Not to get all Running Man up in this joint, but considering how many of y’all strap on Fitbits that measure and record, like, every bodily function, it’s safe to say that technology has officially gotten downright “Jetson”-ian. And yet, somewhat implausibly, the paper-based, luddite-beloved movie poster has survived, remaining largely unchanged in the last hundred-plus years. Hell, even the size of the theater-display “one sheet” has only changed a whopping one inch (going from 27” x 41” to 27” x 40”) since Thomas frickin’ Edison set the standard back in the day. Why have these posters endured? I have no idea. So let’s try and figure it out.
Hollywood may be top cheese in cinema now, but it was the French who first delivered “le movie poster.” Until the promotional image for L'Arroseur arrosé arrived, theaters didn’t advertise individual films in their lobbies; they promoted the technical features of cinema because it was such a novelty. “Come, watch soundless footage of people falling down while you sit in a smoke-filled room!” or something like that. But Marcellin Auzolle’s poster changed everything, depicting an audience watching L’Arroseur and having whatever the French version of a “good time” is.
Viola, the movie poster was born.
Using the same logic that has allowed us to have five Scary Movie installments, studios quickly figured “if one is good, more is better.” Thus, the singular movie poster gave way to a series of movie posters, beginning with a teaser poster, which is typically just the movie’s logo or title and some suggestive but vague image.
Then comes the main one sheet (or multiple one sheets, depending on the marketing budget), followed by character posters, which have gotten freakin’ ridiculous. Seriously, for some big-budget franchise films, like The Hunger Games series, everybody including “guy eating at table behind heroes” gets their own promotional image. Nothing gets me less hyped for a movie than a poster for “guy eating at table behind heroes.”
It used to be that movie stars were all you need to fill seats with butts. Hence, from the silent era onward, the bulk of posters simply showed you a movie star, slapped their name above the film’s title and figured “that’s that! Time for a union-mandated break!” Gradually, the framed shots of casts gave way to more artistic endeavors. Patterns arose, and suddenly posters could be divided into crazy fun categories. These are not officially sanctioned categories mind you, just what us ridonkulous cinephiles call them. Let’s take a look at a few, shall we?
Giant Floating Head
Beware! Beware! It’s a giant floating head!
For some reason, studios believe that this is appealing and not horrifying and creepy. The formula is always the same: take a major star, decapitate them, stretch their face out to haunting proportions and slap some inspiring quotation that sounds vaguely ominous on it. Giant floating heads are only used for films with mega-watt superstars.
Butt Shot with Weaponry
A celebration of both tush and impending carnage, the “character facing away from the camera while holding a weapon” is a staple of action endeavors.
For some reason, studios feel that dangerous, bad-ass characters have no time to actually look into a camera, not when there’s so much killin’ to be done…
Back to Back
It’s practically a legal requirement that all romantic comedies must feature the leads posed back to back.
It shows that they are not quite on the same page but will likely, at some point, totally bone. Never mind that this is a position from which sex is physically impossible, the pose allows them to touch (implied intimacy) while reminding audiences there’s much work to be done first.
Between a Woman’s Legs
Easily the classiest subgenre, nothing says “wacky fun” like grown men posing where babies come out.
It’s obviously an effort to squeeze in both sex appeal and star power, but it comes off as trashy and amateurish. They keep making them, though…
Terrifying Mega Eye
A close cousin of giant floating head, terrifying mega eye is typically used for serious drama or horror.
There are almost always huge words printed on the eye (which would have to hurt). There aren’t any stats to back this up, but I have to believe this is the least collectible genre. Who would hang this in a house? “Let me give you the tour! That’s the bathroom. Over here is the kitchen. Oh, and this is the living room, where everything we do is under the watchful eye of Lord Sauron.”
There are so many other subgenres out there. There’s “Ensemble Cast Standing in a Line,” “Yellow-tinted Indie Poster,” “Hero Standing on Top of Rubble” and many many more.
Right, so back to our original question: What has allowed movie posters to survive and thrive? Part of that answer has to be Drew Struzan. In the 1970s and 1980s, right when emerging computer technology should have sent the movie poster packing, Struzan became a living legend. If you loved a movie poster from that era, chances are that Struzan did it.
Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Back to the Future, Blade Runner, Goonies… In his prime, Struzan produced as many as 10 airbrushed works a year. His work was epic and enthralling, capturing cinema’s ability to use your imagination as a chew toy.
I know that no less than five of his works have graced my walls at various points in my life. Although he can’t solely be credited for saving the medium, he undoubtedly played a massive part. Not only did his popularity at the height of the initial modern techno-boom stave off any changes, nostalgia for his work is likely still at play in preserving the practice today. For more on this underrated talent, check out Drew: The Man Behind the Poster, a documentary that’s currently on Netflix.
That said, Struzan was by no means alone in his influence.
I guarantee you know the work of Tom Jung.
Jung created iconic work for legendary films like The Deer Hunter, Dr. Zhivago and Apocalypse Now.
Saul Bass, whose poster for Vertigo may be the single greatest movie poster of all time, sparked a minimalist trend that remains popular to this day.
Robert McGinnis brought smoldering pulp to even the classiest of films.
The list of legendary poster artists goes on and on, from Frank McCarthy (The Ten Commandments) to Boris Vallejo (National Lampoon’s Vacation). Even today, while some studios take the easy way out and cobble together Photoshopped tripe, manipulating existing images with sometimes goofy, physics-defying results, there remains a vibrant culture of movie poster art. Mondo, a company dedicated to celebrating and preserving this medium of artistic expression, offers high-quality, alternate posters for films past and present.
The Internet, in all its grody glory, has allowed for the widespread distribution of alternate posters, some sanctioned by studios and some simply the product of rabid fans. Even if theaters or executives were to do away with this century-old practice in favor of some techno-voodoo in which 3D images of characters assault your senses, the genre will survive and thrive online forever.
But where’s the fun in ending on such a positive note? This is America! We end on scandals, dammit! Over the last century, scores of mini-controversies sprung up in response to various movie posters. Here are a few of my favorites:
While the poster for Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw is less titillating than an Old Navy catalogue these days, when it came out in 1943, pearls were clutched.
Jane Russell’s illustrated bosom desperately attempting to free itself from the tyranny of clothes caused an uproar...which only helped fuel ticket sales.
The Little Mermaid
If you don’t know this somehow, allow me to shatter your world: A “clever” animator at Disney drew a schlong into the movie poster.
It wasn’t noticed for quite some time, long after VHS cassettes were in practically every American home. It’s still funny to me. I don’t care how juvenile it is. “Man junk” smuggled into a castle illustration is just the best.
This one was just incredibly awful, unfortunate timing. I also own it.
Reflected in our hero’s eyes are the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Whereas today the image would be positively received as a celebration by one of New York’s most famous fictional characters, there was a time in 2001-2002 when you couldn’t even make a glancing reference to the incident.
Many controversies stem from unintentionally hilarious sexual innuendo (seriously, seek out the original poster for Yogi Bear) or intentionally explicit fare (every Saw poster). Regardless, any scandal that arises from a poster still does the work it was set out to do, raising awareness for the associated film.
Sorry Darwin, without evolving hardly at all in the last century, movie posters remain a beloved outlet of cinematic art destined to continue into the foreseeable future. Here’s to another hundred years, to the next Drew Struzan and to the next “genitalia in an animated movie poster” scandal!