Thursday, June 10, 2010

Culture Shock 06.10.10: Floating heads have ruined movie posters

The next time you're in a movie theater, look at the posters hanging in the lobby. You'll notice they have one thing in common.

They're boring.

Once upon a time, movie posters were little works of art, prized by film buffs and collectors. Now, they're a testament to the evils of Photoshop.
According to my unscientific survey, half of all new movie posters simply depict the heads of actors Photoshopped in orbit around the movie's logo. These posters are creatively bankrupt and fail at what should be their one and only job: generating excitement for a movie.

A recent offender is a poster for "Iron Man 2" that shows the cast's publicity photos floating above an explosion. It's every movie poster sin collected in one place, as if to serve as a case study of what not to do.

Obviously, the studio wasn't counting on that poster to sell tickets, since "Iron Man 2" already had a built-in audience. But that excuse doesn't keep a boring, unimaginative poster from being a boring, unimaginative poster.

Horror posters are even worse. Every installment of the "Saw" franchise comes with a now obligatory poster depicting an amputated body part. That gimmick wasn't particularly clever the first time, never mind the fifth. The only suspense is, what body part will it be next time? So far, we've had a foot, a couple of fingers, a head and some teeth.

Before Photoshop made things too easy for lazy movie marketers, movie posters had style. Often they were the work of talented artists and painters. Most famously, Clint Eastwood recruited Frank Frazetta to paint the poster for "The Gauntlet," Eastwood's 1977 police thriller. In good condition, original prints of Frazetta's poster now go for hundreds of dollars on eBay.

The iconic 1977 "Star Wars" poster, featuring Luke with his lightsaber raised above his head and Princess Leia showing more leg than she actually would until "Return of the Jedi," is another classic example of a movie poster that draws you in. They don't make them like that anymore.

Old-school posters did have their clichés, but at least they were memorable clichés. The beautiful woman in the arms of a monster, alien or robot was a favorite. It popped up everywhere from "Creature from the Black Lagoon" to "Forbidden Planet."

And to be fair, floating heads predate the Photoshop age. But when one of your floating heads is Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster, you've already succeeded in generating audience interest.

The best old-style posters were often for low-budget movies destined for rural drive-ins and urban grindhouses. The artwork was usually lurid and accompanied by over-the-top proclamations like, "What he does to your nerves is almost as frightening as what he does to his victims!" from "The Toolbox Murders."

But an effective poster could also be simple, such as the giant shark coming up from beneath the swimmer on the "Jaws" poster. If someone were to make a poster for "Jaws" today, it would probably show the heads of Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss floating above an exploding boat, with a shark hidden somewhere in the background.

Maybe movie studios think they don't need movie posters to promote movies anymore because they have the Internet. But if "Snakes on a Plane" proved anything, it's that Internet hype doesn't always translate into box-office success.

And "Snakes on a Plane" had a lousy poster.

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