In November 2005, an original poster for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis sold for $690 000 US dollars. It was purchased by a US collector from London’s Reel Poster Gallery and was a record purchase – blatantly overcoming the last record of $452 000 for Boris Karloff’s The Mummy. Like all relics of popular culture – time, legacy, and posterior admiration make auctions like these hotly contested and heavy on the pockets. The film poster has a history the greedy collector is entrapped within, filled with nostalgia and a longing for it’s first creations. But these infants of movie advertising represent a poster age lost to the contemporary film world, that is, in its mainstream presentation. What they have the potential to be is film art. In the case of Metropolis, art deco, with its stark, clear-cut shapes and shades. A contemporary film poster hardly registers in these tropics. Strung up on the side of a bus shelter, plastered to the back of a bus, digitalised on a shopping centre screen, they display little or in fact no artistic currency. What could be a sign of cultural malaise seems more believably to be another symptom of an industry caught up in its own mechanistic ends.
The film poster has changed drastically since the mid-80s. Today, the template is one of glossy film stars with a simple backdrop of colour or place. Their pristine faces peer over the film’s bold title with streamlined credits tucked beneath. Prior to this, the film poster largely featured illustrations, a medium for innovative artists and illustrators, rather than some salacious photographer and a media relations team. Work was commissioned and what emerged was a distinct and provocative film art. The change in, not only the poster’s creation, but also its prominence is partly due to the organisational changes that occurred throughout the 80s. Since the 1940s, the National Screen Service in the US was responsible for movie advertising, which included producing and distributing posters on behalf of film studios. However, with the emergence of cinema multiplexes the promotional space for each individual film was heavily reduced. This resulted in the standardising of posters into a one-sheet size of 27 inches by 40 inches. Previously, the different sizes of film posters reached around a dozen. In use today are only the one-sheet size and the poster size for a bus stop or subway station (40 inches by 60 inches). Gone is the display sheet, insert sheet, window card, two sheet, three sheet, the 30 by 40, the 40 by 60, the six sheet, and the twenty-four sheet (billboard). It made economic sense to give the studios control over advertising their films. Such a decentralising measure contributed to the shift in priorities when it came to visually selling the film.
Among the pantheon of Hollywood designers was Saul Bass, who created film title sequences and an array of posters for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese. His prawling career spanned the 1950s through to the 90s, with striking designs for films such as Saint Joan (1957), Vertigo (1958), and The Shining (1980). He developed a theme-sensitive and symbolic typography, drawing out the key elements of the film in his design. In the case of Vertigo, he simulated vertiginous effects as felt by its lead character by creating a spiral vortex. The figures of James Stewart and Kim Novak are inserted in this whirlwind, as it not only transfigures Stewart’s character’s subjectivity, but teases out the dissonance of their relationship.
The contemporary, living (albeit retired) heir to Bass’s legacy is undoubtedly Drew Struzan – designer of posters for the Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and Star Wars films. His design filmography has given him cult status, tugged and pulled to Comic-Con festivals around the world. He became renowned for his airbrushed one-sheets in the 1970s and 80s, honing a distinct creative input by firstly sketching the work, airbrushing with acrylic paint, and then use pencils to contour and enhance the work. A process and attentiveness only given to films of such cultish influence. As it stands, mainstream cinema gives little attention to its posters, the simulacra sustaining the image and spirit of film in the public eye. As the American writer Matthew Chojnacki notes, “the poster was reduced to simply communicating who was in the film, instead of conveying the bigger picture – the spirit of the film.”
Yet, the Metropolis-purchaser represents a sizable and poster-obsessed group of film devotees. In his book Alternative Movie Posters: Film Art from the Underground, Chojnacki has essentially curated a collection of 100 film posters created by alternative artists and designers. It represents a reaction against the droll, dully communicative nature of contemporary film posters. It acts as an innovative offering to beloved films worthy of a damn good poster. It’s a restorative and enthralling book. The eclectic collection of posters features minimalist graphics, as well as bold and intricate illustrations, all making me wish I knew how to use Adobe Illustrator. Refreshingly, a broad spectrum of artists and designers are given the space to present their brilliant work.