Is the movie poster dead?

Recently, when I was walking down the street, a bus passed me. It was plastered with advertisements for the Martin Lawrence integrity-stripping franchise entry Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son. The poster looked terrible, and I’m sure that’s a pretty accurate description of the film, too. It did nothing to interest me or make me want to spend money on the film, but it did make me think about film posters and how terrible they’ve become. Movie posters surround us; when we walk down the street they’re plastered everywhere; they cover the walls of cinemas and can take up a page in a newspaper; even when we get home the images have a habit of popping up on our computer screens. The advent of television and the internet changed movie marketing. Trailers now not only precede films in the cinema but TV spots litter scheduling, and any trailer can be streamed online with a click of a button. From an advertising perspective, a trailer is surely a better way to communicate to the audience, as it shows the potential consumer the actual product—how the film looks and sounds. A poster, on the other hand, can only ever be a representation of the film. But is that such a bad thing?

Saul Bass is one of the most famed and celebrated designers to ever work in cinema. His designs, notably his collaborations with Hitchcock, have been widely imitated and have influenced many modern concepts; The MacGuffin’s own masthead is a perfect example of this type of homage. On his designs, Bass said:

“I want everything we do to be beautiful. I don’t give a damn whether the client understands that that’s worth anything, or that the client thinks it’s worth anything, or whether it is worth anything. It’s worth it to me. It’s the way I want to live my life. I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.”

Bass’s artistic vision and sparse design legitimised the films he was promoting, granting them subtly, dignity and tone. His images have become some of the most instantly recognisable in film history. However, as money has grown in Hollywood, the concept of sole artistic vision has been replaced with an expansive marketing department, and unlike Bass, they want everyone to care.

The Motion Picture Association of America’s annual report used to include a breakdown of studio marketing expenses; however, from 2007 this subsequently ended, the assumption being that in a time of recession, studio execs didn’t want to show the vast amount of money that was being spent on their overblown advertising campaigns. If we look at the figures from 2007, we begin to see how much of an investment film marketing actually is. In 2007, the average advertising budget for a movie made by a major studio was $32 million. 43.9% of that money covered all the TV spots, trailers and internet advertising, leaving 56.1% for all other marketing expenses. This includes market research, radio, exhibitor services and posters, magazines and billboards. A poster (or its industry term, a one-sheet), “is a single document that summarizes a product for publicity and sales.” It has a pretty straightforward job: to present the movie to the audience. It’s tricky, though, as a film has quite a lot of information that needs to be illustrated in a relatively small space. Because of this, marketing companies have reused many trends within a lot of their designs, which they use as shorthand so the consumer is given as much information as possible within the one-sheet. For instance, the ‘red text on a white background’ trait tells the audience that the film advertised is a comedy (and I use that term loosely). American Pie seemed to start this modern trend, and a lot of comedies followed suit. It’s especially a favourite for the films with Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy dressed as women in fat suits; if you look closely, you can see their dignity dissipate into the negative space.


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Sean was born and continues to live in Edinburgh, Scotland. He spends his spare time watching terrible films and then complaining about them to anyone present, regardless of their interest.

You can reach Sean via email, he doesn't have time for Twitter.

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