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.