by: Mathew Carpenter
Most designers don’t think all that much of movie posters, and for good reason. The few posters that aren’t Photoshop disasters tend to follow the same dull template – a series of faces placed in front of a full, spacey background. There has been a lot of commentary about the lack of creativity in movie posters recently, and it all seems to boil down to one point: posters are designed to sell, not to stand as creative feats.
Of course, there are always examples that buck the trend. Look at any indie film festival and you’ll see hundreds of posters that don’t stick to the conventional ‘must-sell’ approach. But amongst major releases, it’s rare to see anything other than the norm. Poster design has become stale, particularly when it comes to blockbuster movies.
We’ve picked out twelve posters that showcase the best of movie poster design, ignoring the clichés now common to posters and instead focusing on the movie’s personality. Unlike indie films, which often have no expectations of a large box office gross, many of these posters are from successful releases. If you want inspiration and a little reassurance that good design sometimes is financially appreciated, let these twelve classic (and modern) movie posters do the talking. Note: Please click on the posters for a larger view.
1. Little Miss Sunshine, 2006
Little Miss Sunshine uses a fairly standard indie-style poster, but the film itself was far from the commercial flop most independent films are. Thanks to quirky design and endless positive word-of-mouth coverage, Little Miss Sunshine grossed over $100 million worldwide. Not bad for an indie movie, and certainly not bad for one that dodged conventional marketing materials design.
Several promotional posters were made for the movie’s wide release, all of which incorporated the yellow background and stylized character figures. Unlike other cult design hits such as Fargo, Little Miss Sunshine used yellow as its standard background color, highlighting the fact that it’s a comedy and eliminating the cleanliness that ultra-white poster backgrounds can create.
2. Alien, 1979
Alien is the prototypical space horror, and its poster is one that’s been endlessly copied amongst other science fiction movies and shock horror films. The lone central alien egg figure, complete with chilling tag line and black background, set the standard for the hundreds of science fiction horrors that came out during the next decade.
But what makes Alien’s poster design so fantastic is the consistency it shares with the film. Almost all horror movies use their posters as a device to bring viewers into the cinema, often at the expense of any real consistency once they’re in the seat. Alien does things a little differently, giving potential viewers a complete picture of the movie’s style without giving away its plot.
3. Lord of War, 2005
Few posters reveal the nature of a film like Lord of War’s. At a distance, it looks like any other shot of Nicolas Cage, but once you step closer it becomes fairly obvious that something just isn’t quite right. All of Cage’s face is made up of shell casings and bullets, each of which is in a slightly different state of disrepair.
Like the poster for Alien, Lord of War gives away some slight details as to the film’s nature without revealing any important plot points. While the poster itself follows some design conventions (the font, Trajan, has been used in hundreds of others) it doesn’t feel like any other. This poster does its job on two levels – as a piece of promotional material, and as a product of unique design.
4. Anatomy of a Murder, 1959
Take one look at the poster for Anatomy of a Murder and you may think you’ve seen it before. This iconic 1950s murder mystery film has its poster design all but completely copied for the marketing materials for Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers’ cult comedy that hit theaters almost fifty years later.
The poster itself is a good one – a piece of minimalist design and effective advertising. While there isn’t a single detail or frame from the movie in question, it’s difficult to glance at is and not gain an understanding of the movie’s subject matter. Subtle, simple, and interesting – exatly what’s missing from so many modern poster designs.
5. Clean, 2004
Clean’s poster is, well, clean. This 2004 French independent film wasn’t a major box office success, although it was reviewed favorably and has since gained a small cult following. The poster is one of the most prominent recent examples of white space and contrast in film poster design – the black of the characters’ hair and clothing drawing eyes downward over a stark white background.
However, this poster wasn’t the primary promotional poster for Clean. Somewhere along the line, it ended up getting shifted to the film’s DVD release in favor of a bland, cliché drama poster. Whether it was marketing pressure or subjective design isn’t really known, although it’s unfortunate to see a great piece of design get shafted in favor of a bland, stale, and forgettable marketing poster.
