I like to think I can pick out good design. Like I have some instinctual sense for what works visually, and this will, in turn, reflect the value of the product I’m about to consume. I’m probably just kidding myself, but of the books and movies I’ve judged based on their cover art, most of them turned out to be pretty decent.
Complete. Waste. Of time.
A great movie poster should peak your interest and make you look twice. It’s supposed to pull you in, make to want to cross the street to see the film. This has always been the case, but it may surprise many readers to know that poster design has changed a great deal since the dawn of film.
A Brief History of Movie Posters
Movie posters developed not out of theatre posters, but print adverts for the circus. Like the circus posters, early movie posters were colourful, striking, and lurid—designed to catch the eye of passersby.
Wrote a poster designer in 1914: "It is evident that the mission of the poster is to attract people. The poster must bring the people across the street. Secondly, having gotten them there, you must tell them, in as few words as possible what they will see when they get inside. You must excite their curiosity sufficiently to make them part with their [money]. Thirdly, you must appeal to their artistic sense…"
Movie posers were present as early as 1900 and were an integral part of the movie exhibition business by 1915. In these early days, movie posters were made by independent lighographic companies. Studios were not in the habit of producing mass marketing materials in the first years of the 20th century. Instead, poster companies provided generic art directly to the film exhibitor through a local film exchange. These posters ranged in quality and scope, from advertising individual films to art that could be used to promote a variety of movies.
Early movie posters, like this one from 1895, often advertised film exhibition rather than the film itself.
Eventually theatre owners started making their own posters. Some of the posters obtained through the exchange were pretty poor, and in-house production was one way of ensuring good quality.
By 1915 studios were making their own posters which they distributed to exhibitors. This gave the studios more control over the marketing of their films. Presumably, the move toward in-house poster production saw a decline in public outcry against ill-conceived artwork. While independent designers were free to draw up whatever images they pleased, exhibitors were often chastised for displaying misleading posters—the posters did not properly communicate what the audience should expect from the movies they were seeing.
Once that controversy was quelled, another took its place. Movie posters were indeed holding true to their films’ content, but the images had become too violent. Beginning around 1909, cities throughout the US started banning movie posters and establishing censorship committees to approve posters for public display. The issue of lurid and immoral imagery (usually pictures of crime-in-progress) was tied to classist arguments regarding filmgoers. Only the lower classes were going to the movies. If the film industry wanted to flourish, movies would have to appeal to a wealthier demographic—a population that, presumably, is drawn to spectacle. The poster ban and censorship led to standardization in movie poster design.
Art by Design
From their beginnings as an offshoot of the circus poster tradition, movie posters have grown into their own as both a means of advertisement and as an art form. A great many books have been published on movie poster art. With respect to horror, Hammer released a glorious coffee table book of their poster art, and countless blogs and posts celebrate genre posters.
But what makes for a good movie poster? Certainly, part of the allure has to do with personal taste, but poster design must also follow some loose guidelines in order to generate mass market appeal. The poster must be attention grabbing; it must create interest across demographics—not just the target—and have lasting appeal while communicating the movie’s theme or plot. Lasting appeal is even more important for sequels and franchises, as recognisability is key for poster series.
Ghostbusters hit all the targets with this design. The communicative logo appears in the film, creating an instantly recognizable brand.
Poster art is, first and foremost, commercial art. This has influenced poster design in significant ways, as is evident by the variety of posters types that exist. Many modern horror posters focus heavily on star power, believing this is what will bring people to the cinema. "Floating head" posters are boring to look at, but they let potential audiences know who’s in the movie—this is all the more interesting when you consider the fact that faces, more so than names, are what audience members will identify and remember.
Compare the floating head design of I Know What You Did Last Summer, to a poster for True Grit. Like I Know, True Grit’s poster uses star power to generate interest, but relies on names alone. True Grit also uses typology and style to communicate the movie’s genre and theme. Done up like a wanted poster, there’s no mistaking what kind of movie this is. The poster appeals to western fans, Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges fans, and Cohen Brothers fans alike. Whereas I Know’s poster is likely to attract only to horror fans and teenagers, True Grit’s audience, by virtue of its poster, is much wider in scope.
Two movie posters that use star power in different ways to market the films.
I Know and True Grit, it could be argued, exist at opposite ends of the poster spectrum. A variety of designs occupy the space in between. Consider posters that still feature the films’ stars, but forgo the floating heads in favour of full or medium shots. These more stylized posters are generally for more stylized movies; the poster art uses the same imagery as the film. Interest is generated through casting, as well as through the film’s artistic design.
Along these same lines, some designers eschew pictures in favour of graphic logos. Whereas Saw’s branding happened over many posters, Ghostbusters and Jurassic Park were able to instantly generate interest and recognisability with their logos and logotype.
What with all the remakes it makes sense to now consider their posters within the context of the film as a product. Remakes are generally a pretty sound investment, capitalizing on two demographics. I’ve ranted about remakes in the past, and I’ll restate here that remakes of "the big three" all repositioned the villains as the stars. This re-envisioning is represented in the films’ posters. Compare the original posters for Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween with those for their remakes. In each of the three new posters, the villain is featured prominently, whereas in the original posters, the villain is present as an abstract. The original designs all managed to communicate location- or date-oriented violence and terror, but at the hands of an unknown aggressor. The new posters bank on our familiarity with the films, and their design reinforces the movies’ villain-led structure and plot.
Posters for remakes of popular franchises leave little to the imagination.
In much the same way remakes of popular horror make us nostalgic for decades-old movies, there exists a similar nostalgia for horror movie posters. Canadian Will’s "in depth" look at posters on horrorbid.com is a short lamentation on the decline in quality of poster art. He blames modern graphic design programs for the change, stating that anyone can now produce "art". It’s a rather simplistic understanding of the situation and fails to take into account changing trends in marketing and aesthetics. Moreover, what Will and other similarly nostalgic writers fail to notice is there still exists a corpus of talented graphic designers who produce great commercial art.
One Missed Call: I come down on the side of this being creepy rather than laughable. The screaming mouths for eyes lends the face a distrubing quality that draws the eye and forces the viewer to consider the "wrongess" of the image.
Cloverfield: The copy, "Some thing has found us", perfectly sums up the plot while the image of the iconic Statue of Liberty, now headless, promises violence and mayham.
Pandorum: Although the film is not the body horror piece the poster might suggest, the art is still evocative and the implications horrorifying.
V for Vendetta: Inspired by mid-century propoganda posters, this design successfully communicates the movie's facist political setting. The colour scheme reflects that used in the film.
The Mechanic: Someone does indeed have to fix the problems, and the tool they use is a gun.
Identity: One potential problem is that if you think too hard about the poster, you'll figure out the twist. Alternately, you might be smart enough to get to the bottom of the mystery before the movie ends.
Dracula: The poster's gothic design mirrors the film's atmosphere. Dracula is an easily recognizable character, but his image is replaced by a gargoyle. The copy would suggest a humanistic slant to the proceedings, but the monstrous face undercuts any romantic notions you might entertain.
The Eye: The hand crawling out of the eye harkens to creepy Asian horror special effects and suggests this American remake might be just as atmospheric and scary as the origial.
The Descent: This is a recreation of the photo, In Voluptas Mors, by Philippe Halsman and Salvidor Dali. Used, in this case, to market a scary movie, the image of the film's stars forming a skull effectively communicates the horror the women encounter.