Billy's Film Reviews.

A series of film reviews and opinion pieces from a film student and all round movie lover! Happy reading!

The Movie Poster: A Simple Formula

For promotional purposes, nothing, apart form the trailer itself comes close to having such an enticing effect on an audience than the poster.
Seeing a poster of someone or something that sparks interest can be the major, and even in some cases, the only selling point required.
A lot of time and money is spent on the cinematic trailers for a film, and it feels after some extensive exploration in to the world of film posters, that there should be a lot more effort put into crafting a poster.
Uniqueness, boldness and interest are all required when designing a promotional poster, and it seems to be lacking severely nowadays, with many posters appearing generic, old and far too similar to others.

There are common themes and elements within countless current posters, and it is disappointing; but that is only after realising it.
To the unsuspecting eye, we tend to not notice the ongoing similarities between posters as we analyse them on a mostly individual basis.
It is only when comparison comes into play, that we are able to see how certain iconographic templates help craft the movie poster, and how they’re mostly all the same.

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Before I continue with some examples of carbon copied film posters that appear to lack originality, I will share with you all my favourite poster of 2013. It’s “Gravity”, the space-oriented disaster epic that was so cleverly and meticulously crafted, the poster worked so well in preparation for the first screening.
Not giving anything away regarding the sheer scale and destruction levels explored within the film, the blank, simplistic and seemingly boring poster is perfect. It explores the vastness and endlessness of space, but doesn’t give anything away about the film or the characters.
Usually, the big named stars are shown in full focus and large scale; here we see a distant astronaut in amongst a completely back landscape.
The white text works well to not add any vibrancy or excitement to the poster, rather, showing off simple and clever contrast.
This is what I miss about movie posters, the thought behind it all.

Elements such as colour, positing and scale play a huge part in the production phase of a poster.
What I am exploring mostly in this piece are the ongoing themes and major similarities that continue on between endless amounts of films. There are films that have near-identiclal posters, some of which are quite surprising.
More often unrelated than not, these seemingly polar opposites can be joined together simply through the same template of their posters.
Two examples that I picked up recently were “No Country For Old Men” & “Saving Private Ryan”, and “The Iron Lady” & “Enemy”.
A thriller, a war film, a biopic and a psychological surrealist piece, these films seem to be completely unrelated, or are they?

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The first pair of films display the faded floating head of the central character(s) hovering above the bold silhouetted figure below, holding a gun. Although the mood of these two films’ posters are completely different, the template is more or less identical.

Moving on to Margaret Thatcher’s biopic and Denis Villeneuve’s mind-bending thriller, these two are not connected in the slightest.
The major similarity between these two is seen through the cityscape backdrop blended in with the protagonist’s head. This allows the audience to understand the setting and the central figure that in some way has an effect on that particular place.
We know “The Iron Lady” focuses on Thatcher’s reign over England, and the poster evokes this quite well; eloquently too. “Enemy” is set in Toronto, the poster establishes this, yet adds intrigue through the inclusion of the enormous and threatening spider.
The city/head effect is on that is slightly more uncommon than others, but it has a very strong effect.

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Here we have a television series that shares an identical poster to a abominable film.
HBO’s “True Blood” made this subtle, sensual and contemporary vampiric iconographic image it’s own, yet it was until “Jennifer’s Body”, a B-Grade horror flick starring Megan Foxx was realised with the exact same poster, offering up every theme apart from the vampire feature. Just like the film itself, it offers up nothing new, nothing horrific, nothing enticing and nothing appealing; Megan Foxx is the final nail in the coffin (so to speak).
The subtlety of both posters works quite well, particularly when focusing on the horror genre. Nowadays audiences are so used to having posters full of blacks, greys and browns, it’s refreshing to see horror posters turn the trend on it’s head and choose a predominantly white/bright colour range.
This in turn adds even more focus to the blood, the primary point of the poster.

