When you think of your favorite movie poster, what do you think of? Perhaps Saul Bass‘ posters for The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder, or The Magnificent Seven. Or maybe the poster for Jaws, The Graduate, Gone with the Wind, or even earlier—Metropolis.
But as movie franchises with megamillion-dollar price tags seeking big audiences and a reliable return on investment have become the prominent choice of large studios, the movie poster has suffered. Posters for many of those films have a cut-and-paste formula of a few lead actors’ headshots below the title headline. Maybe add in a sports car (I’m looking at you Fast and Furious 1-9), credits at the bottom, and voilá. Commercial viability and brand recognition achieved.
But as we enter award season, we’re reminded that although megahits like The Avengers still dominate box offices, space is opening up for arthouse movies and TV, too. And that translates to more opportunity for creative poster design.
According to movie poster designer Akiko Stehrenberger, who has released a new monograph of her work, digital streaming services and social media are creating new ways for studios to advertise beyond traditional, mainstream audiences, and the additional ad opportunities these platforms afford have made some studios more willing to create multiple pieces of art for a movie campaign. “It’s actually a great time for illustration in the movie poster world, and there are many people (who always have been) fighting for better work,” said Stehrenberger. “Finally there’s an opportunity for it.”
The opportunity, when Stehrenberger finds it, is always different. Stehrenberger has done an array of posters for TV and films, from indie films like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Honey Boy to FX’s Baskets, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and HBO’s Veep.
Unsurprisingly, the projects that invite a more artistic approach tend to be arthouse films that “are less concerned about making a huge return back and have less on the line than blockbusters,” she says. One example: the secondary poster she created for Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Thick orange brushstrokes up the center of the composition create the shape of a flickering flame against a black background, and the negative space around it looks like two silhouettes on the cusp of a kiss. “Not only is it very simple and clean, I love using optical illusions whenever I can,” Stehrenberger said. “I like when I can get a viewer to look twice at my posters and discover something new.”
Like any artistic pursuit, not every piece is a success, and creating art for The Joker was a particular challenge. With a tight timeline, assets from the film on lockdown, and Joaquin Phoenix looking, well, like a maniacal clown, Stehrenberger had a hard time getting his likeness right. “It was the first mainstream and comic book-related film I actually was so excited to work on,” said Stehrenberger. “In the end, I totally blew it, and thank god my piece got thrown in the trash.” That combination of constraints left her with an end result that she wasn’t happy with. Not many designers will admit to a sense of relief when a project ends up getting buried.
While the outcome is always different, the process is generally the same. After a studio reaches out to her for a commission, Stehrenberger creates five to eight thumbnails that give a rough idea of the composition and painting style. The studio helps narrow down the ideas to one or two, then Stehrenberger makes a final sketch for approval and begins the final painting. Communication along the way is key to avoiding surprises, although they can’t always be avoided (Stehrenberger told me she’s taking The Joker sketches to her grave).”My ideas are half my job,” Akiko Stehrenberger told me.
One of the stranger aspects of being a film and TV poster designer today is that you don’t always know where those ideas will end up. I asked Stehrenberger where her posters can be viewed. “I’m never sure where my pieces end up, especially since now there are infinite possibilities to advertising a film these days,” she says. Neon studios made her secondary poster for Portrait of a Lady on Fire available at Arclight Cinemas for the premiere this past weekend. Of the two posters Stehrenberger designed for The Last Black Man in San Francisco—one (the composition with two figures) hung in theaters; the other (with a singular leaning figure) was made into shirts and other merchandise by A24. Placement depends on the film. And seemingly, an infinite number of arthouse films. While there is debate as to whether we’re in the second Golden Age of cinema, or the Platinum Age, it seems we are in fact reentering a Golden Age of poster design. Let award season begin.