Thursday, February 16, 2017

What the Heck Happened to Movie Posters?



By Jerry Chandler

I’m going to put on my grumpy old man hat today. I am not going to do the “It was always better back in my day!” routine along with donning that hat though, but only because many of the posters I’m going to use here today are from films that predate my coming kicking and screaming into this world. Plus, the decline in overall poster and lobby card quality started when I was younger, so a lot of the bad is in fact from back in my day.

Have you seen the social media posts poking fun at the Kong: Skull Island posters that look for all the world like rip-offs of the Apocalypse Now movie posters? To a degree it’s funny seeing someone in the promotional department commission posters and lobby cards that so closely (pardon the expression) ape the look of the classic posters, but at least the end result was posters that stand out. They pop when you see them, and they have a fantastic artistic style that makes them stand out like few other posters, lobby cards, and ad images for movies do these days. This is kind of a problem.


Look at that poster for Logan. It could just as well be The Martian or about a hundred other films from the last few years. It’s not only bland; it’s flat out generic these days. Look at the posters, lobby cards, and ad images for even the biggest budgeted films of the last few years. You could go through the list of them and one after another is a lead actor’s face looking into the camera. Maybe you get two or three of them looking into the camera or you get the variation of the actor(s) looking off to the side instead, but it’s an annoyingly common image. Sometimes you get the actor(s) looking into the camera or off to the side with the shot pulled back so that you see the actor from about thigh level and up, but it’s more of the same. You frequently get a shot of two or more actors just standing on either side of the poster looking at each other. Another big one is a single primary color wash fading to black with an actor in the center. Look at a catalog of modern movie posters and it starts running together into a giant mass of generic nothing.

But look at that poster art for The Night They Raided Minsky’s. It’s vibrant and wonderfully stylized. It pops when you see it. The artwork conveys the sense of fun and comedy that the movie is supposed deliver, and the artist was able to capture the likenesses of the actors and actresses involved in the film well enough that you can recognize them in an instant. That’s a key word I just used, because it was an artist who did the work.


The art of movie advertising when it came to the area of posters and lobby cards really was an art form. You did have posters made from photo montages, and quite nice ones actually, but you had a lot of posters that were pure artwork. They might have a skilled artist in house at the studio, but occasionally they went out and hired some of the biggest names in pop culture art to do the work. The Night They Raided Minsky’s poster art was provided by none other than Frank Frazetta. The amazing artwork for the Grizzly poster was done by comic book legend Neal Adams.


Again, you did get the photo montage work as well, but just look at something like the ad work for The Bride of Frankenstein and compare it to the typical posters and lobby cards of today. That’s not just someone looking at a camera or a group of guys standing around in some random fashion. The images work together to create a sense of horror and action. The various blurbs on the poster sell the drama and the mystery angle with a nice flourish of ballyhoo. Today you’d probably just get a close shot of the monster sitting in the chair in a dark room looking up at the camera forlornly. Maybe you’d get that along with Frankenstein himself standing behind his seated monster while also staring forlornly into the camera.


Even when you had an actor like Christopher Lee, a man who could convey worlds with a look alone, you’d get a wonderful montage of images for a film like The Brides of Fu Manchu. Again, there’s so much of the story being conveyed by this poster. It’s not just Lee looking at you from a giant sheet of color washed glossy paper and you wondering what kind of film this might be.

But I want to get back to the hand drawn artwork. There were some science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies back in the day that were good, but they were never going to set the world on fire with their FX work. You could certainly show the FX work in the print ads- and many of the ones featured here did –but some great artwork really grabbed the imagination and sparked interest before a film’s release. There were also films that more than lived up to the expectations created by the wonderful poster art. Both The Time Machine and The Day the Earth Stood Still more than lived up to the expectations one might have had, and both have become classics of their genres.


Then there are some films that are enjoyable, but the poster art sold a better story than the films could. One such poster would be one of the ones made for The Land that Time Forgot. I love the film, but I LOVED that poster art. I cut a full page ad out of a magazine and had that on the wall by my bed. I would spend a lot of hours looking at that artwork instead of going to sleep when I was a young one. It just created a story of amazing adventure in my mind that built into something epic long before I was able to actually see the film. I enjoyed the film when I finally saw it and still enjoy it now, and I still seriously love the story created in the artwork made for the film.


However, sometimes the artwork would sell a film that was nowhere near worthy of the artwork commissioned for it. The sequel for The Land that Time Forgot was a dreary affair called The People that Time Forgot. IF you ever watch it you will understand why some fans of the first film wish it had been an ERB story that the studio forgot. But, again, even knowing what a dog the film was, the artwork makes you want to see it more than any generic poster with a human or monster eyeball looking through the jungle leaves at the camera would.