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We now move on to a more well known comparison. “Dredd” and “Daredevil” have incredible similarities from their posters.
This classic low-angle Hollywood iconic image of the hero standing majestically over a rooftop corner, overlooking the city that he is destined to protect. Both share the grungy, dark and orange-tinged colour pallet, the red title that contrasts with the black building structure, all the while having the hero standing slightly in shadow. “Dredd” appears more destructive than “Daredevil”, but the similarities outweigh the differences by a country mile with these two, yet again. Suited up, masked and clenching fists, the two posters could almost be from the same film; it could even be showing the film’s hero and villain.
We see this shot all too often in the films themselves, but seeing them on a poster doesn’t generate that much excitement – for me at least.

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Now comes arguably the most common image of recent times. In these posters, we see a hero/villain standing with his back to the audience, focusing on ether an ominous threat or something destructive.
“The Dark Knight Rises” poser doesn’t conform to the rest of the posters as such, however, the stylistic choice to show broken scaffolding and structural work shaped into the iconic symbol of the related subject is nearly identical to the “Star Trek: Into Darkness” poster directly next to it.
The theme of impending doom and the larger-than-life threat has become commonplace even more so in the modern cinematic age, all making for extremely similar posters.
The magnificent Christopher Nolan has fallen subject to having similar posters that exhibit this exact look over and over. From “Inception” to the “Dark Knight” trilogy, his posters have been quite similar as of late.
His earlier works such as “Memento” not only offered up great pieces of cinema, but they also had excellent posters to go along with it. “Memento’s” poster was original and convoluted, all the while adding intrigue and crucial elements of plot and character to the audience.

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Here is another highly popular feature within film posters – the two half faces.
Showing two characters with faces split down the middle, either side of the poster is a very common trend. The examples demonstrate this trend exceptionally well, offering up a strange connection/distanced feeling between the two characters.
For all five of these films, we see strong emotional bonds between these characters, all the while witnessing some immense conflicting scenarios given each films’ context.
If a film is released with a poster such as this, you can often tell what you’re in for – a large range of emotional relations between characters.

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On the flip side of this feature, we can now see examples of the more conflicting set up of half-faces.
When the charters are directly facing each other, it is obvious that combat and conflict is imminent between them in numerous styles.
Whether it be physical, verbal or emotional, this poster setup works very well in generating exactly what type of story the audience is in for; it will most likely not be a happy-go-lucky comedy piece in which nothing goes wrong.
The style has also generated a spoof with the third “Hangover” film copying the slightly more serious and final instalment in the “Harry Potter” franchise. It is obvious from this that the structure has not gone unnoticed in the industry.

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A Chinese website has displayed these rip-off films with identical posters to their Hollywood inspiration, some of which wee released a good 5 years earlier.
These Chinese films have blatantly and unashamedly replicated the American posters and made it their own, draining any element of creativity along the way.
There are some which have subtle differences, whilst, for the most part, their are those which make you think ‘why bother making a copy’?
Amongst these 9 Hollywood releases and the 9 Chinese ripoffs, I believe only 1 was reeled earlier, however I may be wrong, it could be another on the shockingly extensive list…
The films imply that they’re mostly similar in terms of plot, however there are some which are not connected in the slightest, making the element of copying that much harder to swallow.

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Here we have a collage of male and female iconography in cinematic posters. Iconography, as in the images that are iconic and representative of a time, location, character or medium, can be subject to gender too.
In these two examples, we see a unisex stance that is exhibited on 98 different posters. Like before, the central figure on the poster has their back turned to the audience, however in these examples, they are not facing a gargantuan threat from another world.
The singular figure is more often than not facing ever so slightly behind them, offering up something, but not too much. Mysterious and secretive, these posters are often used for the more ‘edge-of-your-seat’ thrillers and actions, as opposed to the stock standard romantic comedies.
The stance is often given to the darker charter, whether they be good or not. If they are in fact the hero of the film, they tend to posses a dark side; one that means they don’t necessarily play by the rules.
An extra example to go along with this theory is the possession of a weapon, often held behind the subject’s back – hinting at conflict, violence and tension within the story.
There are more female examples than males, almost 3 times as many; this could potentially be a sexist Hollywood move to show off more of the female anatomy that audiences are drawn to, or it could simply be an example that female charters tend to be more secretive across a vaster range of film genres as opposed to men.
Whatever the case may be, one thing for certain, and that is that this poster is seen more often than we may expect; keep an eye out for it.

