Once upon a time, movie posters often turned out to be iconic works of art – fascinating and striking visual representations of great cinematic efforts. They were filled with passion and reverence for the project they were depicting and, as promotional material, they heightened anticipation for the film.
It was, in days gone by, a veritable rite of passage for the young enthusiast to attempt to snag one from the multiplex, once they had removed them from display. As film fans, who among us has not, at some point in their life, proudly displayed the poster of a favourite film – perhaps even in a frame – either to announce the depth of meaning it holds for the viewer, or to simply enjoy the artistry required to create it.
Nowadays, however, most film posters look like this:
They have become as predictable and formulaic as the majority of films they are designed to promote. Just as originality has become a rarity in cinema, it has become a rarity in poster artwork, too – striking a heavy blow at the heart of a beloved cultural tradition.
The demise of the carefully thought out, well-crafted film poster has been gradual, but steady. As technology has evolved, so have these pictures – changing from hand-drawn artwork to photographic images. Unfortunately, rather than embrace these advances and exploit the endless possibilities they bring, the film promotion industry has taken the opportunity to homogenise the art form and create a perpetual re-hashing of the same handful of images.Next
We know them well. There’s the ‘lead holding a weapon while looking menacing,’ the ‘lead walking away while looking moodily over their shoulder,’ the ‘man and a woman standing back-to-back,’ the ‘soft-focus heads in clouds,’ and the always popular ‘women nagging men/rolling their eyes.’ These poster-types are so dominant that the majority of releases are variations on these themes – if not, just the same image with new faces. “But, why?” We wail, collectively. Well, because of the rise of the corporation, of course.
In the same way that big business has crept its way into the film industry – smoothing its edges and pre-packaging its product – so it has infiltrated the nature of film promotion. Trailers, TV spots and posters are all crowd-tested and massaged until everything that is distinctive about them has been eroded away, leaving just another instantly-forgettable, meaningless image. Of course, there are still exceptions to the rule, and occasionally, a film will arrive with a truly interesting poster that bucks convention – but these are simply too few and far between. The majority of promotional poster design is, these days, increasingly influenced by The Four Gs: Genre, Grading, Gender and Growth.
Genre seems to dictate a lot about the image used on a film’s poster, as if it is the most important aspect of a film – to the extent that, in modern cinema, we can tell exactly which category the movie fits into with just a passing glance. On the one hand, this may well be the idea – to effectively convey as much information about the product as quickly as possible – but it also means that, as the viewer, we don’t have to pay attention. For example, if you give this poster a cursory once-over:
You already know everything you need to know about it, without even registering who is in it, or who made it. This happens automatically – you make the assumption based on past consumer experience. You know that if you see a poster with a man and a woman back-to-back, the film will be a romantic-comedy in which the two leads are initially in conflict, but gradually warm to each other over the course of the running time – which will probably be about 20 minutes too long.
Similarly, if you happen to walk by this poster:
You make a different – but still accurate – assumption. Without needing to read the title of the film, you already know that it is a more serious romance, in which the lead couple must overcome some kind of adversity in order to be together, in a film that will include wistfulness, longing, and extensive make-out scenes. You know all this because the faces are in soft focus, and are floating in clouds.Previous Next
Each genre has its own poster conventions which achieve the goal of stating, categorically, what you are about to watch. It is a testament to the times we live in, that we have to reduce the art form to such basics in order to register the necessary information within the brief second that we might look up from our smart-phones, or glance up from the pavement as we rush to our next appointment. It needs to tell us about the film instantly, as we blindly scroll past the image on our online social networks, or page down through the ‘What’s Showing’ section of the multiplex website. Unfortunately, the result is – rather obviously – that there is then nothing distinctive about them at all, and they all blur into one.
Grading is the influence of colour grading on film posters, which has gradually seeped through from the over-bearing colour grading trend in the films themselves. Many commentators have bemoaned the domination of the orange/blue colour palette in modern cinema, and it is certainly the case that it can be seen – particularly in studio productions – being used excessively and unnecessarily. Many trace the trend back to the Coen Brothers film, O Brother Where Art Thou, which was the first feature film to employ a Digital Intermediary for the entire movie. This process involves scanning the whole film into a computer, allowing the cinematographer and colourist determination over every aspect of the image. It was used by the Coen Brothers and their cinematographer Roger Deakins on that film, because they were keen to achieve a sepia, ‘old photograph’ look to the production, which was being filmed in a very green Mississippi. However, this advancement – quickly then used in Chicken Run – opened the door for filmmakers to play at more extensive colouring in.
