Raiders Of The Lost Art: What Modern Movie Posters Lost Along The Way

Once upon a time, children and adults alike marveled at Luke Skywalker as he stood with lightsaber raised in the New Hope (1977), or looked hesitantly at the light emanating from a shrouded figure in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).

True movie posters are a lost art. In the past, posters served as an integral piece to the movie experience. The level of attention and care put into these posters made them worthy additions to our wall space and gave us a representation of our favorite films in one stunning image. The posters we have all seen lining the outside of theaters everywhere serves a constant reminder of why we go to the movies. Posters of great films show us why we came in the first place, and those of films yet to be released remind us of the future. Sadly, the craft gone into most movie posters has faded away, in favor of cheap tricks and industry standards, leaving the craft a remnant of its former self.

Like most of print media, posters have fallen victim to the digital age as creators resort to online marketing, creation, and advertizing in place of the prints that could be circulated en mass to fans everywhere. Though digital media has arguably brought such art to more people, it has also cheaped the process and taken away something more tangible.

The creators behind great poster, as artists of different crafts do, seek to represent something in an image. In this case, it’s a movie. This is quite a feat to take a standard run-time film, and craft an image that captures the feeling or sentiment of the movie. In this way, the poster tells us things about what the movie is about without saying anything. The Godfather poster tells us all we need to know about the nature of the film with a white marionette hand with white text on a black background. Without seeing a second of film, the notion of social control and influences is deposited on Vito and the Corleone family.

The classic Friday the 13th (1980) poster gives a fantastic glimpse into the killer, literally, as we peek at a moonlit scene of the victims near a wooden cabin, housed in the outline of the killer. The bloody knife dripping onto the text below is a beautiful addition, which elevates the poster to another level. Close-ups on the eyes evoke powerful emotions from a wide range of movies. They Live (1988), Scream (1996), and Silence of the Lambs (1991) offer up piercing stares that surely spook those who stare back. Provocatively framed, these posters linger in the mind.


And posters can also depict more elusive aspects of a film and enrich a film for attentive viewers. The Alien (1979) poster does this. The stark black background is set against a single alien egg, cracking forming a ‘V’, representative of female anatomy. This plays right into the sexualized tension seen in Alien, as the idea of ‘birth’ was used to make viewers feel discomfort throughout the film.

All this is to say that these posters were intrinsically tied to the films themselves. It was art begetting art. In varying degrees, these were inventive works that were more than simple advertisements meant to get us to see the movies. They were conversation pieces and means by which we could further connect ourselves to the big screen. Moreover, they were intentional pieces of art that were meant to hold our gaze as much as as they were to catch it. The best movie posters are works of art that can stand on their own.

In the modern age, image manipulation is quick and easy. In mass marketing ploys, it is often best to get some image, any image, out so that it may meet the largest audience possible. Quality suffers. Bluntly, the posters we get now are boring. They’re all the same.

Head shot after head shot swing out from the background to slap us with the biggest stars face front and center. Adjacent the floating heads, everything else is bathed in blue and yellow which bleed into one another. This assemblage complementary colors is a safe and unchallenging visual juxtaposition. No doubt, the colors works, but remains uninteresting. The Bourne Identity (2002), Avatar (2009), Transformers (2007), and even The Dark Knight (2008) are all guilty of this. Clearly the link between the quality of the poster is not directly linked to the quality of film, which begs the question: Why do studios with cinematic gold settle for a mediocre poster? Such an investment would serve to ossify great films’ place in time and on our walls.

Not all hope is lost, however, as the advent of the digital age also opened the door for amateurs to try their hand at representing a film in one, deft image. Alternate posters, remade posters, and minimalist interpretations can be found all over the Web. Some of these do more justice for the film than the theatrical poster ever could. And that is simple, because the fans behind them sought to bring something special about the film to the picture. Though a lot of passion may have vacated itself from those who commissioned the design of these posters, the fans ultimately give back much more as they hope to create what many studios and production companies cannot.

The movie poster is an art like no other. It seeks to interpret and share what a film is about in one image. Hopefully, in the modern age, we will continue to see compelling pieces light the way to our seats in the theatre.

Now, if only taglines could make a comeback.

Featured Image By Breck Wills / Heights Graphics

About Caleb Griego 152 Articles
Caleb Griego is the arts & review editor of The Heights. He has put his earphones through the wash at least a dozen times and they still work. He still doesn't know who to thank, so he prays to all deities just to be safe.