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A less common but equally as effective style in poster design is the eliminating or blocking of the protagonist’s eyes with an object or text. There is so much emotion that is taken out of the subject in question following the blanketing/removal of the eyes.
Eyes are the nucleus of the character’s emotional core in terms of expression and connection to an audience. Without the eyes, there is an off-putting disconnect between the subject and the viewer, but at the same time, it creates a heightened sense of intrigue that draws you into the text and/or object – something that is obviously more important than the eyes themselves.
The example that effects me the most is the poster for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (second top left). Having seen this film many times, the choice of poster style in this case is perfectly achieved through contrast between the emotion shown on Jim Carrey’s face and the bland but bold, striking text that dominates the image.
This is one that isn’t too common, but still offers plenty of examples – a powerful tool in film promotion.

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We see this one far too much.
The cruder, smuttier and sexualised pieces often bare this infamous iconographic train wreck. The open legs with the main character(s) peeping through is one that appears too often in the cinema corridors and achieves to promote one thing and one thing only; garbage.
When a film’s promotional poster consists of 1/3 substance and 2/3 spread legs that frame the substance, it is pretty obvious what sort of film you can expect.
It will be rude, fowl and unappealing to most, I would like to think. Personally I don’t see how these posters draw in an audience; for me, they serve as an enormous ‘warning’ sign that I should steer clear of this disaster.

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If you look closely at this next example, you may notice something they all have in common.
Eyes, as previously mentioned, offer up so much about a character, good or evil, and allow us to get a real understanding about mood, intentions and characteristics, and that’s without even seeing the rest of them.
Most used throughout the horror genre, the close-up of the eye can be a real selling point for the film, all the while expressing a creepy and eery aura.
A staple for the modern day horror poster, the eye can be extremely effective, but at the same time, if the film doesn’t really focus on eyes and close-ups as such, it can prove detrimental.
There is a balance that must be achieved between the contents of the film and the contents of the poster – that goes for all genres and styles of promotional work – yet, for me, the genre that is most at stake is horror and the eye.
It can work to show off the abnormal or otherworldly within a contrasting human eye, or it can simply show a portion of a strange and intriguing creature that may or may not be threatening.
With so much yet so little to offer, the eye is a common and cleverly utilised tool for poster promotion.

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Zooming out ever so slightly now focuses on the headshot film poster.
Consisting of nothing but the character’s head, these posters offer up some high quality snaps without much substance to carry it along and offer context.
This doesn’t always make for an unsuccessful promotion.
For example, when I first saw the poster for “Her” last year (second top right), I would have never guessed that the film focused on a futuristic love story between a man and an operating system. The mystery and concealment of crucial information lead to “Her” being a much better experience for me as I had no idea what to expect from purely seeing the poster.
There was no warning alarm that went off or no dissatisfaction from not being able to decipher the poster. For a promotional method, the headshot couldn’t have been better for “Her”; it could however, have been much, much better for some others.
If the head in question is interesting, it’ll grab more attention than a poster displaying a series of characters from a mid-shot point of view.
Sean Penn’s “This Must Be The Place” for example (bottom left) is perfect because it’s a big name actor like we’ve never seen him before.
The lipstick is highlighted by the matching vibrant red background and his recognisable face is amplified by the framed vignette effect of his extravagant black hairstyle. The shock factor is alive and well with that one.

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Not only is the headshot poster a trend, it extends further than that into yet another trend – Seth Rogen head shots.
It appears that many of Rogen’s awful comedies are promoted the same way, a simple and lazy headshot. He has his moments, so do his films (barely), but the continuing examples of Rogen cranium to promote a film are starting to become frustrating. His face really isn’t that much of a selling point.
A film that worked much better in getting me excited was “50/50”, one of Rogen’s best films.
The poster showed what appeared to be a still from the film, with Rogen in the background actually expressing some real emotion.
Rather than posing blankly at the camera for a standard and generic picture, the “50/50” poster gave a true essence of what the film was about, and the struggles both characters are facing/going to face.
I will tear down the next Rogen headshot poster I see on the street.

