“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a proverb whose simple existence proves the fact impressionable souls will do so without fail. This monthly column focuses on the film industry’s willingness to capitalize on this truth, releasing one-sheets to serve as not representations of what audiences are to expect, but as propaganda to fill seats. Oftentimes they fail miserably.
One of these years Alamo Drafthouse has to organize some crazy Mondo Tees sponsored summer where every big tent pole release receives a unique artistic interpretation on paper. They get a couple mainstream grabs now with limited edition giveaways at select IMAX midnight openings (see two of this month’s entries below by Jock and Mark Englert), but how cool would it be to enter theaters and see work from the likes of Martin Ansin or Ken Taylor represented in the huge “Now Playing” frames illuminated outside their entrances?
This is how a revolution could begin. How the Hollywood marketing machine could transform overnight into a gallery-worthy exercise in contemporary design, photography, and illustration. Mondo is doing it with their own space in Austin showcasing a stacked crew of freelancers and I think it only takes a quick jaunt on the web—whether deviantArt or TeeFury, etc.—to understand the fanboys and girls clamoring for superhero popcorn flicks would eat it up.
There’s how many?!
Seriously, though, just look at this quartet of blockbuster sequels needing no advertising at all to sell copious amounts of tickets. More and more writers and directors have become part of everyday conversation as the level of storytelling hitting television screens each fall increases. Who would have thought a name like J.J. Abrams could garner the same universal appeal of George Lucas when speaking about a new Star Wars trilogy? The game has changed and genre flicks not only attract auteurs but create them too.
You don’t have to look further than Abrams’ own Star Trek Into Darkness (open May 17) to understand. The guy who gave us “Felicity” before hitting true mainstream credibility with “Alias” is now one of the film industry’s most bankable assets. A master at viral marketing and forcing cast and crew to adhere to non-disclosure agreements, one would think he’d also attract an abundance of creativity in the realm of poster art. Sadly—no matter who gets the credit above the title—the studio still reigns supreme and lackluster design follows closely behind.
Not only does the film’s teaser sheet completely rip-off Ignition Print‘s work on The Dark Knight Rises, but BLT Communications, LLC shows almost no original thinking with the series of adverts that follows. They ride the rising star of Benedict Cumberbatch and his role in “Sherlock” instead of showcasing the stunning visuals a three-year old could conjure up when thinking about the infinite possibilities of space. Switching from a burning city to its three heroes in horrid, smoky collage omits no excitement whatsoever.
Only a plummeting Enterprise cut off at the edge of the page gives us something to applaud. This is an iconic aircraft that frankly has been indestructible these past few decades through countless TV shows and cinematic iterations. To show it bloodied and beaten is to make a statement. If only more designers were willing to do so too.
You can’t really blame BLT, though, since they keep getting the good work. If you don’t have to fight tooth and nail, why not stick with what sells? They did it with Star Trek and they do it with Iron Man 3 (open May 3) as well. Whether its full Photoshop overlap—I love that Ben Kingsley retains the background of his photo to ensure we don’t mistake his inclusion as realistic—or cartoon water droplets falling from Robert Downey Jr.‘s head painted on a robot’s body in weird perspective, boring is the only term that comes to mind.
The teaser intrigues with its darkness and refusal to place the words “Iron Man” in frame, but I can’t help remembering the brilliant power-outage “3” from the trailer and how much more effective that would have been as a poster. It’s also no surprise the one that kind of works involves our hero plummeting through space, bloodied and beaten. Why have two pitch meetings when you can use the same motifs for every movie?
And while we’re talking about pitches, who even needs a creative idea when you can go to Warner Bros. and simply say, “Remember when Tyler Perry and Ignition spoofed a bunch of acclaimed movies’ posters for Madea’s Big Happy Family? Let’s do that!”
WORKS ADV thought, why not? I’ll admit I chuckled the first time I saw that they had spoofed their own design for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I in order to tease The Hangover Part III (open May 24). But then to go and do a pieta with Ed Helms and Ken Jeong as well as a boy band sexy sheet with mallets and crowbars is too far. It’s The Hangover series—you could go completely metaphoric and paint wolves on the poster a la Alan’s famous speech and people would still show up.
So how then does a sixth installment of a series built from what was practically a remake of Point Break deserve the best posters of this bunch? Kudos to cold open for delivering some starkly attractive one-sheets through their Fast & Furious 6 (open May 24) campaign. Yes, the main design with all the characters brooding at an angle is lame. The rest are not.
Why not give us what we expect from this franchise? Muscle-clad actors and their beefier automobiles. Who needs to see Vin Diesel or Paul Walker‘s faces when we know it’s them? Their careers skyrocketed upwards to undeserved heights following the original and both came crawling back after egos popped and jobs dried up. Fast Five was an action gem and I hope this is too. cold open brought back the expansive sky in the poster so fingers crossed the filmmakers retained the fun onscreen.
