• The Lost Art of the Film Poster

    By neilinnes

    10th February 2010 | 13 comments | 6 people like this

    The Lost Art of the Film Poster

    After I’d seen John Hillcoat’s The Road earlier in the week I wandered out into the light to find myself a little dazed and drained, standing in the lobby of The Ritzy in Brixton, London, staring up at Matt Damon’s grimacing super-face. A face that sells film. Bourne but not Bourne looks over his shoulder at me, all black and white and grainy. Cluttered all around him are groups of four stars, word’s like “Explosive” and “Epic”, multitudes of exclamation marks. The words Green Zone, in some plain, bland, Helvetica-like font are slapped in the darkest corner of the frame.

    A large print of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, sits above my fireplace at home. It’s boldness, it’s style and it’s mystery complements the film beautifully. The famous “empty” statement at the climax almost lives in the empty space of it’s composition. Faye Dunaway peers out of Gittes’ cigarette smoke and a wave of water laps at Nicholson’s coat, escaping from frame. In a nut shell the poster hints at the story of the film but, more importantly, uses elements of it to create something that stands apart.

    But let’s not get too “art-critic”.

    I flash back to Damon’s face. In all of it’s you-know-i-could-kick-your-ass-just-by-looking-at-you-ness. I like Damon, I admire Paul Greengrass’ breakneck technique (though the editing is far too fast) and I’m looking forward to Green Zone, but, seriously, is this really all we have in the way of poster art to tantalize us into the cinema? Is this really what movie posters have become? Boring unimaginative standard A-lister masturbation?

    Film campaigns  these days generally come with 3 built in layouts.

    1. The “Romantic Comedy Layout” has a large Vince Vaughn type standing back to back with a Sarah Jessica Parker type on a white background. A bubbly colourful tag line above their heads, the pair, perhaps standing on the title.

    2. “The Thriller Layout” usually comprises of Jason Statham or Gerard Butler’s bucket shaped heads in a cloudy sky above an outline of the city in which the movie is set. Often other smaller faces will accompany them. Usually the character who dies first on the far left.

    3. 80% of “The Horror Lay Out” advertising will consist of a grimacing off centre face,  peering from behind a shattered door under splatters of blood or an outline of a house in a corn field.

    I’ve seen more creativity in lame cattle.

    From the early 1900’s to around 1980 the National Screen Service (NSS) was originally responsible for the creation and printing of film posters in America and, I believe, of distribution overseas. A considerable amount of the work would be done by freelance artists, usually a few individuals at a time. Unfortunately after the NSS dissipated during the eighties the studios handled the work themselves and the era of new cinema advertising, as we know it today, was born.

    Not only did the cheap studio marketing techniques eradicate the possibility of a new great poster artists working independently but, after Jaws had set the pace for the summer blockbuster and as the mentality in film making itself began to shift to one slanting towards pure advertising, it inadvertently also changed the purpose and vitality of the poster. The dumbing down began…

    As is always the case, of course some great artists managed to succeed within the studio in the 70’s and 80’s. In fact, some of our most iconic and most loved were hand drawn by the likes of illustrators like John Alvin (Blade Runner) Bob Peak (Apocalypse Now), Richard Arnsel (Chinatown) or crafted by the prolific Bill Gold (Dirty Harry).

    But again, as film changed, as what was possible in film changed and as Hollywood lulled in storyline, so did a lot of beautiful posters.

    Isn’t beauty is in the eye of the beholder? I bet you’re one of those people who yearn for tube amplifiers , reel to reel recording, film cameras and, whilst reading actual words from a second hand paperback, in an armchair not bought from Ikea, you think about the days when record stores were overflowing with stacks of good vinyl and the cobble stoned streets were filled with rosy cheeked women carrying handkerchiefs that smelled of lavender…

    Well… look, I’m not a true technology disser. I’m not saying every film poster made after ‘90 and built Photoshop isn’t even fit for a quick recycle and sent the way of the loo roll, let alone be allowed to adorn your local cinema foyer. Not at all. There are great works out there, I’ve managed to find some over the course of writing this, but they can’t hide the almost savage laziness of bland film marketing or the fact that, rarely, do the best make it into our cinemas.

    Take for example this classic poster for Sam Peckinpah’s controversial Straw Dogs. An amazing image on any level, only intensified when looked at with even a little knowledge of the film. A vital film, definitely not loved by all but a definite landmark for the boundaries of cinema and an image which holds up even against Peckinpah’s savage film making style. So when it finally got a DVD release in the UK in 2002 after being banned since the early 70’s what adorned the cover of the DVD?

    This complete eyesore.

    No offense to whoever out there put this together, after all we all have briefs sometimes.

    A few months ago I read an article which looked at the poster campaigns for Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. A film which on paper would seem perfect to design a poster for. It’s beautiful to look at, has many interesting, dark and controversial themes and many varied artistic influences such as Hieronymus Bosch, Stephen King and Ingmar Bergman to name but a few. Maybe it was surprising then, maybe it wasn’t, to see Antichrist marketed all over London with this blunt and ridiculous piece of type-setting.

    “Wow, look how shocking this film is going to be!”

    “What’s it about?”

    “Who cares!”

    Things get worse; Have a look at the UK’s blunt, blood splattered DVD. You can imagine the conversation in the video store in which some husband tries to convince his wife about cuddling up on the couch to watch a scary movie. “Ooh this looks good… like Saw III”. If there’s a film out there that isn’t going to get you a cuddle fellas its this one. Things might be a different story (at least to begin with) for the same couple in Australia where Jeremy Saunders came up with this similar yet more subtle and far more fitting poster.

    So are we forever destined to have films angled for mass sale at the detriment of something once designed so beautifully? After a lot of searching around I was finally happy to find poster artists, bloggers and illustrators from all industries similarly baffled at the situation. There are many wonderfully designed Criterion Edition discs and many fans of the company who, often rather beautifully, produce their own fantasy Criterion releases.

    In my hunt I’ve also completely cemented my love for one countries frequently amazing designs. Poland has seen many of the greatest film artworks ever escape into it’s mainstream. Sometimes having little, in regards to theme or mood, to do with the actual feature, the art works instead search for some metaphor within the the film itself and use it’s plot ideas to create something entirely different but interestingly linked, none the less. Something inspiring.

    The slightest hope that some of these gifted artists can make their way into the studios, where, as we speak, someone is once again placing Bold Helvetica font on Matt Damon’s head, really makes me smile. So it’s not all doom and gloom… More than anything it’s interesting and exciting to have discovered a bubbling independent resurgence of wannabe poster artists and to have found other people who I think have a real appreciation of what once made (and what could make again) some classic poster artworks for our cinemas.

    At the very least it would be beautiful to see what they could do to Matt Damon’s face.

    Thank you for reading. As a film poster fan it would be really interesting to hear from all of you. What is your favorite film poster of all time? Do you believe that film poster art has changed in style but not in a level of creativity? Am I an just an old fashioned romantic? I hope so… - Neil Innes


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