Micaela Marini Higgs
Micaela Marini Higgs

Curious Minds Podcast: What Does It Take For a Movie Poster to Be Iconic?

  • by Micaela Marini Higgs @micaela_mh

Discover how movie poster artists combine creativity with commercial art with Curious Minds, an original podcast by Domestika

Curious Minds is an original podcast by Domestika that explores the curiosities and untold histories of the creative world.

Each week we’ll bring you a new episode, interviewing experts and creatives as we dive into the unusual origins of the images, patterns, and designs we take for granted.

Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app to never miss an episode.

If you've seen a movie, you've probably seen a movie poster. Maybe you've even hung one on your wall. They're the promise we see before we watch a film, and often a freeze-frame that sticks in our memory long after.

But they're much more than a simple snapshot pulled from the footage. And for designers in the age of streaming services and prestige TV, the unique challenges of poster design, and their marketing potential, have only gotten more relevant. So what does it take for a movie poster to become a pop culture icon? And are poster cliches all bad?

In our eighth episode of Curious Minds, we interview award-winning movie poster designers Akiko Stehrenberger and James Verdesoto about the unique artistic and commercial challenge of condensing an entire film into a single, enticing visual, and illustrator and movie poster artists Marie Bergeron and Tracie Ching discuss how these poster images have only gotten more important, even if fewer of us are actually going to theaters.

You can download the transcript of this episode at the end of this article.

Picking what to watch can sometimes feel like a Herculean task as you scroll through Netflix’s seemingly endless offerings hoping for something to catch your eye.

The platform knows that which is why “streaming services, since they want to connect with so many different audiences, make multiple pieces of art to try to suck you in,” explains Sternberger, who's created pieces for Netflix titles like Money Heist and I'm Thinking of Ending Things.

Curious Minds Podcast: What Does It Take For a Movie Poster to Be Iconic? 6

While today’s designers are often designing for screens, the purpose of early, analog movie posters was much the same: break through the noise to get moviegoers to commit to watching something, using enticing imagery to get them to physically go to a theater and spend money.

To do that, they create key art, which is “a technical industry term for movie posters or poster imagery - it’s basically the key image that’s used and becomes the face of the film,” explains Verdesoto, who is behind some of the most iconic posters of the last few decades - think Pulp Fiction and Oceans 11.

Curious Minds Podcast: What Does It Take For a Movie Poster to Be Iconic? 8

The poster format’s rise in popularity during the 19th century as a cheap form of marketing and propaganda made it a natural way to market early films. Born right alongside movies themselves, the message that these early movie posters communicated was pretty much “wow! Come check out this new technological novelty called film!”

Soon though, the format evolved to feature illustrations of big-name stars, incorporate the plot of the film, and play into larger visual and design trends. As time progressed, poster imagery even began to develop visual shorthands to quickly communicate to audiences what they could expect from a film.

“It’s a double-edged sword, right? Without even really looking at [the poster long], you can kind of already tell what [a film’s] about, which is ideal for marketing,” explains Ching, “but then you end up with things like the floating head trend in posters.”

These cliches, like the dismembered floating heads of famous actors, seen famously in the poster for the Fifth Element, or rom-com protagonists leaning back to back and scoffing, might not offer originality but that’s not always the point. Enticing audiences into watching something, while not misleading them and causing dissatisfaction when they watch the film, is a careful balance that designers have to strike.

“It's the hardest part, to find the right idea. The best designers are the ones that find the best ideas. It's not how you do work. It's not what it looks like, I mean, it's the idea. If you can find ideas, I mean, after that, it's just like putting them on a sheet of paper. You don't care how it looks. The idea is, you know, the strongest message,” explains Bergeron.

Curious Minds Podcast: What Does It Take For a Movie Poster to Be Iconic? 11

To learn more about how movie poster designers use elements like photography, illustration, and color to create pieces of marketing that also work as art, and about how they are adapting to new trends in the industry, you can listen to Curious Minds on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Click on the link below to download a transcript of this episode. It will be saved in your Downloads folder as a PDF.

Download CM S1E8 Getting Sold on Movie Posters Transcript.pdf

If you'd like to read more stories behind the images, patterns, and designs we take for granted, check out our other blog posts for Curious Minds, an original podcast by Domestika.

You may also like:

- Curious Minds Podcast: Why Are Artists Hired to Illustrate Trials?
- History of the Poster: Centuries of Visual Communication
- Over 10,000 Movie Posters Available to Download for Free

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