Star power sells
If you don’t have the luck(?) of being a sequel with an already built-in fan base, it’s generally beneficial to drop some names and faces on your poster.
BLT tries to be cool with Now You See Me (open May 31), adding a little optical illusion to its mix of black-clad celebrities. Being a film about a group of magicians, this is a relevant trope to utilize. Couldn’t they have done more to spice things up, though? Cutout characters on a gray background aren’t riveting subject matter whether the use of negative space makes it appear to be the work of MC Escher or not.
It’s a muddied contrast that mixes together into an indecipherable soup save Mark Ruffalo‘s bright white shirt giving us the polar opposite of this year’s other magic movie The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. I get that these illusionists are criminals too, but does everything have to be so on the nose? And what’s with the lowering of half the title? It just looks like a mistake—especially when the full name is also displayed from top to bottom. Why bother putting it with the credits at all?
In another display of forgetting your film is a high concept, futuristic actioner, After Earth (open May 31) finds BLT focusing on the father and son team of Will and Jaden Smith instead of cool artwork. Smartly removing all trace of co-writer and director M. Night Shyamalan—a once golden moniker, presently the kiss of death—putting its lead actors front and center doesn’t sell the premise. No one wanted to see Tom Hanks in a sci-fi last year; they may not want to see Smith in one this year.
And while the background projected through the bodies of those in the foreground is over-used these days, it’s still light years better than half faces flip-flopping to prove paternity. The dead eyes on display make me wonder if we’ll find out these two are the same character in a converging past and present plane of existence. It’s just all too polished for mystery and too generic for interest.
The same can be said for the sheet attached to Peeples (open May 10), a movie I simply can’t stop calling Meet the Peeples. Probably a confused mixture between the similarity of Ignition’s design to Meet the Parents and the title of Peter Jackson’s cult classic Meet the Feebles, anything to make me forget Tyler Perry is producing is a good thing.
I like the crazy amounts of white space and the color scheme, but there is something about the dual facial adverts of the teasers that appeals to me. Yes, the one with Kerry Washington is creepy as all get out, but Craig Robinson cringing is pure gold. It does nothing to tell you what the film is and yet that face has me utterly fascinated to check it out. A rare appearance from David Alan Grier helps too.
Less in your face than Craig’s full-frame crying is Concept Arts’ The East (limited May 31) with its tic-tac-toe of floating heads. I’m not sure who the winners are in this game, though, because the horizontal trios of plastic masks are much happier than the middle row of Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, and Ellen Page. This is the kind of lazy entry for a film possessed with an air of mystery I was so happy the filmmakers’ previous Sound of My Voice rightfully avoided.
I like the graffiti-esque title treatment and the masks—why not go with a Banksy inspired piece to enhance those attributes? No one is going to see this film because Marling’s face is on display. While my own interest is her involvement, it’s as a screenwriter not actress. Indie films should market with indie sensibilities. This looks like a firm’s failed attempt to dupe audiences into thinking it has a bigger budget than it does.
Adapted novels, French romance, and Tim
Deciding to go in a completely different direction than its original book cover, Shadow Dancer (limited May 31) has some intriguing artwork. From the French’s enjoyment of projecting faces on objects to an English language sheet that looks like the interior spine of a magazine when opened, it’s cool to see so many disparate ideas. There is barely any spillover between the designs—not even the title font remains the same.
I love the handling of the name and director on the blinds as letters and/or words become shrouded in shadow with each panel gently moving away from its neighbor. I get why the designer didn’t keep the effect up with the rest of the text, though, as the separation would prove time consuming and hard to read. The poster is odd on the whole with Andrea Riseborough looking through Clive Owen in a Being John Malkovich kind of way, but it’s definitely more attractive than monsieur x studio’s Photoshopped brick texture filter.
Le Cercle Noir’s English entry, however, is the most captivating due to the contrast of its muddy yellow and pitch black. There’s a mysterious quality in Riseborough’s face being wisped into smoke above the silhouettes of a mother and son walking away that gives a foreboding shiver down your spine. And the minimal text is a very welcome sight (even if I’d imagine the credit box would be necessary to see this in theaters).
WORKS ADV also went in a different direction than the book cover where The Great Gatsby (open May 10) is concerned. That iconic illustration of sad eyes overlooking the color bursts of excitement below gets a bit of a nod in the background of the full cast sheet but only where color and motif is concerned. The added glasses make the comparison difficult other than aesthetic while also helping add to the gorgeous symmetry of the metallic latticework.
