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Films overdose on logos

A limitless litany adorns every new film

You’ve just sat through seven trailers and 20 minutes of preshow entertainment. You’re ready for the start of the movie — in this case, “Hancock.” The Columbia logo, featuring the company’s familiar torch lady, comes onscreen, followed by Relativity Media’s revolving planets, then Will Smith’s Overbrook record and Akiva Goldsman’s overgrown Weed Road.

By the time Michael Mann’s new Blue Light label flickers past, you have two key questions: How many logos does one film need? And when’s the movie going to start already?

Audiences have been conditioned to expect one or two logos before a movie, most of them forgotten the instant they disappear from screen. But as more movies are hatched via co-production deals, that pre-credits lineup is getting awfully crowded — and that doesn’t even count the number of star- or director-driven shingles in the mix. Everyone from Tom Hanks to Mel Gibson to Ben Stiller has a company these days, and they all want placement.

As it is, the few rules governing logos remain largely unwritten. The distributor always goes first. Studios don’t like it when another company’s logo spends more time onscreen than theirs does. Most max out at 14 or 15 seconds (Walt Disney Pictures’ enchanted castle is longest, at 30).

Leave one off and risk a lawsuit, as Warner found after chopping the Ladd Co. tree from DVD prints of “Body Heat” and “Chariots of Fire.” When an associate producer credit won’t do, try offering ’em a logo.

Many sequences, like the Pixar lamp or DreamWorks’ fishing boy, aim to tell a short narrative. Others are less clear: Paramount Vantage’s logo looks almost creepy as a strip of Dymo tape inches across a wobbly, unfocused frame.

Some logos are so lengthy and polished that auds are fooled into thinking the film is actually starting, as when the jungle parts to reveal Mandalay’s tiger. A few even dissolve into the opening shot of the film, the way Paramount-shaped peaks begin each of the Indiana Jones movies.

Lately, the sheer number of logos seems to be spiraling out of control, with no limit in sight. “Some movies are all cooks, no pots,” critic Roger Ebert — who once lost count at six logos — tells Variety.

Indies and foreign films can be the worst offenders, given all the entities involved. Many distributors just slap their branding in front of festival acquisitions, sometimes resulting in sequences of seven or eight companies. Auds have been known to chuckle at the run-on opening lineups for European co-productions like “Tristram Shandy” or “This Is England.”

“As an independent, when you’re scraping it out like we are, you want everybody to think it’s their movie,” says “Bottle Shock” producer Randall Miller, who gave logos to Freestyle Releasing (for distributing) and Casey Jean Prods. (for putting up most of the P&A). “If there’s less than a minute of stuff before you get to your movie, I don’t think anybody really worries about that.”

The trick is finding a way to stand out, and for that, production companies turn to pros in the trailer or visual f/x industries.

“They want to make a splash and be memorable, and it’s a challenge as the logo sequence gets fatter and fatter,” observes Picture Mill executive director Rick Probst, whose firm specializes in motion graphics branding. As soon as a new shingle is announced, Picture Mill goes knocking.

“Everybody’s got a different story or memory from their childhood that’s going to make the logo personal,” Probst says. “When we went in to Phoenix Pictures, Mike Medavoy said, ‘I always liked that shot in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ where he lights the match and it cross-dissolves to the sun,’ so the logo starts out that way.”

When Bob Berney launched Picturehouse, the name and logo were conceived to reflect a specific goal. “The idea was to create a sense of community, not only for an audience but also as a place for filmmakers to come to,” says Molly Albright, senior VP of creative advertising.

The resulting animation, which features a marquee sparking to life at dusk, had to be universal enough to introduce everything from “Pan’s Labyrinth” to “Kit Kittredge.”

By contrast, Lionsgate has struggled to find a logo suitable to fit its entire slate, evolving from a simple lion-shaped constellation to heavy-duty steel initials (better suited to “Saw” sequels than Tyler Perry fare). With design help from Deva Studios, it settled on an elaborate animation in which gears spin and a vault door swings open to reveal the company logo suspended in midair — the background either heavenly white or hellish red, depending on the film.

Most of the majors’ logos have evolved over the years, with Universal’s spinning globe and Col’s torch lady undergoing the most dramatic shifts. MGM’s Leo is probably the most iconic and least futzed-with of the studio logos, but even that one has undergone its share of finessing since 1924 (when the lion’s roar was silent).

Frugal companies such as Magnolia Pictures deal with PowerPoint-quality logos (or do without altogether), while others pay to polish their look every few films.

After Don Simpson’s death, Jerry Bruckheimer asked two f/x pros to revise his logo from two bolts of lightning striking the same spot, to a desert road where a single flash brings a dead tree to life.

Legendary Pictures went unsung in the opening lineup before “Batman Begins.” But by the time “Superman Returns” rolled around the following summer, the company had commissioned Picture Mill to design a spinning, blazing, three-dimensional Celtic knot that could hold its own between Warner Bros. and DC Comics (total running time for all three: 42 seconds).

That’s as much screen time as your standard DreamWorks-Paramount combo. As part of its contract with the studio, DreamWorks always goes first. And all the other companies try not to get lost in the shuffle.

“They have a pecking order that depends on who’s executive producing the movie, whose production company is most involved,” explains Ahmet Ahmet, a creative director at Imaginary Forces, the boutique that designed the opening logos for competing comicbook companies DC and Marvel.

“We didn’t have a lot of money for a big splashy logo,” says Marvel Studios prexy Kevin Feige, remembering a time in 2002 before the first “Spider-Man” movie opened. Imaginary Forces cooked up a sequence in which flipping comicbook pages (which change from film to film) slowly reveal the Marvel lettering. The branding is so effective, the Marvel logo actually earned cheers before “Iron Man.”

“I love the idea of that logo having an effect on a kid watching the movie the way the Amblin or Lucasfilm or Disney logos did on me when I was a kid,” Feige says.

Studios are very protective of their logos, but have allowed a few filmmakers the privilege to monkey around with the look onscreen. Warners brass have been good sports, permitting their shield to be desaturated by Clint Eastwood, hacked for “The Matrix” and downright obliterated in the opening shot of “The Dark Knight.”

Cartoon dweeb Ralph Wiggum sang the Fox fanfare before “The Simpsons Movie,” Universal’s icecaps melted in “Waterworld” and a snarling croc took Leo’s place in MGM’s “Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course.”

The proliferation has gotten so bad that multiple logos are even popping up in trailers. The good news: Given the 2½-minute time limit on trailers, at least that puts a max on how long these sequences can get.

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