Again, rather than use this opportunity to test the limits of film and the use of colour in it, many filmmakers began to employ ‘complementary colour theory’ to make images ‘pop.’ This means that, since the range of human flesh tones occur on the orange spectrum, the complementary shade – according to colour theory – is blue (or, more specifically, teal). Colour grading is important, because the motivation behind complementary colour theory is that colour affects our mood. This explains why a film like Superman Returns leaves us feeling dejected. It’s not just because it’s disappointing – it’s because the whole film looks like this:
So, thanks to complementary colour theory, and its domination in filmmaking, our modern movie posters have followed suit. The result is, not only are the images themselves limited in design, but colour choices are limited, too.Previous Next
Just as the use of colour in movie posters has inevitably begun to mirror the use of colour in film, so the representation of gender has done the same. Most posters feature male characters more prominently, because that’s what most films do. At the same time, because these are static images trying to convey immediate information, when women do appear on modern movie posters, something bizarre tends to happen.
Who can forget the incessant hair-tossing:
Or the time that Black Widow seemed to desperately need a bathroom, while tossing her hair and following Captain America:
Or the time that Theo James starred in a movie with Shailene Woodley’s bottom?
Generally, the poster of any action film featuring a female lead has her striking the same poses as male action stars, in blue and/orange – but in a skin-tight outfit. The admirable exception is The Hunger Games film series – the posters for which, though admittedly entirely in orange, focus on Jennifer Lawrence’s face. Her costume in the picture is relatively modest, and the most flesh she ever has on display is on her shoulders.
The influence of commercial growth on movie posters is all-encompassing. As the film promotion industry has grown, so has the demand for lengthy advertising campaigns. Now, we don’t just get a poster, we get teaser posters – sometimes before production has even ended – and ranges of character posters. For enormous movie projects such as X-Men: Days Of Future Past and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, that’s a vast number of posters. They all have to be striking, while conveying everything you need to know to make a split-second decision about whether to see the film or not. They all need to reflect the film’s ‘brand,’ so you feel comfortable and familiar enough to part with your ticket money. Ultimately, for huge studio productions, they need to fit with all the conventions of the previous three ‘G’s.
But, let’s not kid ourselves here. Independent movies aren’t much better at producing interesting film posters. Movie promotion companies know that indie films are not exempt from the conventions that everyone else adheres to and, in fact, with independent productions, promotion is even more important. Without the sizeable cash injection of the big studios, the word needs to be spread somehow. Without the built-in status of a recognisable brand, the film still needs to compete in the marketplace. This is how indie movie posters eventually look the same – by sticking to the idea that they must highlight the fact that they are independent. How is this achieved? With a quirky font, of course.
So, this is all terribly lamentable – and there’s not really much to be done about it. It’s not possible to ‘vote with your feet’ on a movie poster. It’s not about wanting to return to ‘the good old days,’ either – although the complaint does highlight the evolution of these trends over time. On the contrary, change can be an incredibly positive thing, if those working within it embrace the opportunities that change provides.
To seek to visually represent a film that is rich and complex, simply with a picture of the lead star’s face or body, is to miss an important chance to create something fresh, unique and reflective of the movie in question. So much more can be conveyed, beyond blandly stating which genre it falls into. The use of complementary colour theory in colour grading is like opening a palette containing all the colours of the rainbow, and restricting oneself to variations of only two shades. Objectifying a particular gender, or relegating one to ridiculous hair-tossing, is to devalue half the audience. To flood the media with an endless stream of teaser posters, character posters and full posters is to reduce the impact of all posters. Seriously – how often do you take a good look at your wallpaper?
With all possibilities open to them, those behind modern film posters have succeeded only in applying a range of new and pointless restrictions to themselves – stifling a means of advertising that once created great artwork. It’s not all doom and gloom though. Every once in a while something wonderful slips through – something filled with colour, joy and passion. Something just like this: