PLAYING FOR KEEPS: A Tale of Two Movies

I love movie posters.

Throughout my middle- and high school years, I used to make a point of getting to the multiplex extra early in order to have enough time to wander the halls and look at all of the posters for coming attractions. In undergrad, I had a class on movie marketing during my senior year at the University of Miami taught by Dr. Sam Grogg (now at Adelphi University). Fantastic guy. Fantastic class. We spent A LOT of time covering the concept of key art and analyzing various posters, trailers, and overall marketing campaigns of films being released that fall. The final project involved applying all that we learned throughout the semester to a particular film, dissecting its various posters, trailers, reviews, etc.

I never looked at a poster the same again.

There was so much that could be learned from a single poster. To name but a few:

  • Star power: the size/placement of performers’ names and pictures on a poster as a reflection of their popularity, or perceived popularity
  • Genre, plot, target audience, etc
  • Intertextuality: the various other popular culture products the poster refers to through texts or images subtly or not so subtly in order to attract audiences
    • For example: “from the studio/producer/writer/director/actors who brought you…” or a direct reference to another – often more popular – film. Here’s one of my favorite examples:

I know, right?!

Then I began my doctoral studies. In my first semester, I learned about Jonathan Gray’s Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoliers, and Other Paratexts. Gray takes a critical look at the often-ignored world of texts that surrounds a particular film (including trailers, promos, tie-ins, posters, ads, etc) and gives them a name: paratexts. Paratexts “are the greeters, gatekeepers, and cheerleaders for and of the media, filters through which we must pass on our way to ‘the text itself’” (Gray, 6). They create a narrative before we see the actual narrative of the film that is being promoted and hold considerable power to direct our initial interpretations, telling us what to expect and establishing genre, gender, style, attitude, and characterization.”

There’s a lot that I could go into about posters, not least of which would be how poorly photoshopped so many of them are. Here’s one of my favorites the worst:

But I actually started this post because I wanted to talk about one upcoming movie’s paratexts in particular: Playing for Keeps. It illustrates an example of that most fascinating of paratextual behaviors: conflicting messages! I hadn’t heard anything about this movie until all of a sudden it was all over IMDb’s home page. Then all I saw was the poster, presented here:

The first thing that jumped out at me was Gerard Butler. He takes up the most room on the poster and gets top billing. I like Gerard Butler. I’m interested. Then I see his face and that grin, which just looks smarmy and sleazy, a look often reserved for womanizing sleazebags. It reminds of the poster for The Ugly Truth in which, if I remember the trailer correctly (I haven’t seen the film) he WAS a womanizing sleazebag.

[Sidenote: Seeing this poster again, he really doesn’t look that sleazy compared to his look in Playing for Keeps.]

Next I see three actresses: Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman, and Catherine Zeta Jones. It’s interesting to me that Biel has the next biggest picture and takes next billing, but mostly because I personally prefer Jones and Thurman. But it makes sense with Total Recall’s recent opening as well as Thurman and Jones’ recent absence in major lead roles. In any event, the actresses are known for their sex appeal, though Thurman arguably a little less so.

To recap so far: sleazy Gerard and three beautiful women.

Next I see the tagline: “This holiday season what do you REALLY want?” When that tagline is added to the mix of sleazy Gerard and three beautiful women, I can’t help but think that the poster wants me to think that the answer for Gerard Butler’s character is: “I want more beautiful women!” So far, I am not interested. Not too keen on movies that center on sleazy womanizers. Then I see the title: Playing for Keeps and I don’t really get it, but whatever…Hey, look! Dennis Quaid is in it too! What a beautiful man! And that smile! So based on the poster, I decide to pass. No interest in seeing the movie and no interest in seeing the trailer.

But then I was watching something on Hulu the other day and the trailer for the film came on. I rolled my eyes and thought “uggh, not interested.” But then I was pleasantly surprised. Here it is:

He’s not a womanizer! He’s just a father trying to do right by his son. It’s a father’s redemption story! He’s not trying to woo Jones, she’s trying to woo him! Away from his son! With a job! His dream job! I am a total sucker for movies dealing with father/son relationships. Now I’m thinking what he REALLY wants this holiday season is to be a better father. A goal that I’m much more interested in watching him pursue.

39 thoughts on “PLAYING FOR KEEPS: A Tale of Two Movies

  1. Fascinating — it’s like you’ve taken me right back to the lecture hall during my third year of college for my favorite “Cinematic Trends” class!

    OK, here’s my odd take: Based on the poster, my first thought was that it’s a movie about a man who decides he’s gay. The whole “What do you REALLY WANT?” led me there — especially considering the “movement” of the poster — from smarmy Gerard through all the women and finally to debonair Dennis! 🙂

    1. That’s a great take on the whole thing that didn’t even occur to me! I especially like it because it reveals my own dominant heteronormative assumptions and reading of what the make-up of the film’s romantic pairings “should” be. thanks!

  2. On the two movies with Ralph Finnes, why does one have his name in much larger lettering that the other?

    1. I think there’s less to compare and analyze when it comes to size and placement between DIFFERENT posters, than there is to look at those things within each individual poster. I think part of the answer would be that THE CONSTANT GARDENER was released by Focus Features, which kind of has a certain image about the types of movies it helps get made and distributed. so their name is prominently displayed on top. On the other hand, LAND OF THE BLIND seems to be relying almost exclusively on all of the awards-related publicity that GARDENER got that particular year. What’s more important is that Ralph Fiennes’ name comes first on both posters.

