Co.Design

For Holiday Movie Posters, Too Many Versions Dilute the Message

The new trend of creating multiple poster designs for new releases could confuse audiences and hurt sales.

LIGHTS! CAMERA! ADVERTISING! The results are in from the first big holiday weekend movie sales, and the Hollywood frenzy for marketing the season's films is in high gear.

Major ad campaigns are blasted across giant billboards, high impact commercials are interrupting Monday Night Football, trailers appear on our mobile devices and postage stamp size ads are all over websites.

Long gone are the days when a single iconic poster by Saul Bass would become the de facto marketing image for a major motion picture. His iconic artwork for The Man With the Golden Arm, widely considered to be a movie poster classic.

In today's fragmented media landscape, where some would-be critic tweeting a negative review from a darkened theater can kill a film, movie poster design holds more weight than ever. Studios can spend from $30 million on marketing for a romantic comedy to over $80 million for an international thriller. In an effort to insulate itself from financial ruin, Hollywood's advertising strategy for movies often includes designing an assortment of posters to assess which one attracts the best audiences. An understandable practice, but when broadcast through ever increasing media channels, can lead to some mixed results.

One example of this strategy is the ad campaign for Tyler Perry's film ?For Colored Girls?. Today's young audiences may not remember the 1977 Tony-nominated Broadway play, denying the film from a ready audience. This might justify the studio's deliberate choice to use a variety of posters.

One has a Mondrian-like geometric structure that uses cropped photographs of the film's stars in a vibrant palette of colors . Graphically, this is the strongest.

But another poster showing Janet Jackson against a blood red backdrop could be advertising a sequel to any current vampire thriller.

Finally, in an apparent attempt at a softer image, a delicate watercolor illustration evokes a more artful feeling.

This is a problem. Not only are the designs radically different from poster to poster, but the film "logo" is also inconsistent. Is this effective marketing or does the "brand" of the film become diluted and cause more confusion for the target audience? This multi-poster approach is like shuffling a deck of cards to increase the chance for success. While the film performed about on-par for its projected opening weekend sales -- $20.1 million -- I believe the mixed-message strategy deterred a wider audience for a relatively unknown property.

In contrast to this technique is the campaign for ?Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part One)?, the first installment of a two-part finale.

The total feel of the campaign is appropriately cold and damp like a London winter. The posters flex the muscle of a star-studded cast that is on a first name basis with its devoted fans. Close up photos of Harry, Hermione and Ron promise suspense and danger with a bruise here and a trickle of blood there.

Although there is no central image that is repeatedly used in the marketing strategy, the graphic mood is consistent and allows one image to successfully reinforce another. The superstar trio, iconic images as they are, lend themselves to a cohesive yet diverse campaign, and certainly helped drive the $125 million opening weekend sales. My only objection to this campaign is the use of the abbreviated title "HP7" in some ads that reflects the tiresome trend of shortening film titles to a cryptic code. Does this really add anything?

Tangled in contrast to both of the mangled examples above, uses one simple poster to reach a wide audience. The first time I saw it, I thought, "smart."

Although it uses the painful, doe-eyed cuteness typical of Disney features, it is compositionally very simple and strong. This is a film designed for parents who, after all, are buying the tickets. Using two simple elements -- lots of hair and a young couple -- the design offers up the classic German fairytale "Rapunzel" in a new and hip way that allows those who remember the classic to make the connection. The designers have triggered generational memories without the cliché image of a tower and cascading golden tresses. It might be sacrilegious to say, but this poster comes about as close to Saul Bass simplicity as you will find this season. The simplicity here is a good formula to follow, and the $49.1 million opening weekend box office sales are just as impressive.

I seldom consider film campaigns great examples of poster design, and they rarely garner much critical debate in graphic design circles. But in a high stakes, high pressure industry, where worldwide ticket sales approach $30 billion and the nearly 600 films released in 2009 attracted 220 million moviegoers,
every advertising dollar is best spent reinforcing a single, compelling impression in the minds of a very distracted and fickle film crowd.

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