The History of Film Posters
Film posters are a powerful visual element which promotes a film’s themes and narrative. Film posters over a long period of time were a significant part of the film industry, vital for advertising purposes. Before digital media, film posters were important in circulating a film star’s persona and embodying a film’s cult status. The use of Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe, major film stars in their day, are prime examples of how film posters reflects star power. Cult films like Scarface and Night of the Living Dead with their dedicated followings seek out film posters as a way of owning part of their passion. However, film posters seem to have become obsolete in today’s digital world.
Print Media and the beginning of Cinema
From cinema’s inception to television’s emergence in the 1950s, print media was the dominant form of mass media. Print media’s vast circulation had the ability to engage the public with advertising content. Gordon Gorey, an advertising expert, stated this period was a transition from ‘sound-oriented beings to primarily visually-oriented’ society 1. Gorey’s statement reflects that film posters were a sufficient form of advertising, as seen in the ‘Biograph Girls’ popularity. The ‘Biograph Girls’ were Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford, whose films were a must-see for audiences. Film studios originally refused to give advertising credit to actors/actresses, so that film studios would not need to pay extra wages. Yet, Biograph Studios began to understand that exploiting their actresses’ popularity through advertising meant securing extra profits.
Sarah Projansky analysed that Lawrence and Pickford’s advertising appeal was due to ‘the concept of the girl was a marketing tool in the early star system’ 2. Projansky linking the ‘Biograph Girls’ popularity transcending into successful advertising explains how print media became important for the film industry. The constant use of ‘Biograph Girls’ circulating through print media became part of establishing a movie star system, where the film industry manufactured movie stars to match their on-screen personalities. Biograph Studios’ commercial actions also gives substance to Gorey’s analysis of this time period, showing how the film industry were taking advantage of mass media by targeting their audience in specific ways.
Publicity for Film Stars
As cinema progressed into a vastly defined medium, it meant film posters were essential in reflecting a film star’s personality. Charlie Chaplin’s “The Tramp” character in its day was widely beloved. Modern Times was Chaplin’s first cinematic release after a five-year interval. This had been due to a creative turbulence in Chaplin’s career, causing media debate. This made Modern Times highly anticipated, so it was important for Modern Times’ film posters to engage with this aspect. The image of “The Tramp” character in a characteristic mannerism, along with Chaplin in capital letters, was likely to engage film goers’ minds. This refers back to Gorey’s viewpoint regarding society becoming more visual-orientated, as use of “The Tramp” iconography can be seen as essential in attracting Chaplin’s audience. Critical reviews of Modern Times reflects the success of the film’s advertising, with New York Times critic Frank Nugent saying “time has not changed this genius” 3. This supports how “The Tramp” iconography is prevalent in the film poster and narrative.
Marilyn Monroe, both in her film career and public life, was constantly personified through her sultry persona. The Seven Year Itch made use of Monroe’s sexuality in an iconic scene over a subway grate, shown in its film poster. The film poster presents the audience with this sensual image, coinciding with the film’s title. This could be interpreted as a attention-grabbing ploy to make audiences immediately take notice. A publicity shoot for The Seven Year Itch, where two thousand people saw Monroe enact this pose, continued to show 20th Century Fox’s control of Monroe’s iconography. The Seven Year Itch’s box office profit of $10.2 million 4 and references to Monroe’s radiance 5shows film advertising’s success in constructing film stars’ iconography.
Film Posters in relation to Cult Status
Cult films are defined as containing a dedicated fanbase, which has developed a subculture engaging repeated viewings, quoting dialogue, and other forms of audience participation. Scarface is such a film, which has become legendary in popular culture for its frequently quoted dialogue and scenes of violent excess. Scarface related merchandise has become collectible for avid fans, including film posters due to its recognition as a landmark in the gangster genre 6. The above image symbolises Scarface’s cult following. One interpretation of the black and white background can be a metaphorical battle between good and evil. Scarface fans could possibly see the good versus evil symbolism as Montana’s internal struggle, therefore the film poster reflects his personality. Montana’s personality is part of Scarface‘s cult image, explaining why the film poster could have a sense of glamour for Scarface fans.
Night of The Living Dead is a cult film within the zombie genre, establishing modern zombie iconography due to its realism 7. Night of The Living Dead‘s film posters use iconography by containing a montage of imagery, such as depictions of zombie cannibalism, their realist movements and the victims’ terror. The use of language, particularly ‘the dead against the living in a struggle for survival’ could resonate with horror fans as it is a common depiction of the zombie genre. This use of iconography, now embedded within the zombie genre, reflects in part why Night of The Living Dead has become a cult film that attracts dedicated fans.
The Decline in Film Posters
In today’s internet age, digital media has overtaken print media. Both have similarities in their aim to increase sales of their products. Yet, digital media has greater capability to attract audiences. Digital media is able to be present on social media, websites and emails, which are used globally on a mass scale. In the United States alone, digital advertising makes a contribution towards $2.7 billion digital revenue profits and internet usage globally surpasses almost three billion people. It is also acknowledged that fifty percent of internet usage is searching for something 8. These statistics make it clear why film studios have moved their focus to digital markets, as they can reach an audience far exceeding any film poster. Film-oriented websites like IMDb (owned by Amazon and has over sixty million users) and Empire (mass-circulated, commercial film magazine) contain advertisements which link to a film’s trailer and/or promotional website. Either one contains a wealth of information that can never be placed in a film poster, such as scenes from a specific film or includes additional information i.e. local cinema listings. These are advantages which have consolidated digital marketing above print media.
Film posters in the past have been powerful visual elements in promoting its subject’s themes and narrative. Analysing film posters in relation to major movies stars and cult films, they had the ability to express the subject’s characteristics. The film posters containing Chaplin and Monroe reflected their iconography that was recognisable to audiences. This also applies to film posters for cult films, they contain familiar attributes which fans enjoy. Despite this, film posters in an industry increasingly dominated by digital marketing are becoming obsolete. Digital marketing has the ability to contain more information regarding films than a film poster ever could.
- Gordon Gorey. The Public Relations Journal – Volume 34 – Page 78. 1978 ↩
- Sarah Projansky. Spectacular Girls: Media Fascination and Celebrity Culture. New York University Press. 2014 ↩
- Frank Nugent. (February 6, 1936). “Movie Review – Modern Times”. The New York Times. ↩
- The Seven Year Itch > Details > Box Office”. Internet Movie Database. IMDb. imdb.com. ↩
- Lisa Owings. Marilyn Monroe: Hollywood Icon. ABDO Publishing Company. 2012 ↩
- Author Unknown: http://www.afi.com/10top10/gangster.html ↩
- Pauline Kael. 5001 Nights at the Movies. Henry Holt and Company. 1991 ↩
- Leland Harden and Bob Heyman. Digital Engagement: Internet Marketing That Captures Customers and Builds Intense Brand Loyalty. AMACON Publishing. 2009 ↩
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