  3. Advertising is such a tricky business. It requires that the advertisers understand their audience – or the audience they want to attract. This advertising team looks like they were on a limited budget and limited time frame – like two hours?? I actually hate it when movie posters just plop headshots into geometrics shapes, as though this provides some kind of context of the characters or story line. The only exception to this dislike, however, is for the movie Love Actually. But that’s only because the name says a lot and the people are in a gift box, which at least adds to providing some context to the film (it’s a love story, involving all of these people, at Christmastime).

    1. I agree. and realize that marketing and advertising is way more complex than I could possibly know unless I was in that business. what’s amazing though is how often posters seem to be entirely made up of, to use your words, plopping headshots into geometric shapes. Even for really high profile projects. A few posters that come to mind are X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, WANTED, TAKERS, FATHER OF INVENTION…the list could go on…

  4. the first thing i think of when i see that poster is “what did they do to that piet mondrian painting?” and I had no idea gerard butler looked so spanish.

    1. I graduated from undergrad in 2008 and Master’s in 2010. and that’s a great poster! Nice, beautiful, classic. Thanks for sharing it! I think it’s specially interesting compared to this poster for A NEW HOPE, which I taught a class about once:

      They’re throwing everything at the potential audience. Space! Laser guns! Laser Swords! Robots! Weird space sasquatch! By the time RETURN OF THE JEDI comes around, all you need to know is Darth Vader’s helmet.

  5. Interesting post! I recently enjoyed Fiennes performance in “The Reader.”

  6. You’re so right–that trailer is depicting a completely different movie than the one the poster implies! I saw the poster and had exactly the same reaction to that grin on Gerry’s face–ugh, he’s playing sleazy again. Now that I see apparently he ISN’T, I’m much more interested…

  7. Interesting read! And I agree completely — after watching the trailer I’m wayyy more interested in seeing the movie than I would have been with just the poster to go on. The producers should give you a little cut of the profit!

  8. Very interesting. Like you, from the poster I would have never given the movie a chance. The trailer? Looks awesome! Thanks for sharing!

  9. This was a great post, and you bring to light ideas that the consumer doesn’t often think about.

    For me when I see a movie or a poster that has nine million (aka five or more) actors and actresses I’m automatically inclined to think the story line is going to suck. If you have a crappy script put high paid actors in it and send it on to the masses anyway. What do I want this holiday season; new writers, new cast, new faces, and new ideas.

  10. Uh, pardon me, but Gerard Butler never looks “sleazy” or unappealing, and I don’t think he does in the poster either. Girls, am I missing something here!??? The movie looks sweet, with a sweet cast to go with it. Can’t wait. Thanks for posting the trailer.

  11. amazing amazing post!!! and im sorry but gerald butler is fine 🙂
    Do you mind stopping by my fashion blog? Its new and i would really appreciate your opinion!
    Thanks so much!!

  12. Ooooh, that’s fascinating! I’ve never really put much thought into those posters, but I’m quite intrigued by how you’ve laid all of this out for us. Thanks! And congrats on the FP!

  13. Great insights! And to the comments that say advertising is tricky. It’s not. It’s just about appealing to the audience which is already known or can be discovered through data collection and psychographic research. Once you know the culture and subcultures you want to appeal to – it’s easy. Product development even takes into account the audience before the product is even made. Let’s not forget that part. Same goes for movies, books, blogs… 🙂

    Posters are interesting though! And para texts sounds similar to intertextuality. Basically meaning the context, or words, context surrounding the main headline, is just as important as the ad/poster itself. I learned this stuff in my undergraduate in rhetoric / communication classes. I wish we would have had a Movie Marketing class. Some movie posters are sure ridiculous.

  14. Actually, to me the “Playing for Keeps” poster looks like it’s supposed to be some inspirational sort of thing with the colored squares. The Dennis Quaid part in particular . . . that block makes me think of a tree in fall. Also, the actresses’ smiles . . . I don’t know how to explain it, but they look like inspirational movie smiles, not romantic comedy smiles.

    I find the way advertisements portray movies inaccurate, so I never rely on them when choosing what I want to see. I go read the plot and see if it sounds interesting.

    Neat observations, though. I always analyze things like that, though, as a former aspiring English academic, I’ve had my brain trained to think that way, ha.

  15. This is a unique way of reviewing a movie. Thumbs up! I might consider exploring similar approach in future. We’ll see…. Thanks for the inspiring writing style 🙂

    Anyway, me tooo… not interested *grins*

  16. Well said – I came across this poster too and didn’t even bother to wonder what the movie was about, it looked so generic. But now thanks to you I have seen the trailer and I am adding it to my Watchlist. Thank you 🙂

  17. And here I thought that I was the only person who got to the cinema early to see the ‘upcoming’ posters. I had no idea that anyone had come up with a definition of the information giving via film posters. Unfortunately, marketing in Hollywood these days doesn’t make a lot of sense. Kind of like those esoteric TV ads for cars and perfume. Great post.

  18. Wow…who makes those posters. I seriously thought the same thing as you lol and then when I watched the trailer almost got all teary eyed…smh. Great blog post!

  19. Ooooh, you know what I always notice? How, in action film trailers, they’ll do that quick edit of 1 second shots at the very end, and how it always includes 1) an explosion and 2) a flash of a love scene.

    It’s like they just have to let “the ladies” know that the movie is for them, too. “See? We put romance in there! This action movie is deeeeeeeep.”

    1. hahah, i know EXACTLY what you mean! I can’t stand those. They end up showing so much of the movie! I might have to write about trailers soon…

  20. Interesting post. I love Butler too and would suggest you should watch The Ugly Truth 😀

      1. Hehhee well she is good but I’m not a fan at all coz she acts the same way in all her movies.


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