Movie posters are plastered on dorm rooms, scaffolding under construction sites and megaplex hallways. Like the films they advertise, they can become cultural icons — at their best functioning as frameable and collectible works of art.
When it comes to creating them, designers have to balance a lot of needs and voices with the ultimate goal of getting people to the theater. Give too much away, and viewers will cry spoilers. Go a safer, more vague route, and risk too much ambiguity. Certain studio contracts include requirements on dimensions of the director’s or actors’ names in relation to the title. Now with competing streaming services, designers have to make sure the imagery reads well at different scales — and not just as a poster hanging inside a theater.
“Increasingly that’s not the way that most people see posters. You have to be thinking of [video on demand] and how somebody is going to see this as they’re swiping through Netflix super-fast,” said Erik Buckham, a Los Angeles movie-poster designer at Palaceworks who has worked on such posters as “I Am the Night,” “Colossal” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” “It’s a big shift.”
For insight on the posters for this year’s best picture nominees, The Washington Post chatted with Buckham and three other designers in and out of the entertainment industry: Eddie Opara, a British designer at Pentagram in New York; Debbie Millman, the host of “Design Matters” podcast and the author of several graphic design books; and Akiko Stehrenberger, a Los Angeles movie poster illustrator and designer of posters such as “Funny Games” and “Deadpool 2.” With nominees including a superhero film, a romantic reboot and a political drama, the posters run the gamut in visual styles.
Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
A Star is Born
Opara: I remember the poster they used for the Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson version, and I thought it was so sensual. In the original poster from 1937, he’s looking up to her and also holding her in this sort of manner. If the story line’s exactly the same, the 2018 poster really doesn’t have a very good representation. And what’s up with the bloody palm trees?
Millman: I think they look like they’re in a hurricane.
I’m offended by the poster. Previous posters were iconic, especially the 1976 version, which I think is one of the great movie posters of that time. There’s a sense of elegance; Barbra Streisand is absolutely regal. This one makes Lady Gaga seem so subservient to Bradley Cooper. It could have been a really passionate poster. It should have been a passionate poster. And it looks like a rom-com — and a rom-com in bad weather.
Opara: It’s a complete mess — the overexposed background, the heavy duty contrast — and there’s no contrasting on the black and on the grayscale photograph. It’s just overblown. I wouldn’t know from a distance that was Bradley Cooper at all.
[Review | Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s hotly anticipated ‘A Star is Born’ is here — and it is lavishly delightful]
Opara: “The Favourite” — actually written correctly in the Queen’s English — is fantastic to me. There’s the unique letter spacing of the type for the executive producers and the actors. But then I was just like, “What’s up with the rabbits?” They’re framing Queen Anne and her maid-in-waiting inside of that window, and her robe is sort of lifted up on the frame. There are a lot of great qualities to this image altogether. You know, it’s just playful.
Buckham: On one hand, I quite like it as a designer and as somebody who designs movie posters for a living. The typography is interesting. I have no idea what it’s about, but I know the filmmaker and I know it’s going to be something very different and interesting and unexpected. But at the same time, I could also see why that would alienate a lot of people, like my mom. She would look at that poster, and she wouldn’t even see it. She couldn’t even process what it was going to be about.
Millman: I have a lot of problems with the letter spacing of the word “the,” and I have a lot of problems with the way in which you read the stars’ names: Olivia, Emma, Rachel, Coleman, Stone, Weisz. This feels very confusing. The letter spacing to me is a mess.
Buckham: I can tell you with certainty that the director, Yorgos Lanthimos, is heavily involved in the design and marketing of his films. That’s the reason this poster is used, because he has his ideas that he wants to communicate through the poster. I would say the same thing for Alfonso Cuarón for “Roma.” Not every filmmaker gets to decide what their poster is going to be; some of them are not as involved.
[Review | Imagine ‘The Crown’ but vulgar and hilariously perverse. That’s ‘The Favourite.’]
Millman: The poster is really telegraphic. It’s clear what it’s about. It’s single-minded. It’s sexy, and it’s about a topic that I’m really interested in.
Stehrenberger: I saw the poster around town. I know there were many factors why they chose the coloring and the logo. But for me, I was expecting more from a Freddie Mercury poster, and it almost looks a bit like something that I would see for a Lifetime movie. It actually prevented me from seeing it for a really long time.
Opara: I’m sorry, Debbie, but I think the poster of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is incredibly cheesy. I know that Freddie Mercury is the icon of Queen, I understand that but . . .
Millman: What? What? What? It’s sexy!
Opara: You could show all of the members of the band in a more dramatic type of appeal that isn’t a pair of reflective sunglasses with Queen written into it. I just felt as though he was sunbathing, and he was turning into a terribly wrong color.
Buckham: You’re forgetting about the Photoshop lens flare, too.
Millman: I’m weeping. I’m weeping openly. I don’t know that I can defend myself. I just think it’s really sexy. It’s like a little tease to me. And I don’t mind the shadowing in the glasses.
[Review | ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is a bad movie. But boy, is it entertaining.]