6. Moon, 2009
The poster for Moon is packed with symbolism. From the planet-style series of concentric circles behind Sam Rockwell to the echo-style character titles, there’s little about it which doesn’t bring up visions of being lost in space. The movie itself follows Rockwell as he completes a three-year stint on the Moon’s surface, mining for helium and monitoring activity on the satellite.
Moon used two promotional posters – the one displayed above and a more traditional science fiction style print. View it here and compare the difference in how they present the movie – one looks like a standard science fiction film, while the other makes the themes of isolation and distance much more obvious.
7. The Silence of the Lambs, 1991
The Silence of the Lambs was critically praised upon its release, going on to win five Academy Awards and cementing itself as one of the greatest horror movies ever. Part of the film’s incredible critical appeal was its production style, particularly the dark and minimalistic style applied to its marketing materials.
The film’s poster won the Best Poster of the Past 35 Years award at the 2006 Key Art Awards, and it’s fairly obvious why it did so. The poster is unsettling and scary, just like the movie, and has far more substance than it initially appears. Here is an analysis from PosterWire, examining the poster’s hidden images and rather dark history.
8. Scarface, 1983
Talk about iconic. Oliver Stone’s 1983 remake of Scarface set the bar for almost every other crime movie since released, mixing kitsch 1980s style with a timeless plot that’s been in use since the days of ancient Greece. Scarface’s marketing materials are some of the most recognizable in the world, having been imitated endlessly and printed thousands of times since the movie’s release.
Amazingly, the original cinema poster is still in production today, some twenty-seven years since the movie’s original release. If you’re less interested in picking up an original copy and much more keen to create your own, check out this five-minute tutorial on creating one in Photoshop. It won’t win you much praise from pro designers, but it is a neat way to fill in spare time.
9. Jurassic Park, 1993
Big budget? Check. Major director? Check. Based off a best-selling novel? Check. It would have been so easy for Jurassic Park to use the standard blockbuster poster template – a blurred texture with major characters plastered on top. But the film’s promotional team took a different approach, instead using a minimalistic dinosaur skeleton graphic to briefly introduce the film’s content.
For a film as groundbreaking as Jurassic Park, taking an unusual approach to poster design is quite a risky choice. It’s difficult to see executives not wanting to show off the film’s then amazing effects using print marketing materials. This poster may not seem all that revolutionary or unusual, but with the amount of money behind Jurassic Park it’s amazing that such an unconventional approach won.
10. The Dark Knight, 2008
This creepy poster was rolled into theaters almost eight months before The Dark Knight‘s theatrical release, giving fanboys and girls a glimpse of the movie’s villain long before it hit the screen. What is interesting about the pre-release marketing for The Dark Knight is its focus on things other than the movie’s primary characters – Bruce Wayne was nowhere to be seen in early posters.
Instead, the first theatrical posters used white space and creepy character silhouettes to introduce the film’s characters, all without displaying them completely and giving away their design. Call it anti-marketing if you like – some movie posters are more effective when they hide information from an audience, rather than revealing as much as possible to lure people in.
11. Star Wars: Episode 1, 1999
Lousy movie, great poster. This teaser poster for The Phantom Menace was released long before the film itself, designed to generate word of mouth and spread awareness of the movie. Like most parts of the latter Star Wars films, it was a clever piece of art that didn’t have that much substance. It is, however, a very smoothly designed promotional poster.
Truly effective pieces of theatrical advertising say all they can without resorting to text, and few do it as well as this poster. If you want to incorporate subtlety and silhouettes into your design, use this pre-release poster as inspiration.
12. All About Eve, 1950
When All About Eve was released, most promotional posters followed a fairly rigid pattern. Stars were listed atop the page, a huge title featured in the middle, and character profiles took up most of the space. All About Eve changed that, using an innovative sector-style design and guiding the eyes around the page using distinctive high-contrast arrows.
While it may look dated today, the All About Eve release poster is thought of as a classic amongst designers of film marketing materials. It almost single-handedly eliminated the full-color posters of the early 1950s, paving the way for innovative uses of white space and unusual divisions in movie promotional posters.