Denouement: The Enduring Appeal of the Movie Poster
Warner Bros. Pictures
I was thinking about this after reading a great post that Slashfilm found from French writer Christophe Courtois (and translated/ripped-off by Oh No They Didn't!) about some current trends in movie posters. Courtois did a pretty brilliant job breaking posters down into 13 categories that just about everyone will recognize, including I've Got My Eye On You (movie posters featuring a big eyeball) and Text In Your Face (movie posters where huge words -- either the movie's title or tagline -- obscure the actors). Not only does Courtois find a lot of great examples of every category, he analyzes exactly what each category is meant to advertize. (With the eyeball posters, it's usually a horror movie.) It's all pretty spot-on.
But what the post doesn't quite explain is exactly why posters have such a hold on us. Consider two recent examples. The first is the poster for "Young Adult," which stars Charlize Theron. The movie reunites director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, who worked together on "Juno," a movie a lot of people loved and a lot of other people found annoyingly cutesy. But most people looking at the clever "Young Adult" poster -- which is made to look like a young-adult novel -- like it and start to have a positive impression of the movie. Conversely, there's the incredibly boring poster for "War Horse." That movie's directed by Steven Spielberg, who has made a lot of great movies. Plus, it's based on an acclaimed play that's based on an acclaimed book. "War Horse" should have everything going for it. But as soon as I saw that dull, "serious" poster, I instantly thought, "That doesn't look very good." Not the poster -- I thought the movie didn't look good. Why? I know exactly almost the same about the movie before I saw the poster as I did after. Except now I have major reservations about it.
Just like all effective advertizing, a great poster leaves you with a good feeling that you then associate with the product. "'Young Adult' is gonna be fun." "'The Dark Knight Rises' will be really cool." A film's promotional people are giving us ways to think about a movie months before we get to see it. Warner Bros. doesn't want you to know much about the plot of "The Dark Knight Rises" other than that it's going to be dark and epic. How do I know that? The poster told me.
It's one of the reasons why The Daily MUBI does a fun feature called "Movie Poster of the Week," where they spotlight a particularly innovative or iconic movie poster, explaining what makes it so special or how the movie's artwork evolved over time. (Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" is a particularly great recent entry.) Looking at these posters, you don't just admire the artistry but also start thinking about the film (if you've seen it). Much like how my dad will talk about the pleasure of listening to baseball games broadcast on the radio -- it was more intimate and immediate than watching them on TV -- I think that's why posters have more of a hold on us than trailers do. A trailer tells you what the movie's literally going to be, but a poster conveys a feeling of what the movie hopes to aspire to become. That's why it's especially poignant when a bad movie has great one-sheets: It's a constant reminder of what the movie tried and failed to achieve.