Buckham: I went and saw “BlacKkKlansman” because I liked the poster so much. There was another poster where he’s wearing the hood. It was such a striking image. I love Spike Lee as a filmmaker. It kind of looked like it might be a comedy, but knowing Lee, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Opara: In regards to typography, what I think really does work is the KKK. It’s incredibly clever and so immediately understood. Then you drop down, and you’re looking at a condensed version of Helvetica. It just states that it’s based on a crazy, incredible true story. It really hits home.
Buckham: I’m sure with “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee was very involved in the poster. I think that the poster will stand the test of time. “BlacKkKlansman” and “The Favourite” will definitely be posters that are put in books one day.
Opara: “BlacKkKlansman” is incredibly balanced with black and white all the way through. Just the photograph of John David Washington is outstanding, and you can get that sense of nostalgia through his hair, which is fantastic.
Millman: I don’t think there’s anything better on any of these posters than the typography for “BlacKkKlansman.” That for me is what pushes it. It’s the most clever piece of design on all eight posters.
[Review | ‘BlacKkKlansman’ is Spike Lee’s best, and most necessary, movie in years]
Buckham: Although I like the sort of boldness of the poster, I had no idea what the film was about. I actually thought it was VICE, the news magazine. I had no idea it was about Dick Cheney.
Millman: This poster has a problem with branding. This should have been called “Dick,” and it would have been great for a lot of reasons. I don’t understand how their lawyers let them use the word “vice.” It’s just so confusing, and it’s beyond my comprehension that something like this got by the marketing department. The illustration, while okay, is not so clear that it’s Dick Cheney. The typography is also problematic — the “E” in “Vice” ends up looking like an “M.” The whole thing is difficult.
Opara: I think the colors are not correct. You could have been a little bit more patriotic. It had so much potential to be a great poster.
Stehrenberger: I feel like “less is more” is always going to feel good design-wise. The posters that kind of go crazy are definitely going to feel dated after a certain time. I think “Vice” is going to feel dated. For me, it already does.
[Review | Christian Bale nails it as Dick Cheney in ‘Vice,’ but the rest of the movie is an absurd mess]
Buckham: Over Christmas break, my mom just kept going on and on about “Green Book”and how much she loved that movie, and I think she would love the poster, as well. It does what it needs to do.
You get some idea of the story. You know it’s kind of a period piece with subverting roles opposite of “Driving Miss Daisy.” And besides having Viggo Mortensen on the poster — my mom loves Viggo — you’re getting a story that has a little bit of tension in it. There are definitely some issues about race in this.
Stehrenberger: There’s nothing about it that lets me know that this is a different time. The car is cropped off. There’s weird, ambiguous blurs on things that I think could have been done quite differently with the same image and come off a bit better.
Millman: The typography feels too modern for the piece. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m also really bothered by the fact that there seems to be a part of the car missing, unless that’s part of the movie. Like that middle part of the car — where did it go?
Opara: Dude, what’s going on here? It’s simple, but it’s a mess. It’s a good opportunity to even look at the green books that this movie is based on — the principle that African Americans had to read books in certain parts of the country to find out where to eat, sleep and do other things — and then take onus from that.
There’s a golden opportunity that’s totally missed. And that’s very upsetting to see.
[Review | ‘Green Book’ is the rare Hollywood crowd-pleaser that triumphs on all counts]
Opara: I read “Black Panther” when I was a kid. There are certain overly cheesy aspects to this particular poster that don’t really resonate with me. It’s a fantastic movie as I’ve watched it three times. But I’m trying to still decipher what the Wakandian scripts actually mean. They stay true to the past with the logo.
Buckham: “Black Panther” does what it needs to do. It’s a big Marvel movie. You immediately get that. It’s not breaking the mold necessarily of what we’ve seen before. They don’t even need a poster. Everyone’s going to go see it — big Marvel movie, big action. Very slick, very expensive.
[Review | ‘Black Panther’ is exhilarating, groundbreaking and more than worth the wait]
Opara: Everything Alfonso Cuarón does turns to gold, right? So you might have just titled it “Alfonso” and written and directed by “Roma” instead. It’s a really moving image.
One troubling aspect for me was the typography. It’s the right typeface or type family, but why the all-caps situation? I don’t quite understand it. Maybe I’m being really touchy, and maybe that’s the reason I haven’t watched it — because the “R” is so annoying. It does give the sense of holding a family together and not being separated.
Millman: This makes the movie look like a small movie. And I actually think from everything I’ve read, and the response that it’s had, that it’s a quite big movie. It’s a bit confusing as to what the movie is about and why.
Opara: It was a Netflix film, and it looks like it was made for streaming. It works really well small.
Stehrenberger: This is a good example of when there’s decent photography that it isn’t as difficult to make a clean, nice-looking poster. I can tell looking at the boy on camera-left that he was Photoshopped in so I wish there would have been a bit more care to making that feel more realistic.
Millman: That is a really bad retouching-airbrushing job. You’re right. It’s terrible.
Stehrenberger: If I look at all the posters, for me this is pleasing because they’re not using five different fonts, and it tells you that this is a dramatic family film. You kind of know what you’re going to get from looking at it.
[Review | No, the movie ‘Roma’ isn’t as good as you’ve heard. It’s even better.]