The logotype is attractively rendered with a silver sheen to epitomize the film and rightfully become a mainstay in both WORKS ADV and Concept Arts’ campaigns. But where the latter gets bogged down in film still photography the former allows its character sheets to breathe in their austerity. Whether Leonardo DiCaprio or Ilsa Fisher, their singularly colored appearances beautifully juxtapose against the silver and gold without the clutter of actual scenes. The ornate designs exude the 20s and embody director Baz Luhrmann’s visual exuberance to perfection even if they are short on big ideas.
It’s not always necessary to divert onto a new aesthetic direction than one’s predecessor, however, if what was working remains relevant despite age. For Richard Linklater and castmembers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, returning to the past can actually prove to be the shining achievement of successful careers. To see this trio advance through time professionally and personally and yet still revisit Jesse and Celine as though they never left our consciousness or theirs is amazing.
Before Midnight (limited May 24) marks the third reunion for these star-crossed lovers on the fateful paths their lives have taken. The new poster does what it can to evoke nice style with vast empty space and complementary shades of blue, but the real appeal is in making sure both are in focus. Part of the beauty of a project like Linklater’s Before series is watching he, Hawke, and Delpy evolve before our eyes—physically and emotionally. It mimics the look of Crew Creative Advertising’s Before Sunset but more than that gives us an amazing marker to place side by side with the baby faces of Before Sunrise.
Where it’s easy to mimic when you’re dealing with the same pieces, the filmmakers on Greetings from Tim Buckley (limited May 3) didn’t have that luxury. Depicting the days before Jeff Buckley made a name for himself singing at a tribute concert for his father, it’s unsurprising P+A would give us a more wholesome, acoustic image as opposed to the grittier look on the musician’s debut Grace.
The firm’s use of thick white marker-like text in mostly all caps can’t be a coincidence, though. I have to believe that choice was in response to the album cover and the looser consistency a response to the more youthful time in the singer’s life.
Penn Badgley isn’t Jeff Buckley and therefore doesn’t need to be shown perfectly center on the page. It’s about the music and the subject rather than the actor behind the man. Unafraid to be sloppy or incomplete, this poster looks to get at the essence of the story rather than just another pretty face.
Novelty: pros and cons
Call me pretentious, but Ignition’s sheet for Black Rock (limited May 17) looks to be the result of a big agency trying to design a collectible limited edition poster without understanding their appeal. “Kids like simple geometric shapes and hipster faux creases screenprinted in two colors, right?” Wrong. Kids like good design and this cross between Jaws and the Criterion Collection cover of Knife in the Water isn’t that.
From the random fading of letters at the top to the cutesy visual depiction of the tagline’s “cutting”, the poster looks like more of a college color study than completed work. This is one of those times where more actually does help and Ignition’s photo-heavy entry succeeds at creating the tone of uncertainty much better. All you have to do is look at the juxtaposition of Katie Aselton’s childlike smile with the determined scowl of Lake Bell to wonder about hidden motivations. And the dark water is much more foreboding than a cartoon knife.
The German advert for Sightseers (limited May 10) on the other hand—while borderline obnoxious—hits the indie vibe on the nose. The only thing that could make this better would be if every theater in the country actually covered a poster frame with this thing literally crocheted out of yarn. Now that would be badass.
As it is, the faux fabric sweater look makes sense because I believe I’ve seen the lead actors wearing such clothing in stills. Everything from the English language poster is included from the dog, the caravan, and blood with only happy characters replacing the rather downtrodden ones in photo. There is a subtle comic feel involved that makes me hope I’ll see the Ben Wheatley brilliance I didn’t quite catch with Kill List.
For Frances Ha (limited May 17), the novelty of the film—being in black and white—is subverted in the poster with a deep hot pink hue to show gimmicks don’t need to be thrown in our faces. Just as the movie is held on the shoulders of lead Greta Gerwig, the one-sheet is rightfully content to simply put her dancing visage at the forefront so it may speak for itself. The high saturation of pink mixes with the black shadows to create the illusion of solid color and the giant serif letters pop in vibrant white as a result.
And in a sort of natural progression from bad novelty to good to subversion comes Midnight Oil Creative’s design for The Kings of Summer (limited May 31). Here the gimmick is in the typography as photo elements interact with the text—much better than happens in Now You See Me—while the letters’ translucency coexists with the background similar to Beast of the Southern Wild.
It’s a wonderful update to Blood & Chocolate’s original sheet when the film was titled Toy’s House that utilizes the same cursive scrawl for its title and a marginally different perspective for the boys to jump through “o’s”. With a peacefully playful tone the piece seems a perfect snapshot of summer bliss that gets its point across with needing to simply be another boxed image on paper.