Denouement: The Enduring Appeal of the Movie Poster

The Projector
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No matter how old you get, how many movies you've seen, and how sophisticated you think you are, there's something undeniably evocative about a great movie poster. Almost always when we see a poster, we haven't seen the movie yet -- the poster and the trailer are usually the first ideas we have about what the movie will be like. But while a trailer contains actual footage from the movie, the poster is a marketing department's idea of what the movie's about -- or at least what about it will appeal to you and me. It's such an inexact science that I find it fascinating, which includes my own reactions to certain posters.

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.

Of course, you can't ever forget that posters are only rarely about art. Even the most beautifully designed poster has been put together to sell a film. But, hey, people frame their vinyl copy of "Sgt. Pepper's" and hang it on the wall for a similar reason: It's gorgeous but it also evokes something about the work inside. As I'm writing this, I'm in my office, where I have three posters up: "Short Cuts," "Manhattan" and "Safe." They're not all gorgeous, but they stir something in me -- the memories of those films I love. Whether a studio movie or an arthouse picture, the poster puts us back in touch with the sensation of watching that film. And maybe that's why we put so much emphasis on a one-sheet for films we haven't seen yet: Movies are about emotions, and we never get tired of experiencing those feelings. And a great new poster promises that we'll get to have those sensations all over again very soon.