a variant poster for sale for $700. Then I read through the Facebook comments and refreshed and it was up to $895 and had like 20 offers on it. So I said,"Okay, this is bullshit." And I've never done this before, but I emailed him directly and was like, "Why would you do this? We haven't even sold this thing yet." And he wrote me back and was like,"Alright, man, I'm sorry," and he took it down.

That is not common, by the way. These dudes do not care what we say. They're going to buy it. This is what they do to Shepard Fairey's stuff, to-- just look at their other auctions, and it's all stuff from big names. It's stuff that's "flippable." Even if we hired someone to go on eBay and constantly look, there's nothing we can do to get them to take it down other than to ask and hope.

Mitch: And you can't tell who these people are. I literally know people that make a full time living just flipping posters. I literally know people that have up to ten eBay accounts. It's just something that becomes almost impossible to police it.

Justin: Yeah, so when people are like, "Why don't you police it?" We kind of do. We limit to one per user, one per credit card. If they use that more than once, we cancel it. Actually, it's not even one per person, it's one per address, so you can't do the whole, "My wife needs one!" We do it for fake names, too. We get a lot of "Abra Cadabra," and we delete those. Every trick you can think of happens.

And you'd think it would just be the website, but we have people coming to our shows doing this. Mitch can tell you the story how at the Mystery Movie this dude came up and said the cops came to the hotel because he flew down and then put ads on Craigslist, on the connections thing, and was like, "I need four women to come with me to a movie tonight to mule posters." And he couldn't find anyone, so he started asking the housekeeping staff to come with him, and they thought he was going to kidnap him so they called the police. Then the police came to arrest him and he was like, "No, I just need people to get these posters for me."

That type of conniving stuff is what people try to do. We start out being like, "Okay, we're going to give everyone the benefit of the doubt," then we hear stories like this and think, "Okay, we've got to lock this down tighter." So at our shows, we're giving out specific tickets to get the poster, and we don't ship them out, you have to be there in person, and you can't get more than one-- all these rules we're doing with live shows, and we're doing it with the Internet stuff, too. If people are getting two, they're having a friend buy it and send it to them or something.

Movies.com: It's crazy how in demand they are. The first time that hit me was at the very first Mondo Mystery Movie. I didn't buy the poster because I was low on money, but I had the ticket in my hand and was waiting, debating it. Then the next day I had lunch with some friends who were all there and had all bought them, and they were talking about how they had just sold theirs on eBay for $1,000. And that's when it hit me how valuable of a commodity some of these really are.

Justin: That's the thing. People are like, "They should all go to fans!" But how do you define a fan?

Movies.com: If someone is willing to pay a thousand bucks for something, clearly they're a fan.

Justin: Yeah, yeah, exactly. If you have a piece of paper that's worth a thousand dollars, that's a lot of money. Do we fault people for doing it? If you're hard up for money or lose your job and you have this poster that's worth a thousand dollars, what do you do? Is that wrong? Even if it's just a $20 or a $100 mark up on our posters, it's a weird thing to get into.

Mitch: And that's another reason it becomes really hard to police. When you're talking about people being able to make a $1,000 profit on something, they will do almost anything to be able to sell it. If it takes starting a new eBay account, they'll do it. We talk to people about it all the time, it's just something no one has a good answer for, and it's something we don't have a good answer for. It's just the nature of the market.

Movies.com: Now that you guys have started to do big runs for high-profile projects, are you running into any problems with studios? Has it changed your creation process at all?

Justin: I would say no.

Mitch: Well, it depends.

Justin: You don't think so?

Mitch: It depends. We used to do posters for Re-Animator or something and no one would really care too much. When we do a poster for The Avengers, it literally goes through every step of approval of someone on the poster. So Tyler Stout's Avengers poster, for example, had to literally be approved by every actor on the poster. So that does take some time and make it a little more difficult. But it doesn't really affect how we actually compose the poster, but as far as legal red tape, there's definitely more now.

Justin: You always have to go through a billion third party people to look at it and approve it. Even for Back to the Future, we had a million people look at it and go, "What's this thing here? What's that thing there?" For something like The Avengers it's even harder. Any time it's a new movie and it uses a likeness, you have to run it through a lot of people. But we've been doing licensed, repertory stuff for a while now, so we're used to the approvals. More to your question, since we are doing more new releases and bigger runs, you do get studios wanting to step in more, but it's all the same to them. They're still getting their royalties.

Mitch: Most of these studios come to us because of what we do anyway, so they kind of let us do our thing.

Movies.com: Do you find that more studios approach you these days, whereas in the past I imagine it was you approaching them?

Justin: We're out in L.A. right now and have been in meetings all week with studios, so it's definitely more of an open dialogue with studios than it was in the past. That's not to say we're just fielding studio requests. We're still very active anytime we're like, "This is cool, we should do this. Or what about that?" But if a studio comes to us and says, "You should do this for this movie," if it looks cool to us, we'll do it. But we're definitely not taking every studio job that comes our way.

Mitch: I would say we get more cold calls than ever before.

Movies.com: What are your long term plans for maintaining the brand, keeping it small? Evolving it bigger? What's the future looking like?

Mitch: More gallery shows. As far as our long term plan with the posters and keeping people satisfied, just keep incrementally increasing the runs. We have to do it slowly because we know we have a hardcore collector base that doesn't want bigger runs. We're going to do more records for sure, soundtracks are something we all think is really fun.

Justin: I think this year we definitely want to break out and do more things in more locations. Right now we've kind of only been to L.A. And Austin for live shows, so we want to go to different cities and maybe even different countries this year. And like Mitch said, more records, more gallery shows.

Mitch: Probably at least one more big, ongoing series like we did with Star Wars, where we did 10 posters for the same film over time.

Categories: Movie Posters, Interviews
Tags: Mondo
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