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.

More Film

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Russ Tamblyn's Career Had Legs After Childhood

    With an acting career that spans work for Cecil B. DeMille and Joseph Losey to Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch, Russ Tamblyn’s creativity and longevity is proof that there’s life after child stardom. In Tamblyn’s case, there’s also been a bounty of juicy film and TV roles long after his legendary legs no longer kicked [...]

  • Olivia Wilde Booksmart Director

    Film News Roundup: Olivia Wilde to Direct Holiday Comedy for Universal

    In today’s film news roundup, Olivia Wilde has landed another directing gig following “Booksmart” and revenge thriller “Seaside” and “Woodstock: The Directors Cut” get August release dates. PROJECT LAUNCH Olivia Wilde will direct and produce an untitled holiday comedy project for Universal Pictures with her “Booksmart” partner Katie Silberman. Universal outbid five other studios for [...]

  • Choas Charles Mansion and the CIA

    Amazon Studios Takes Film Rights to Manson-Centered Drama 'Chaos' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the grisly murders executed by the followers of Charles Manson, Amazon Studios has optioned film rights to a nonfiction title about a journalist who spent decades obsessively following the case. The studio will adapt “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties,” from [...]

  • Sword of Trust

    Marc Maron on 'Sword of Trust,' Lynn Shelton and Conspiracy Theories

    Marc Maron has interviewed everyone from Bruce Springsteen to President Obama, so he’s probably learned a few things about being a good interview. Of course, as he points out, he generally has over an hour to talk leisurely speak with his guests in his home and draw out stories beyond the public narrative; it’s a [...]

  • Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - The

    Andrew Lincoln's ‘Walking Dead’ Movies to Be Released Only in Theaters

    The first planned movie centered on “The Walking Dead” character Rick Grimes will now run in theaters rather than on AMC. The announcement was made with a brief teaser video played at San Diego Comic-Con on Friday, with the video ending with the words “Only in Theaters.” The film will be distributed by Universal Pictures. [...]

  • Jennifer Beals The Last Tycoon

    Jennifer Beals Seeking SAG-AFTRA Board Seat as Matthew Modine Ally (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jennifer Beals is running for a SAG-AFTRA national board seat as a member of presidential candidate Matthew Modine’s progressive Membership First slate. Beals is best known for starring as Bette Porter on the Showtime series “The L Word” and for her lead role as Alex Owens in the 1983 hit “Flashdance.” She’s starred in the [...]

  • Alamo Drafthouse Opens New Downtown Los

    Alamo Drafthouse Storms into L.A. with New Location

    “Cinema is alive and well tonight!” Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League declared at the theatrical venue’s ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday night, where a gathering of 160 employees cheered and sliced into a strip of 35mm film in keeping with the company’s tradition. Despite dire predictions heralding the end of the theater-going experience, League was upbeat [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content