Saturday 12 December 2009


I've always been intrigued by what makes a good film poster and whether that sometimes differs from what makes an effective film poster...

In my book (or, I suppose, on my wall) an iconic movie poster is, well, ICONIC...

I mean, consider any of the following. The merest glance and you know just about all you need to know about the movie on offer...

One image said it all. We all knew where you were with posters like that!

So, how come there have been so many posters going around for Robert Zemeckis' version of A Christmas Carol?

It started, many months ago, with this 'teaser' poster...

Since when there's been this one...

And this one...

And this one, which - like its predecessor - features a historical detail strictly for the cognoscenti - the Westminster Clock Tower ('Big Ben') under builder's scaffolding: Dickens' novella was written in 1843, the year in which building commenced on the famous clock tower...

As well as this is one which is, undoubtedly, the most stylish offering, though possibly not quite mass-market enough...

And, depending on where you are the world, you might see it advertised like this...


The trouble is, of course, if a movie is iconic then the poster tends to become iconic, too; but it doesn't work the other way around: an iconic poster does not an iconic movie make!

When it comes to A Christmas Carol, as several of you commented the other day, there are already several iconic film versions of Dickens' classic, including this much loved one...


Andy Latham said...

I wonder what Dickens would have made of TheMuppets version!

As you've met just about every famous person on the planet, Brian, did you ever get to meet Jim Henson? What a treat that would be!

Suzanne said...

I love it! I love it! I should try to get hold of the DVD! As to the posters, I prefer the very first one. I can't even remember which one we're getting here in Belgium.bountese: a person who is the complete opposite of Scrooge and goes way over the top with Christmas decorations and "cheer"

Brian Sibley said...

ANDY - Dickens (like Henson) was a popularist and had a keen grasp of the public's appetite for comedy, pathos, nostalgia and sentimentalism. I also think he would have found in the film a degree of integrity to his story, that would have met with his approval.

Certainly very little could surprise an author who, within months - weeks! - of publication - would have been aware of the most appalling travesties of his book being enacted on the London stage.

I absolutely haven't met "just about every famous person on the planet", Andy! Many have eluded me - such as yourself! But I would have loved to have met Henson.

I made a tribute programme to him on radio when he died for which I interviewed Frank Oz and a number of the Muppeteers and, in 1992, when The Muppet Christmas Carol was released, I got to interview Gonzo on live radio! The resulting chat, as you might imagine, both weird and hilarious.

SUZANNE - A DVD of The Muppet Christmas Carol should be in every home - just as a copy of Mr Dickens' book should be! It is essential annual viewing!

As to the posters, I agree: I like the first one - perhaps because it accentuates the smallness and aloneness of Scrooge, although the face in the candle smoke is very stylish piece of design.

Andy Latham said...

Lol you'll regret ever meeting me Brian, I have a mounting collection of books for you to sign! You'll get writer's cramp! :oP

I hear a new Muppet movie is in the works along with a tv show. Can't wait for that!

Brian Sibley said...

As David will tell you, the valuable ones are the UNsigned ones!

Good Dog said...

I do like the penultimate poster for A Christmas Carol, using the threading flame to create the hat. That’s a rather beautiful piece of work.


When I look at contemporary film posters... 99.9% aren’t very good are they?

I saw the [portrait] poster for Avatar recently. They spend so many hundreds of millions of dollars that it simply becomes obscene and the poster is primarily the floaty heads of the lead actor and the blue alien girl.

That’s it? That’s the best they could come up with? I’ve seen more stylish cow pats.

I’ve been scratching my head trying to figure out when and why movie poster design took a wrong turn. I’ve written a few posts over the past couple of years and I still haven’t found an answer. Maybe there are just too many variables involved.

Who is the target audience? Is the movie being sold on the story or the stars involved? I remember reading somewhere about film stars having a clause written into their contracts that would dictate how prominent their billing would appear on the poster. (There was that whole to-do with The Towering Inferno and whether Steve McQueen or Paul Newman would get first billing, solved by having the first name lower than the second so one was prominent left to right and the other up and down). Then there was the whole issue in general regarding the point size of the typeface in the block of credits. Maybe it all carries over into the visuals now.