That actually became a bit of a thing for a while as well. There are some films out there where their greatest contribution to pop culture was their poster art.  These days it seems like when studios can’t figure out how to advertise an iffy film, they just through their hands up and give up. You end up with commercials and trailers that leave you with no idea about what the movie will be about. Back when they were willing to pay talented people to do their thing, they just gave you artwork that wowed you in ways the movie never would. One example of that would be The Neptune Factor. Never heard of it? Not surprised. It was a boring movie, but it had a great poster.


Still other films used amazing ad artwork to really cover for less than stellar film work. The Beast with a Million Eyes was one of those wild looking posters that covered up a less than wild creature. If you’ve ever seen the movie, you will be a little disappointed in the number of eyes the beast has, not to mention the rest of the film. But, again, the poster is an example of some beautiful work.


It wasn’t just the old black and whites that they covered up some less than great FX work with. If you’ve ever seen Frankenstein Conquers the World, you know how mundane the Frankenstein Monster looks. Let’s be honest, it looks like they found a Japanese actor who had suffered one too many blows to the head and dressed him up with bad grease paint and even worse hair and head pieces. Baragon looked better than the monster, and this was not the best that Baragon looked in his various kaiju film and TV appearances. You also certainly didn’t have an amazing sequence anywhere in the film like the one shown on the poster, but, damn, once again, it made you want to see that film.


You also never saw scenes this good in The Invisible Boy. Take a real close look at this one. They gave the robot a credit on the poster.


This one may be a middle ground. The artwork isn’t that much better than the film, but that POV may be dependent on how much you like the film. I happen to love it, but I have no taste.


But still others sold the story of good films very well. Here are two classic Godzilla films for you, and I’d take these to put up on my walls before I would most of the 2014 Godzilla movie posters. Although even here they screw with you a bit when it comes to what you’ll be seeing in the film. The “thing” that’s being “censored” in the one poster? That’s the poster for the film most of us now know as Godzilla vs Mothra.      


Other such posters sold drama better than any poster today could. Even conventional, reality based films benefited from having a gifted artist handle the poster art; case in point, The Great Escape. Even if you knew nothing about the film before you saw the poster, the poster alone could probably sell you on the film.


But great poster art could be even more effective when the artist could cut loose on something based more in the fantastical. Vault of Horror is an enjoyably creepy but fun film with stories based on the old EC Comics horror tales. As such, the artist was able to create an unreal image that sells the nature of the film’s horror quite effectively. Compare this image to the posters for such 2016 horror offerings as Hush, OUIJA: Origin of Evil, The Boy, The Forrest, or even some of the Underworld: Blood Wars posters. No contest at all.


This poster for Quatermass and the Pitt might not have conveyed much of the story essentials, but, damn, did it ever still let you know that something was going to happen when you paid your money to go inside the theater and see that film.


Classic chillers, thrillers, and Saturday creature features were great subjects for the imaginative artist. Whether making something completely hand drawn or working with a photo montage, the skilled craftsman and artists working for the studios back in the day created works of absolute beauty. These I would want on my walls far more than just about anything I’ve seen in a theater lobby in recent years. 




The art of creating the amazing movie poster and lobby card images of yesteryear unfortunately feels like a truly lost art form these days. It shouldn’t be though. There are guys out there now making stuff like this even today. Guys like Mark Maddox, Steve Jencks, and others are doing such amazing looking licensed artwork that they’re being ripped off by fly by night shirt sellers and print sellers who make a fast mint selling products with their artwork as limited collectibles. People want this stuff.

There used to be a larger group in fandom than what exists now of people who bought and collected movie posters. It was a thriving fandom that at one time snatched up the new as much as it did the classic because so many of the posters and lobby cards that were created had such amazing imagery on them. These days it’s a sea of generic, bland, cookie cutter concept images that are even more disposable than the paper used to print the images.

The studios talk about their bottom lines hurting these days. If they want to help out that bottom line, give us a Maddox, a Jencks, or an artist like any of the ones who worked on a lot of the theater art back in the day doing new artwork for ad campaigns on new films. Give me a movie poster that rivals the ones done by a guy like Hildebrandt and I and others will happily give the studios wads of cash for that poster, that print, that t-shirt, and that whatever else adorned with that artwork. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about there, Goggle “Hildebrandt New Hope Poster” and see what pops up as an image.

Studios, please, a lot of us are begging you… Start giving us those works of art again.

Hope everyone had a great Valentine’s Day. Enjoy a few more images.













Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the ESO Pro: The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.

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