Tom Jolliffe looks back on the pinnacle of film graphics (and subsequent decline)…
Filmmaking is a lengthy process. From the first scrawled notes slowly evolving into a script, through the preparation, production and post-production, so many elements come together to deliver a final product. Then you have the little thing of selling the film. It’s a tough prospect indeed, but there were plenty of ways to make a film stand out from the crowd. It could be the attached star power. In this day and age, it’s increasingly about the intellectual property, franchise, or concept that makes a movie (or a combination of big-name movies) appealing.
For a time, especially before the internet boom, a film had to catch the eye with theatrical posters, trade ads and, in the VHS era, cover art. Beginning with the DVD era, however, something happened. Perhaps a change in taste and a very significant move away from hand-drawn artwork and the development of Photoshop etc. will lead to faster conversion of digitally created artwork.
The DVD era began with a strong pull that never quite matched the initial boom of the VHS era. The peak of Blockbuster Video was undoubtedly the VHS era. This is exemplified in simple terms by the direct-to-video action genre. The kind of money that went into the production of these films in the mid ’80s to late ’90s was, in hindsight, quite substantial.
When DVD didn’t quite keep up with the revenues (despite being very cheap to produce), budgets shrank. There was significantly less for the money, and from around 2005 to 2010 even the bigger stars at the forefront of video saw budgets plummet. So the whole process was more limited from pre to post.
As a further consequence of how effortless (apparently) a bit of quick Photoshop production was, less money was put into creating the artwork. Pre-sale posters, which used to drive funding at film markets like Cannes and AFM, didn’t have to be overly elaborate, but these final territory packs for decorating posters and DVD covers often felt like they were airily constructed.
Nowadays, the plague of boring graphics (which honestly makes up about 90% of movies from top to bottom) is even worse as digital design tools are even cheaper, faster, and easier to use. Now the bargain hunter no longer has to outsource, it has become an unnecessary expense.
Recently retired Bruce Willis has had a wealth of films. Much of the artwork has that floating head quality and jumble of ideas (not always relevant to what’s going to appear on screen). A layer cut and pasted over another. They’re not the worst examples you’ll see and certainly have at least some of the professional polish you’d expect, but they often come across as dispassionately and cynically designed. Also watch many movies of this budget level.
Then also check out the biggest budget films where undoubtedly many thousands are spent creating artwork for the film. Too often, small trends form (like teal and orange or purple and blue color combinations) that then spread like wildfire across movie posters. Some of course look good, and looking at the MCU they call for some consistency, but it’s all interchangeable and a bit boring. Each Tom Holland Spider-Man artwork is indistinguishable from the next, and the recurring “home” theme for the titles makes them difficult to tell apart (for non-MCU fans).
Then in the low/micro budget film world, where budgets are really tight, things are even more inconsistent. I have filmed and published a number of my screenplays, mostly in the horror genre. These are often drawn designs, but with the help of modern digital tools they replace hand-drawn originals by maestros like Drew Struzan. For the most part, these don’t have the texture or artistry of paint on paper art. Layers float on top of each other instead of feeling blended. They feel like they’re being quickly sculpted for maximum visual impact.
For my movie Amityville witches For example, the US artwork doesn’t really represent the film anyway (although overselling has long been a goal). Like many low-budget horror covers, it looks too digital, and there’s an emphasis on blood that never really looks like real blood. The artwork always boosted the film’s sales. It’s a given. Do you have an action movie? Throw some helicopters at the artwork, even though there aren’t a single helicopter in the movie.
For a good comparison between vintage artwork and far less impressive modern equivalents, check out Albert Pyun’s cover Nemesis and compare with the latest sequel, Nemesis 5 (which Pyun partially supported). The difference is huge. Granted, the original will have spent significantly more on all fronts, but the original film’s artwork really grabs the attention.
The newer one isn’t really terrible, but it does give the feeling that your artworks aren’t as important a selling point as they used to be, and that will be even more the case now that we’re almost entirely away from browsing and picking up movies at a physical store. All you need is a large font and enough visual clout to stand out in miniature form. We don’t tend to look as closely at a physical poster or VHS box as we used to.
Once film became a household product, it needed appropriately eye-catching packaging. Artwork up to this point has often been impressive and some classical era artwork has a curious and enduring quality, but when it came down to reducing this to box art in a booming production market, they should stand out even more. Making films to bypass theaters and go straight to video and an increasing ability to produce films cheaply and independently led to market saturation. So if you were war of stars (the original trilogy had amazing artwork) or a cheap 80’s rip-off, the distributors were mostly trying to make great artwork that would catch your attention at the nearest ma and pa video store.
As a teenager, I was always fascinated by the video store artwork that adorned the VHS covers. These were often the main selling point that convinced me to rent a movie or not. movies like Die Hard, predator, Total recall, First blood, The Goonies, A nightmare on Elm Streetthe Indiana Jones trilogy all stood out. Then the low-budget productions are slightly sloppy, like Italian Sword and Sorcery or crazy max Riffs often looked great based on the covers (even if the actual movie was awful).
Did almost every ’80s David Carradine movie oversell the main event? Yes indeed. Did they exaggerate Carradine’s physique? Yes. The movies were often (happily) bad, but the fact that it took a concerted effort and a bit of craftsmanship to create these posters adequately fooled the player into assuming that the same care had gone into the production. Dazzled by the likes of Struzan and Frank Frazetta, the VHS gear browser has been treated to an art gallery of beautiful artwork and individuality.
Gradually, from top to bottom, the formula takes over the process. Even Amazon and Netflix productions forgo a lot of effort on artwork, at least before their films find some sort of physical release (occasionally they don’t at all). The Netflix streaming thumbs we all scroll through now tend to pick a frame as the main thumb and opt for bold text. You often don’t even see the original artwork through this channel. Will great artwork be needed in the future? There are certain genre tropes that everyone in art, even in this century, adheres to, to the point where many look alike. How many rom-com posters from 2000 to now have looked virtually identical?
How many times did we see Matthew McConaughey leaning back and grinning for the camera before his renaissance? I’ve even seen pre-release graphics for some of my releases that looked decent and got replaced with something less impressive at release, with distributors inevitably wanting to go their own way (or use the companies they have a relationship with). Even handing over decent graphics does not guarantee that they will be used when publishing.
Perhaps my favorite piece of cinematic artwork is the original poster for Bladerunner, by Drew Struzan. It just banged and evoked a sense of excitement and anticipation for what the film could deliver (which it was fittingly fitting). Many of Struzan’s works are among my favorites, with an unmistakable gift for bringing the cast to life through his colors.
I could say the same about the movies of that era I guess but they really don’t make them the way they used to and the digital technology and approach to making posters feels more like a pastry with just a few folds than The confectionery created depth and layers favored by the poster artists of yore. The artwork really came alive and didn’t just serve a basic purpose.
As a side note, if you really want some quaint, individual charm, be sure to check out some Ghanaian movie posters. They are crazy and totally charming.
What is your favorite movie poster of all time? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and avid cinephile. He has released a number of films on DVD/VOD around the world and has several releases slated for 2022 including Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray ). , Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of the Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Check out the best personal website you will ever see for more… https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/