Making the cut…

La Boca’s recent work for Black Swan may suggest a renaissance in film poster design but, with multiple executions and a tortuous approval process, this remains a complex, frustrating industry to work in.

This feature is open to subscribers for a limited time only, thanks mainly to actor and Twitter darling Charlie Sheen, who, as evidenced in the Metro newspaper, has two of La Boca’s posters on the wall of his LA pad:

In December, a series of illustrated, graphic posters promoting Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan was picked up on by dozens of blogs and even the Financial Times and The Guardian – all keen to showcase and praise the designs which were commissioned by film studio Fox Searchlight International to be posted up in art house cinemas.

However, these posters, created by London-based studio La Boca, were only part of the campaign for the film. Movie specialist Bemis Balkind (for the US and international markets) and London-based Empire (for the UK market) were also commissioned to produce more mainstream versions featuring the film’s star, Natalie Portman.

Such a mixture of approaches, aimed at different audiences, is becoming increasingly prevalent in movie marketing. And before these final designs were approved and signed off by the film studio, dozens, if not hundreds of poster design concepts by several artists will have been rejected.

“I’ve worked on campaigns where there are as many as 400 to 500 pieces of artwork to look at and to choose from,” says Charles Reimers, creative director at Bemis Balkind. “A film studio usually hires two or three shops, such as ours, to get started on a movie campaign. Each shop presents their work to the marketing department at the studio and 99% of the time the person making the final decision isn’t present. The marketing guy then presents the work to his or her boss, the president of the studio, and then the work gets shown to the producers of the film. Once it gets to the producers, then it needs to run a gauntlet of yet more people, depending on the movie and the actors involved. Sometimes big name actors get creative call on poster artwork. There’s a big rabbit hole you have to shove this work down and if you’re lucky, your work can get to the end of that process without being shifted and watered down and changed too much. By the end of it, you hope you’ve got something you can be proud of.”

This method of working isn’t every designer’s cup of tea. California-based Corey Holms worked in the movie poster industry as a designer for just over ten years but maintains that in that time there are probably less than a handful of completed posters he’s truly happy with. “Every poster is a compromise,” he says, “and I think that a lot of designers have the same feelings that I do, which is that when you look back at your work, all you see is what could have been … the typeface that got changed, or the shot of the star smiling which I was required to use that removed the intended tension in the poster.” And that’s just the posters Holms completed. “The most difficult part of the movie poster industry is that 99% of what we do is thrown in the trashcan,” he says. “We generate a phenomenal amount of work – six to ten unique posters per designer, per round, and you rarely have more than three or four days to complete them. For me, the most frustrating thing is the incredibly difficult balance between caring and not caring. If you care too much, then every single revision and comp that dies rips your heart out, so you have to be detached from the work. And if you don’t care enough, your work suffers. Part of the reason I left the industry is because I genuinely care about the work I do and there’s so much amazing work generated that never sees the light of day. I can only have my heart broken so many times.”

London-based illustrator and designer Olly Moss used to work at a film production company in LA where he regularly saw colleagues produce huge volumes of great work only for it to be overlooked or watered down by studio marketing departments. “It was heartbreaking,” he says, “so what I tend to do now is create posters for film festivals or events or special screenings. These often then get licensed by the studios to be used as alternate posters or other promotional material.” Recent work includes a set of three Star Wars movie posters commissioned by LucasFilm and film poster company Mondo and a poster for Let Me In, the artwork of which is going to be used for the DVD. He is currently working on a poster for Duncan Jones’ latest movie, Source Code.

“I tend to prefer working with film festivals or with a director or a film company directly because the design doesn’t have to go through so many levels of marketing before it’s approved, meaning I usually get a large degree of creative control,” continues Moss. “There are other advantages too, the posters are often beautifully screenprinted on nice stock and limited to small editions. These, admittedly, are collectors’ items rather than marketing tools, but I much prefer doing them. It’s easier to get excited and inspired when you know that something you make will definitely be used, even if it won’t be appearing on the side of a bus.”

Creating beautiful artwork to appeal to a niche collectors’ market is one thing. Creating a functioning marketing campaign that perfectly communicates the tone of a film to a global audience is something else, but it is possible to avoid cliché.

“Every film has a different story to tell and that is why what we do is always such a brilliant challenge,” says Charlie Loft, creative director at London-based film marketing company AllCity, which has recently produced an illustrated poster for Mike Leigh’s Another Year, and also an award- winning poster for Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love. “We don’t subscribe to one style of creative, it’s boring, which is why we like to collaborate with many talented individuals. Whether they be illustrators, typographers or photographers, they all add an extra flavour to the overall concept.”

Creating a bespoke look for every film isn’t always easy to do when faced with a marketing team at a studio keen to repeat the success of previous movies. The age-old creative problem of having a client saying ‘we liked that thing you did for something else – can you do that again’ is as prevalent in movie poster commissioning as anywhere else.  Nurturing client relationships and developing trust is, of course, essential.

“The client is often a large part of the equation when you’re talking about the quality of a finished product,” maintains US-based designer Neil Kellerhouse who got into film advertising through working with Disney/Pixar and New York-based Criterion Collection. Kellerhouse recently worked on the ad campaign for David Fincher’s film The Social Network, liaising  with the director. “The movie industry has built a very strong vernacular to communicate their product. For better or worse, when you see a movie poster these days you know exactly what you’re in for. Everyone knows the language, even if you can’t verbalise it. It can be very difficult to do anything different. David Fincher and his producer Ceán Chaffin, gave me the opportunity with The Social Network. And [Fincher] really led me to the solution to that campaign.”

Of course, there’s no point in being different for the sake of it. “If the art overpowers the film, then it’s not going to work,” says Reimers of Bemis Balkind. “I work with great artists [like Akiko Stehrenberger whose posters featured in our January Monograph], but it is challenging ascribing the right one for a particular job. If I was working on what we call a ‘tentpole’ movie – something that’s got money behind it and is expected to have a big, red carpet premiere such as Harry Potter – then those kinds of movies need a certain type of approach.”

AllCity takes a novel approach to showing clients that they are plugged into a network of artists. The agency has been asking its collaborators to re-imagine alternative posters for films that AllCity produced the official versions of. “In our ReDrawn and ReTyped exhibitions, each of the artists was invited to select a poster from our portfolio and re-imagine it in their own style,”says Loft. “They were created to not only showcase some of the amazing talent that we work with, but also to educate our clients that there can be more to a film poster then just a floating head or a highly retouched visual.”

The positive reaction to La Boca’s Black Swan posters (prints of which Fox Searchlight is selling online) has reinforced this message. Are we looking at a possible renaissance in the art form? Danny Miller, who publishes illustration-rich, film-focused title, Little White Lies, and who runs creative studio The Church Of London, reveals that, “About a week after the La Boca Black Swan posters hit, Momentum [Pictures] called us asking if we’d produce something similar for The Fighter, so I’d say this is definitely a good sign for the film poster industry.” However, he points out that the La Boca Black Swan posters “are a bit of an anomaly in that they were created as a secondary campaign. I prefer it when great poster art is front and centre – not just consigned to the walls of art house cinemas and the pages of design magazines, but in newspapers and on the tube. Film-goers are a sophisticated bunch, and if they’re not I’m going to treat them like they are anyway. Great artwork will always resonate.”

It’s an optimistic take that will be welcomed by designers but there is one big elephant in the room: many poster sites are now becoming digital. When the poster site turns into a screen, how many studios will resist the urge simply to play a trailer instead? Let’s enjoy the posters while we can.

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