When Movie Artwork Was Awesome
Tom Jolliffe looks at the heyday of film illustrations (and their subsequent decline)…
Making a film is a long-term process. From those first scribbled notes that slowly evolve into script, through preparation, production and publication, so many elements come together to deliver a final product. Then you have the little question of selling said film. It’s a tough prospect indeed, but there have been plenty of ways to make a movie stand out from the crowd. Maybe it’s the stellar power attached. In modern times, it’s more and more about the intellectual property, the franchise, or the concept, what makes a movie appealing (or a combination of those with great talent).
For a while, especially before the internet boom, a movie had to grab attention with picture posters, commercial advertisements and, in the VHS era, cover art. However, starting with the DVD era, something happened. Perhaps a change in tastes and a very significant move away from hand-drawn artwork, along with the evolution of Photoshop, etc., has led to a more rapid turnaround in digitally formed artwork.
The DVD era began with a strong pull, but that never quite matched the initial boom seen in the VHS era. Blockbuster Video’s peak was undoubtedly in the VHS era. This is exemplified in simple terms by the live-action genre in video. The kind of money invested in the production of these films from the mid 80s to the late 90s was in retrospect quite substantial.
When the DVD couldn’t quite match the revenue (despite being very cheap to produce), budgets shrunk. There was decidedly less value for money, and from around 2005 to 2010, even the biggest stars at the top of the video realm saw their budgets plummet. Thus, from pre to post, the whole process was more restricted.
As a result, given the (seemingly) simplicity of fast Photoshop production, less money was invested in creating the artwork. The pre-sale posters used to attract funding at film markets like Cannes and the AFM didn’t need to be too elaborate, but those final territory packages to adorn posters and DVD covers could often give the impression of having been built with ease.
These days, the affliction of uninspiring artwork (which honestly makes up about 90% of movies top to bottom) is even worse, with digital design tools even cheaper, faster, and more user-friendly. Now the penny pincher doesn’t even necessarily need to outsource, it’s become an unnecessary expense.
Recently retired Bruce Willis has had a prolific flurry of films. Much of the work has this floating head quality and a hodgepodge of ideas (not always relevant to what will appear on screen). A layer cut and pasted on another. They’re not the worst examples you’ll see and they certainly have at least the professional shine you’d expect, but they often feel unbiased and cynically designed. See also many films of this budget level.
Then also look at the bigger budget movies, where undoubtedly thousands of dollars are spent designing artwork for the movie. Too often, small trends form (like the teal and orange, or purple and blue combo) that then spread through movie posters like wildfire. Some look good sure, and if you look at the MCU they require some uniformity, but it’s all interchangeable and kinda boring. Each piece of Tom Holland Spider-Man artwork is indistinguishable from the next, and the titles’ recurring “house” theme makes them hard to tell apart (for the non-MCU fan).
Then, in the world of low/micro budget cinema, where budgets are really limited, things are even more inconsistent. I’ve had a number of my movie scripts in and out, mostly in the horror genre. These are often drawn designs, but using modern digital tools on hand-drawn originals by maestros like Drew Struzan. For the most part, these lack the texture or artistry of paint on paper. The layers float on top of each other rather than feeling blended. They feel like they form quickly for maximum visual impact.
For my movie Witches of Amityville for example, the US artwork doesn’t really represent the movie anyway (although overselling has long been a goal). Like a lot of low-budget horror covers, this feels too digital, and the focus is on blood that never quite resembles real blood. The artwork has always gendered the film its sale. It’s an offer. Do you have an action movie? Add helicopters on the artwork, even if there isn’t a single helicopter in the movie.
For a good comparison between vintage artwork and their much less impressive modern counterparts, check out Albert Pyun’s cover art. Nemesis and compare to the most recent suite, Nemesis 5 (which Pyun partially approved). The difference is huge. Granted, the original will have spent a lot more on all fronts, but the original film’s artwork really grabs the eye.
The newest isn’t terribly terrible, but it feels like your artwork isn’t as big a selling point as it used to be, and it will become even more so now that we’re almost completely away from browsing and picking up movies in a physical store. You just need a big font and enough visual effect to stand out as a thumbnail. We don’t tend to look as close as a physical poster or VHS box.
As soon as the film became a household product, it needed a sufficiently eye-catching packaging. At this point the artwork was often awe-inspiring and some classical era artwork has a quaint and enduring quality to it, but once it came down to it boiling down to box art in a booming production market, they needed to stand out even more. The creation of films to bypass theaters and go straight to video, and a growing ability to make films cheaply and independently, have resulted in market saturation. So whether you were star wars (the original trilogy had amazing artwork) or an 80s low-rent rip-off, distributors were more often than not trying to create great artwork that would catch your eye at the nearest Ma and Pa video store.
For my part, as a youngster, I was always drawn to the video store artwork that adorns VHS covers. These were often the main selling point that convinced me whether or not to rent a movie. movies like die hard, Predator, Total recall, first blood, The Goonies, freddiethe Indiana Jones Trilogy everything stood out. Then the somewhat sloppy low-budget productions, like Italian Sword and Sorcery or madmax the riffs, often looked gorgeous from the covers (even when the movie itself was horrible).
Did almost every David Carradine movie of the 80s oversell the main event? Yes. Did they oversell Carradine’s physique? Yes. The movies were often (pleasantly) bad, but the fact that there was concerted effort and a bit of craftsmanship in the creation of these posters fooled the bettor enough into assuming that the same care had been taken to the production. Dazzled by artists like Struzan and Frank Frazetta, the VHS Alley Navigator has been treated to an art gallery of gorgeous artwork and individuality.
Gradually, from top to bottom, the formula takes over. Even Amazon and Netflix productions forgo a lot of effort in artwork, at least before their movies find some sort of physical release (sometimes they don’t at all). The Netflix streaming thumbs we all browse now tend to choose a frame as the primary thumb and opt for bold text. You won’t even see the original artwork through this channel often. In the future, will great works of art still be needed? There are certain genre tropes that everyone buys into in the artwork of this century too, to get to a point where many look alike. How many rom-com posters from 2000 to the present have looked virtually identical?
How many times before his revival did we see Matthew McConaughey leaning back, snarling at the camera? I’ve even seen pre-release artwork for some of my releases that looked decent, replaced with something less impressive on release, with distributors inevitably wanting to go their own way (or use the companies they’ve had a relationship with). relationship). So even handing over decent artwork won’t guarantee that they’ll be used upon release.
Perhaps my favorite movie illustration of all time is the original poster of blade runner, by Drew Struzan. It just popped up and evoked a sense of excitement and anticipation for what the film might deliver (which duly matched). Many of Struzan’s works are some of my favorites with an undeniable gift for bringing the cast to life through his paintings.
I could say the same about the movies of the day I guess, but they really don’t make them the way they used to anymore, and the digital technology and approach to poster making is like a pastry with just a few folds, rather that in baking has created a depth and layers that poster artists of yore favored. The artwork really came to life rather than just serving a basic purpose.
By the way, if you really want a quaint individual charm, take a look at some Ghanaian movie posters. They are crazy and quite charming.
What’s your all-time favorite movie poster? Let us know on our social media @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and avid film buff. He has a number of films released on DVD/VOD worldwide and several releases scheduled 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). Find more information on the best personal site you will ever see… https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/