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If you thought Seth Rogen’s posters were bad, wait until you see Jason Statham’s collection.
He has the upper hand on Rogen because he’s seen in several different position and stances, however, the excruciatingly painful thing about Statham’s film posters are that they look like they are a bunch of endless sequels sequels to the exact same film.
Holding and/or pointing a gun in every single one of the examples (there are more, believe me), it’s extremely difficult to grasp what the film is about and what makes it different to the rest.
Statham’s hair never changes, his accent never changes and nor does his attire; he plays the same freaking person! Having not seen any of the above examples of Statham’s starring roles, I can’t decide which one I would start with as I have no idea if they are all connected in some way.
It’s lazy, distracting and not enticing in the slightest.

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This next set of examples is very similar to the previously explored ‘headshot’, only these have an added intriguing element – text.
With most being placed over the subject’s head and therefore dominating the poster, the onlooking viewer recognises the talent, but is then drawn towards what is now the primary focal point.
Having the bold and often meaningful text over the poster adds that extra layer to the poster and can stand for quite a lot in the long run.
The Facebook Movie, formally known as “The Social Network”  (second top left) is a prime example of how advertising using big and bold words can be ultra-effective. An image can be processed from a simple glance, but a bold and extended sentence that covers the image requires a little bit more attention.
“The Social Network”
poster works so well because it establishes all the main themes from the film, as well as being relatively simplistic.
The sentence is bold and clever, focusing on the modern, technological revolution that is the internet and the social side of the world-wide-web. It hints at drama and conflict, whilst stating that the protagonist is successful and popular.
It really is one of those posters that continues to draw you in, especially after watching the film.

UnknownLast but not least, we have the minimalistic posters.
These are the ones that take one of the most well known elements of the film in question, and display it in a simplistic but artistic manner. For those who find it tacky to have film posters up on their walls, these are a popular substitute. Although these minimalistic posters offer up what is essential the heart and soul of the film, they’re lacking that originality the the first posters had.
Although most of them fell into formulaic categories that offer up templates to work with, at east they still had those subtle differences that made them stand out even though they’re so alike to the next film.
Reducing every film into one basic but crucial element of the film and placing it stylishly in the centre of the frame may look nice, but it doesn’t remain a film poster after this, it is now a piece of art.
It may be a pleasantly comforting alternative that fits the room nicer than the original cinematic poster, but the remade versions have been devoid of that iconography we have all just explored.
Every trend in film posters comes with certain guidelines and recurring features; iconography is a broad term that covers many styles and layouts, but that is all sadly lost with the minimalistic posters.

So there you have, my interpretation on the structure and formulas of film posters.
I apologise if I have just ruined the exciting movie poster for you from now on, but I thought it was a subject that had to be explored.
Like movies themselves, there are formulas and conventions that have proved successful in the past which are then emulated time and time again, striving to be as, if not, more successful than before – the world of film posters is no different.
Next time you pass by a series of current and ‘coming soon’ films at your local cinema, take the time to analyse them and work out if they’re really all that different to their neighbours, you may be surprised.

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3 comments on “The Movie Poster: A Simple Formula

  1. Noémie
    July 22, 2014

    Good article 🙂 I’ve seen a few like that now showing the postures, face details, background, main color of the poster etc…and it’s quite fascinating actually. I remember this movie magazine I was reading each month in highschool, where a section was interpreting one or two posters of movies out during the month, it was alwais pretty good.

    But then some use the same “technique” with much more sense than others…(Los Ojos de Julia, Requiem for a Dream…) and some I still don’t quite undestand why they decided to use some of those techniques…(Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles, beautiful movie, that looks sooo weird when you see it in the middle of the other “back turned” posters haha).

    Anyway, I always heard: don’t judge a book by its cover…I guess you can apply this to everything else !

    • wmsteele
      July 22, 2014

      It really is fascinating isn’t it!
      Yes, there are this which use certain techniques perfectly, while I agree there are those which do not, and as a result, you become less invested in the film itself

      If you haven’t already, check out the new poster for “Exodus” (I think that’s what it’s called) an AWFUL poster! haha

  2. Pingback: Principles of Design – Justin's Graphic Design Blog

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