On Movie Posters. Movie posters catch a lot of flak from the design community and the public at large. Without knowing the creative constraints, legal stipulations and work environments the posters are created in, it’s easy to pass judgment on the sub-par work we’re routinely fed. These cynical opinions are not without merit; the movie poster industry has been spinning its wheels in creative bankruptcy for some time now. My first job out of school was within the print department of a major (and sadly, now defunct) film-focused agency. I spent 2 years learning exactly why film posters have arrived at their sad state and I would like to pass along the information.
Process. The design of a movie poster starts 6 months to a year before the movie is released. There are extremes on both sides, of course; our agency worked on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs for nearly 2 years. Usually we’d be given the film’s script or shown clips that were representative of the final film. If we came into the process late enough, we’d watch the final film. While this is all good information to have, the most important aspects of most modern posters are stock images and unit photography.
Unit photography is taken during the production of the film and varies in quality. A dark, moody film usually yields heaps of unusable images of actors in poor lighting (See also: Shutter Island). A film with a lot of special effects yields photos of actors against green screens (I’m looking at you, Watchmen). Sometimes movies have no more than 200 shots (conversely, Watchmen had over 30,000 images), condemning designers to spend days scouring stock photo sites, hoping to find the perfect body to match that one good shot of an actor’s head. Sometimes, costumes were rented and we would have body double photo shoots. Somewhere, there are hundreds of photos of me dressed up as a firefighter, a magician and a detective from the 40s. After the shoot, my head was taken off in Photoshop and replaced with faces that earn a lot more money than my own.
The first round of work, often created in two weeks, consists of anywhere from 40-60 posters. As far as I could tell, this is simply what marketing departments have grown to expect*. This first round of work is always the most interesting and conceptual. You think high-concept posters only get made in Poland? Wrong. Equally imaginative work is made here, it just never sees the light of day.
Posters are presented to the marketing team at the the studio and are almost never seen by the director or producer until the marketing team is satisfied with what they have. There are always exceptions: A few directors have a very hands-on approach and sometimes a poster must be printed quickly, so it is put in front of actors and producers for approval early on. However, these cases are the outliers. If you’re wondering why so many posters mimic each other, marketing departments favor safe directions that they know audiences are comfortable with. This is a part of the process where posters become homogenized and watered down. Behold, the request of doom, “Well right now we’re just not getting the vibe we want. We need it to look more like [Insert well known movie here].” It’s all downhill from there. Requests like this and months upon months of revisions are enough to water down the most high-minded concept.
Once, after completing a rather extensive campaign, our comp book contained 700+ poster variations. We had 4 posters printed. That’s an average of 175 original concepts or revisions for every one poster printed. But wait, it gets better. Studios regularly double and triple vend projects, meaning there were two or three agencies doing the same amount of work. I was once told that Stephen Spielberg picked E.T.’s final one sheet from only 3 choices. In an industry now rampant with indecision and over-thinking, such an occurrence now sounds mythical in nature.
Legal stuff. There is such a mess of loosely related legalities that this section will read more as a disjointed list rather than a coherent string of thoughts.
Actors, directors and producers stipulate in their contracts the size and location of their names on the poster. Most actors require that their image be approved. Many posters have found themselves at the finish line, only to be set back weeks by an actor’s refusal to approve their image. At this point the designer is usually tasked with either finding an alternate image, which can be difficult, or photoshopping the actor’s face until it’s approved. You can imagine which option is preferred by all parties.
If you’re working on a film with a lot of talent, you have to fit a lot of names on your poster.
If the film has actors of various pedigrees, you’ll run into rules such as “If Joaquin Phoenix appears in tandem with Russel Crowe, Phoenix’s space occupied must be no more than 75% that of Crowe’s.” If there are two actors of equal caliber, you’re required to give them equal real estate. These rules are another reason so many posters look the same; there are only so many ways to show two actors being interested in one another.
The block of condensed text at the bottom of a poster is called the billing block. The height of each letter is dependant upon the average letter height of the film’s title. Designers who’ve worked in the industry for a while (10+ years) claim that, when they started, billing blocks were only 15% of the film’s title. Nowadays the billing block’s letter height is anywhere from 25-35% of the film’s title. Big title? Big billing block. Small title? Small billing block.
These are just a sampling of the legal hoops a poster must jump through on its way to being printed. Some actors don’t want to be pictured with guns. Good luck getting an image of someone smoking on a poster. You can’t show any blood. So on and so forth. The best posters to work on are international versions and teasers. International versions are almost always exempt from these legalities and teasers don’t feature a billing block, freeing them from the suffocating requirements that come with one.
Credits. Making a movie poster isn’t simple. It isn’t easy. If anything, Photoshop has ruined the creative process, not made it easier. Endless iterations are an expected part of the process and trivial legalities are more important than the posters they influence.
None of this information should be read as an excuse. It’s not. Movie posters are largely boring and uninspired. However, chalking it all up to untalented designers is ill-informed. There are also many independent designers doing great work on smaller films where the studio’s perceived risks are not as high. For such work, check out Neil Kellerhouse, Corey Holms, Akiko Stehrenberger and Erik Buckham.
Furthermore, the failure of studios to stand behind interesting work has opened the way for sites like Mondo to flourish. While I’m not privy to their process, I’d imagine that the legal restrictions for posters released after the main campaign are less stringent. Studios have already put out their product and made their money, so posters created after the fact don’t have the job of selling people on an unknown film.
Regardless, the importance of Mondo can not be overstated. Were it not for Mondo and the independent artists that comprise it, I’m afraid enthusiasm for the medium would be all but dead. And why wouldn’t it? Studios have long neglected posters in favor of far-reaching TV ads but, years after a a film’s release, does anyone remember the TV spots?
I know I don’t.
Leftovers. Here are answers to questions I am often asked but was unable to fit within the body of this post.
Despite the numerous creative roadblocks and long hours, I did enjoy my time as an entertainment designer. Of course there were frustrations; there are with any job.
In order to curb ridiculous file sizes, posters are not built at actual size. I built mine at 10.5” x 15.5” @ 150dpi. During the process, it’s important to keep track of unit photography used so that, in the rare event that your poster is printed, you can request high resolution versions of those images. Your file is then handed over to a Finisher, who would rebuild your comp to actual size using high resolution images. Due to the meticulous nature of rebuilding a poster, Finishers also keep an eye out for any blemishes they may find along the way.
The designer/client relationship seems completely broken in that the relationship is one where the designer constantly gives while the client endlessly takes. Unrealistic expectations are par for the course.
One of the biggest strikes that posters have against them is their inability to be tracked. Posters lack metrics. A marketing department can see how many followers their film has on twitter, how many people visit the website and get an estimate of how many people saw their explosive trailer on TV last night. Until posters can tell if you’re looking at them, they are of unknown impact in the world of theatrical marketing.
The studio wanted to put Tom Hanks in my Angels and Demons teaser poster, but Tom Hanks liked it the way it was. Thanks Tom.