As for the visuals... Because the studios want the film to appear to the widest possible audience is that why posters sometimes appear to have everything but the kitchen sink thrown in?

The worst of today’s crop are the horrible montages that have awful floating heads with a couple of tiny action elements blended in around them. However much the designers try to make them worse they always look a mess, which is why I prefer posters that rely on a single image but marry that image with a strap line. Do a quick internet search for the Up in the Air poster, which is one of my new release favourites. It’s the one line of text that really sells it.

How effective was the Alien poster? The cracked alien egg with it’s fluorescent gas seeping out and the classic line, “In space no one can hear you scream.” beneath it. No pictures of the actors, no space ships, no creatures. Just brilliant.

I can’t think of any other recent straplines that have been that good. Have their been any? Now, aside from the block of credits running somewhere along the bottom the only other names will be for the actors (if they’re famous, just the surnames) or a reminder of what films the director previously made.

But if I said that nowadays it’s just about the image then you could point out that the half dozen classic posters you’ve picked out are about the image as well, so there are no hard and fast rules.

Maybe there’s something in the fact that of those six, four are based on books, one on a stage musical. The Jaws poster pretty much replicates the image on the original book jacket but makes the swimmer and the shark more lifelike. It helped the novel become a best-seller, so with an established audience awareness, why not use it?

What would the Jaws poster be like if the exact same film was made today, I wonder? Would they go for stars rather than the premise? Would the disembodied heads of Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss float over a scene of shark–attack carnage?

To get to the point, I think there are two reasons why film posters nowadays have lost that iconic status are a bit rubbish. I may be wrong. There may be more. But here goes.

Both reasons come down to technology...

Good Dog said...

(I forgot about the character limit)

The first film poster that really hit me for six was Robert E McGinnis’ poster for Live and Let Die. I was seven or eight at the time, queuing up outside The Savoy cinema in Exmouth to see my first Bond film. There was a woman sitting on the barrel of a gun. There were bright tarot cards with comely women. There was a speedboat coming out of an alligator’s mouth and crashing into the bonnet of a police car!

A few years older and I’d be more interested in the women but instead... There was a speedboat coming out of an alligator’s mouth and crashing into the bonnet of a police car! How cool was that?!

Then there was the poster for The Poseidon Adventure... Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine racing through the upturned ballroom as a massive wave of water burst in behind them. Before it even, the poster for Where Eagles Dare with Clint Eastwood and Mary Ure in the cable car shooting at German soldiers while Richard Burton clung on to the cable behind them.

Wait a second... Hackman, Borgnine, Shelley Winters and the gang had climbed up the Christmas tree and were already on their way toward the engine room when the water burst into the ballroom. And Burton was the only one fighting on the cable car in Where Eagles Dare...

But that’s the point. Like a lot of old book covers they were an artist’s interpretation to give you an overall taster of what the film was about. And by artist I mean an illustrator. Not a designer or whatever these computer jockeys call themselves.

It’s so easy now to cobble something together with Photoshop. Since pretty much everyone can now do it, cutting and comping a bunch of studio sanctioned photographs, the artistry is gone. That’s painfully evident when the end result is another horrible default montage mess with floating heads blended together with a couple of action elements.

But the artistry is in the illustration where elements can be properly combined.

I didn’t like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a film but the poster, illustrated by – I think – Drew Struzan rather than Richard Amsel who did the original Raiders poster was more classy than messy. (Even if he did make Ray Winstone look like Dom DeLuise).

So manipulating photographs rather than creating a piece of original artwork (based on some picture reference) is the first reason.

The second reason is the media. Now we hear about films well in advance on the internet. We know what’s coming.

I remember one Sunday sitting in the back of the car with my sister as we travelled from where we lived on the edge of Dartmoor down to Torquay from. My parents had sold the farm and bought a block of holiday flats. (Years earlier they had owned and run a hotel so it wasn’t that strange a leap).

