Film theorist/fanboy Maciej Radny eulogises on a victim of the Hollywood machine: the relevance and the beauty of the movie poster.
Thanks to the inescapable deluge of promotional material related to upcoming films at my fingertips, the opportunity to browse the latest posters endorsing films now or films-yet-to-come comes to me most often during that short wander from the ticket counter to the dim, muzak accompanied confines of the cinema seat.
It was during one of these tours that I recently stumbled across the poster for Bradley Cooper’s upcoming film Burnt
What’s that? Want to know more? Well, the poster itself offers a modicum of information; namely that he’s wearing a chef jacket and offering (in text) that he’s got “everything to lose.”
Now, I’d be tempted to say the poster was poor, if it wasn’t for the fact that every other poster on display in the cinema offered a variation on the same format. Face, sometimes body, and occasional text. A quick online search revealed an alarming number of single, unimaginative character posters that promote little else other than an actor’s face and a hint of their expected costume design from the waist up. Apparently the most effective way to get our attention is by paradoxically holding up a mirror and selling us the equivalent of a cinematic selfie.
Is this really what marketing has come to?
Catering to a post-selfie world, we’re being fed superficial close-ups of our favorite stars in dress up with little to no indication of tone or narrative, saturating a years-long trend that may have ironically been set by David Fincher’s Social Network (its poster is entirely justified). That is not to say this movement is exclusive to the past couple of years. Hollywood has never shied from selling us a face, but it’s the prevalence of the format that’s troubling. In an age where the all-powerful “movie star” is supposedly dead, the unimaginative character poster sets the bar for creative advertising at a disheartening low.
Art and integrity are hard to retain when the focus shifts from mere expression to commercialisation and I enjoy being pleasantly surprised when a poster comes my way that finds equilibrium in that dynamic (the visually arresting poster work for Ron Howard’s upcoming In the Heart of the Sea’s comes to mind).
What’s really eating me is how movie marketing’s most prevalent trend is potentially indicative of what we as an audience expect from a film.
The intention of the poster is inherently to create an expectation, offer a semblance of narrative, to set the tone and give a feel of the characters. These wide criteria could range from to-the-point to impenetrably abstract (for examples of the former see most of Drew Struzan’s poster work, for the latter see any example that came out of Eastern Europe post-1950), but nevertheless played an important part in encouraging one to see the film advertised.
Unfortunately due to the accessibility of the moving image, the role of a static one has become redundant. A 1-2 minute sensory appetizer cherry picked from the film itself is usually a curious click or finger tap away and tends to be a better indicator of the potential quality of the film than a lifeless, albeit large, static image printed on glossy paper. It seems the most valuable information one can glean from a modern movie poster boils down to the correct spelling of the title and potentially the name or names of stars attached in order to ease the pursuit of more information (that said, Google’s prescient search suggestion feature has more or less eliminated that struggle too).
The value of the film poster has diminished and expectation of quality will follow suit.
Because of this, modern examples more often than not impart in the image the bare minimum of information required to sell the film, in theory boiling the film down to its essence. One could think these limitations opens the door creatively for one to explore the spirit of the film in a minimalist landscape; sadly this is rarely the case. Instead, narrative and tone are sidelined for essentially the one safe guarantee that can be made to an audience: that this person/character will be in the film.
This kind of superficial iconography concerns me.
If the trailer for a film picks the best parts to entice you, similarly the poster indicates what the focus of the film should be. One could argue that an exclusively character-based poster is ultimately a good thing, seeing as the character should be the fundamental driving force behind a film; but like a selfie, the best ones are the ones with context, providing a necessary drama and intrigue to make the image interesting.
Otherwise vanity is embraced and style poorly conceals a complete lack of substance. Ordinarily, this sort of laziness wouldn’t bother me past a certain point, but the “tick the boxes” approach majority of audiences have when it comes to assessing the quality of a film is indicative of an attitude that settles for the bare minimum as long as it looks good.
It is exactly this attitude that is reflected in these half-baked character posters and it is not one that needs to be fostered.
So, Hollywood, if you’re going to take selfies, take it with a hot dog; take it a with grain of salt, just give us a better reason to hit “like”.