Not only are vintage television series and hit movie plots routinely recycled in Hollywood, but lately a lot of movie posters are starting to look distinctly familiar.
Graphics, like posters and movie ads, are increasingly designed to associate a film with a previous hit of similar plot or style. As a result, studios rarely give designers a blank canvas anymore to create art for major, high-risk films.
Like so many other areas of filmmaking, graphics are now designed by committee, with everyone from studio head to film producer getting in on the act.
“There are now an awful lot of people who have the power to impact on a movie poster,” says an ad agency exec who has worked on numerous campaigns.
“It seems to be getting harder for the dramatic image to get by the committee of the studio,” says veteran poster designer Anthony Goldschmidt, whose work includes “Chaplin” and “A Few Good Men.”
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“Years ago, the poster was just one thing that was used to build excitement for a film,” says a studio marketing exec. “Now a lot of producers and studio executives try to make almost everything play off one important visual image, which is usually seen on the poster. They start dipping into the well of already used ideas because they want to use what has already worked.”
Take the one-sheet touting Paramount’s reigning box office champ, “Indecent Proposal.” It features Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson locked in a passionate embrace as Robert Redford looks on from a corner of the poster.
The images aren’t all that different from those on the poster for Paramount’s 1987 hit “Fatal Attraction,” which like “Indecent Proposal” was also directed by Adrian Lyne and produced by Sherry Lansing.
Now comes “Sliver,” the May 21 Paramount pic from director Philip Noyce that the studio hopes will be a similar hit thriller, with a similar poster. This time Sharon Stone and Billy Baldwin are in the “clinch shot,” being watched over by a menacing eye.
Universal/Imagine’s “Cop and a Half” opened in late March to surprisingly good numbers, which many attributed to the images evoked by its poster.
With its use of crayon-like lettering and a two-shot of Burt Reynolds holding co-star Norman D. Golden II on his shoulders, the one-sheet bears more than a passing resemblance to another Universal/Imagine comedy, the 1990 hit “Kindergarten Cop.” That poster also featured the crayon typography and Arnold Schwarzenegger holding a group of toddlers.
Although explanations vary for the repetition, many in the biz agree that the high stakes involved in opening a movie are a big factor.
Out of context
“When there is so much at stake, a movie poster is seen as an end unto itself , as opposed to being just a part of marketing strategy,” says Goldschmidt. “It begins to take on this monumental importance, and everybody starts looking at the poster completely out of context.”
He adds that art directors “all set off to try and create a onesheet with an icon or a lasting image that’s so dramatically different that it stands out.”
But one head of a studio’s advertising department says that “creative people tend to repeat themselves. It’s the desperation of the business, and they probably couldn’t come up with (a new) idea. When that happens, you tend to go back to things that work.”
Admitting the similarities between “Kindergarten Cop” and “Cop and a Half,” a Universal marketing executive who worked on both campaigns says: “We wanted people to be reminded of the earlier film. Basically, we came up with the same look and typography as the other film. It appealed to kids and looked comfortable and safe for adults and told you what it was going to be about.”
Peter Bemis of Frankfurt, Gips & Balkind, the company that helped design the poster for “Cop and a Half” as well as those for “Proposal” and “Sliver,” says the similarities simply reflect the homogeneity of studio product right now. In other words, look-alike films will spawn similar advertising campaigns.
“If you’re talking to a youth market, it seems logical that you would use children’s type,” Bemis says of “Cop and a Half” and “Kindergarten Cop.””With those two movies you’ll take the guts of the story, which is a big guy with little kids. The guts of the story are similar. You’ve got two things that are the same genre so the imagery is going to be similar.”
‘Success by association’
Advertising veteran Tony Seiniger chalks the whole process up to another factor: Madison Avenue’s commandment of “success by association.”
“When Chevrolet sells a cheap car, they put it next to a Corvette,” explains Seiniger, whose company has created the poster campaign for “Jagged Edge” and other films. “If a film has a good pedigree like ‘Fatal Attraction,’ everything that you do says that the new film has the same pedigree, you’re doing a great job. That’s just smart marketing.”
Says Bemis: “You’re launching a new product with a short shelf life, yet I think each film is its own product. Every picture deserves its own package … but there will be similarities as long as movies are similiar.”
Others say that as in so many other areas of filmmaking, the conceptualizing of poster art has now fallen to large committees that tend to dilute the creative process.
With consumers assaulted by ever more visual imagery, designers of poster art reach for readily recognizable icons, like a woman in jeopardy or a gun. Another often-used image is the reflection in a pair of sunglasses, which was was recently seen in the poster for Warner’s “The Crush” as well as for Columbia’s 1990 film “Postcards From the Edge.”
Other examples of shared graphic images include “Alien,””The Fly” and “The Entity,” and sports films “Necessary Roughness” and “Major League.”
“A lot of it looks the same because we have to deal with icons and images that are readily available to people,” says a studio art director. “We have to deal in a language that people can understand. It has to be very simple because it has to work in so many different applications.”
Perhaps one studio marketing executive sums it up best: “We’re not trying to win art director awards, we’re trying to get an audience into the theaters … We would like to do something fresh and innovative, but we want the movie to do well.”
Maybe Pablo Picasso said it better when asked about his own work: “You just keep painting the same picture over and over.”