Let’s start with a poster. Here’s the image used to advertise Heaven Can Wait, a 1978 supernatural comedy starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie and co-directed by Beatty and Buck Henry:
That poster was drawn by Birney Lettick, a commercial artist responsible for many Time covers and a few other striking posters, including those for Escape From Alcatraz and Valley Girl. I didn’t know that before looking it up. In fact, I’d never given much thought to the poster’s origins. In my mind, it was inseparable from the film itself. Having seen Heaven Can Wait, I know the poster taps into the film’s themes and tone with the casual pose the sweatsuit-clad Beatty strikes, and the way he looks down at a pocket watch while ignoring the heavenly light shining behind him. But even before I’d seen the film, the poster left me intrigued. I was a kid when the movie came out, but even making allowances for that, it’s striking, an image that catches the eye, but also raises questions. This is what a great movie poster looks like.
I throw those out as examples for a couple of reasons. First, they aren’t terrible, just typical. Second, they’re for a film about which I have no opinion. The Lone Ranger was dismissed by some critics and championed by others (though the film’s stars later tried to blame its financial underperformance on a critical conspiracy). I haven’t seen it yet. One of the not-that-dirty secrets of this business is that those of us who write about movies don’t have time to see everything we aren’t reviewing, much less in a timely fashion. So when it comes to catching up with films for which we missed the press screenings—usually because someone else was writing the review—we rely on the same factors as everyone else: reviews (above all, of course), but also the impressions created by marketing. We’re movie fans too, and if an ad campaign makes a film look attractive, striking, funny, or exciting enough, it should help overpower other elements. I heard so many good and bad things about The Lone Ranger that they effectively canceled each other out. Marketing might have been the X-factor that got me into the theater, instead of convincing me I could wait until later to catch up with it. It didn’t happen.
I saw plenty of ads for The Lone Ranger. As with every major motion picture, posters, trailers, and TV spots hit with monsoon strength shortly before the film’s release. And yet force alone wasn’t persuasive. The logic, with The Lone Ranger and most big releases, seems to be that a marketing campaign has to be overwhelming above all. Quality is optional. So maybe in the end-of-summer finger-pointing, some of the blame should be placed on the way movies are being sold. Posters rely on one interchangeable image after another, as brilliantly captured in these much-passed-around collages created by Christophe Courtois, but also in a random sampling of posters for imminent releases. The image used to promote Closed Circuit could easily be dropped into Courtois’ poster collection. Beyond conveying that the film stars Ethan Hawke, Selena Gomez, and a car, what about the poster for Getaway suggests it’s anything we haven’t seen before?
Posters are just part of the trouble. A few weeks ago, an editor named Vadzim Khudabets posted a trailer for Eterna, a film that doesn’t exist; he created it by splicing together big moments from a multitude of films, and setting them to the standard beats of a big Hollywood trailer. As our own Jen Chaney observed at the time, it doubles as a critique of “how repetitive and predictable mainstream movies have become.” Putting aside whether she’s right about the movies, she’s certainly right about trailers, which develop clichés as easy to identify as those used in posters. For a while, the same songs used to get recycled in trailer after trailer to the point where they could almost count as distinct historic periods: The “Two Princes” era gave way to the “Solsbury Hill” age. Now we’re in a period dominated by this closing stroke for a certain strain of blockbusters and would-be blockbusters: Music crescendoing as the editing becomes faster, followed by a hushed moment, sometimes with voiceover, and then, just when it all seems over, maybe one last striking image or super-rapid montage to hook in potential moviegoers.
It isn’t that all these things used to be universally better. There have been unimaginative posters and trailers as long as there have been movies. It’s just that there’s no need for them to be as bad as they are. In a lifetime of going to the movies, I’m hard-pressed to remember a time when the methods used to sell those movies had less of a spark, or when wandering the halls of a multiplex produced so many shrugs. The terrible poster for The Big Wedding—admittedly a terrible movie—might as well just be a text press release announcing the names of the participants and the film’s genre. Often, posters for independent films are just as creatively bankrupt, to say nothing of trailers using, in the words of director Noah Buschel, the same Little Miss Sunshine-inspired guitar line “that promises quirky, wacky eccentricity—but nothing to be scared of."
A trailer has one task: to convert potential ticket-buyers into attendees. But that shouldn’t keep it from offering an experience in itself, one suggestive of pleasures to come, rather than a catalog of highlights molded into the shape of previous trailers. A poster is an ad, and ads have one job: to sell a product. But it could still double as a work of art. Even if the current crop of unimaginative posters are usually successful at their primary objective—and I suspect they aren’t—they rarely find any kind of beauty in the process. That might explain why a cottage industry has sprouted up around creating better options than the official posters, at spots like Mondo, Alternative Movie Posters, and in our own pages. It suggests a hunger for the experience of a film to extend beyond the film itself.
“Marketing might have been the X-factor that got me into the theater, instead of convincing me I could wait until later to catch up with it. It didn’t happen.”
When Lettick took the Heaven Can Wait job, he probably thought of it as just that: a job. But he also created something striking and enduring—or at least, more enduring than, say, the poster for Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans, which conveys the bare facts of the film, but none of the borderline-insane, weirdly affecting qualities that make it so memorable). In Hollywood, according to William Goldman’s famous estimation, “nobody knows anything,” but however contradictorily, it’s a place where conventional wisdom almost always wins the day. Hence many variations on extremely similar themes—in movies and almost always in the way they get advertised.
There’s an upside to this, even if too few people take advantage of it: It ought to be easy to get noticed. Consider the attention given to Gravity’s mold-breaking trailer. Similarly, the first 2013 film to paper theaters with this year’s equivalent to Fargo’s original cross-stitch poster will certainly be noticed. In an industry that’s become increasingly reliant on the familiar, sounding a note of intrigue might cut through the noise.