I suppose the two of us were being shown the new house in Ilsham Valley that was going to be our new home. Big changes were afoot. A new school. New friends (hopefully). All of that should have been important.

But as we drove through Newton Abbott, on a wooden board, attached to a big stone wall, was the (landscape) poster for A Bridge Too Far - the one with the near silhouettes of the paratroopers against a pale pink background. Running along the bottom was a row of photos showing all the stars involved. Obviously they were too small and we went by too quickly for me to see who everyone was. But the paras were what drew my eye.

New life. New school. New friends. But I could think about was reminding myself to sit on the other side of the car on the way back and remember the spot so I could see it again. I was that intrigued.

The great illustrators/designers like Bob Peak, Struzan, John Alvin, Amsel, McGinnis and the many, many brilliant artists that came before them – not forgetting the great Saul Bass – had to sell the film. Posters now just jog your memory and are put up outside the cinema to show that you’ve come to the right place.

Can you believe it, the WV is: hypewors

Brian Sibley said...

Great comments, GOOD DOG! I love it when the comments are more reading than the original post!

So much of what you say is on the money and a lot of it comes down, I think, to the battle between 'artwork' and 'photography'.

Take the kitsch poster for The Sound of Music: you could never have had a photo of that scene - partly because it isn't like that in the film! The happy relaxed family coming up over the hill (no anxiety there about pursuing Nazis!) and Julie leaping into the air despite a heavy carpet bag and a guitar case!

And Hildebrandt's original Star Wars poster is much more dynamic than any photo, as is the art-rendered portrait of Brando on The Godfather. Even the photographic image of Mia Farrow on The Rosemary's Baby poster is treated and forms a disturbing background to that silouetted pram balanced (why?) on a black hill.

Glad you mentioned Saul Bass. I was going to include his poster for The Man With the Golden Arm, but thought I'd already included too many images, but Bass' work on posters - and, of course - title sequences was phenomenal.

Good Dog said...

I liked the way I blamed the internet. Part of the problem but not wholly to blame. And I worry that I’m turning into someone who just stamps their foot and declares everything modern is rubbish! I’m going to be a nightmare for the nursing home staff.

I remember The Sound of Music poster from outside The Royale cinema in Exmouth. With an illustration, all the artist needed was reference photographs to get the facial features and proportions right and he could put the figures in any pose he wanted. (All that walking up and down the mountains gave Miss Julie great calf and thigh muscles, so she could actually leap in the air holding the carpet bag and guitar case while giving the Mother Abbess a piggyback. But they figured the last bit was just showing off).

I forgot to mention the great Tom Chantrell who created a lot of the Hammer Films posters. Many were used to help drum up finance so the film could be made. When he didn’t get reference in time for one of the Christopher Lee Dracula movies he painted himself as the Count instead. And of course Chantrell painted the UK Star Wars poster that wasn’t the Hildebrandt brothers one.

How great were those posters for the 1950s and 60s science fiction movies like Forbidden Planet? In some cases the poster was better than the film. And then there were the posters by Jack Davis – whose work I first discovered in the pages of Mad magazine – for comedies like The Party and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

I did check out the Rosemary’s Baby poster because the one here looked more like a DVD cover – and let’s not get me started on that – but I still couldn’t work out what the pram was on. Still, intrigue! Let’s pay to go and see it and find out what the movie is about!

But I’m not sure I would want to have gone to this screening.

What were they thinking? Maybe they were neighbours. Perhaps there should have been a scene where Mia Farrow wigs out and runs around the apartment screaming, “Someone left a note on my pillow that says: ‘You’re having the devil’s child! F.U.’”

Brian Sibley said...

You're right, of course, I had posted the DVD cover not the poster for Rosemary's Baby, so I've now replaced it with the poster. Although it is basically the same, it has that great strap-line that I had totally forgotten: Pray for Rosemary's baby...