As a movie fan, you've undoubtedly read many laments on the state of movie poster marketing. You've probably written one or two of your own. This is yet another one.
I have a lot of movie posters and a few poster art books. I'm not unusual or special ... except that I probably own fewer of the latter than most film nerds. (I don't have enough bookshelves! And I can't part with all those Chaucer editions yet!) When I flip through them, one of my favorite "games" to play is, "Imagine the first time you saw this poster, hanging inside a dark movie theater hallway, and first learned of this film's existence. Where does your mind go?"
It's a fun game, particularly since I don't have a lot of solid memories of some of my favorite film's marketing. (Why don't I remember a single thing about the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade except seeing it at the theater? It's unsettling.) I remember seeing the one for The Little Mermaid, and my mind spinning a thousand versions as to what that film would be. (For some reason, I was unaware it was based on Hans Christian Anderson.) Another early memory is the first time I saw the poster for Jurassic Park. Despite that it was rather stark and bland (it was just the Tyrannosaurus Rex logo), my little heart skipped a beat.
Movie posters were always marketing. But they had class. They could be beautiful, they could be mysterious, they could be way, way off as to the actual film, but they were almost always special and memorable. They teased, in an era when we didn't have easy access to hype, trailers, stills, and so on.
Modern movie posters have none of that. As myself and many others have written before me, they're empty and artless, something hastily Photoshopped together to ship into theaters or toss around the Internet. Studios think – and are probably right, on some level – that movie posters no longer matter. Audiences are so primed by these long and epic marketing campaigns that the final poster, tackled forlornly on a multiplex wall, is no longer a real harbinger of summer blockbusters to come. It's just a piece of paper designed to snag in the straggling Joe Moviegoers trailing down the theater hallway, sucking on their soda, who see it and say "Is that Iron Man and Thor? ARE THEY GOING TO BE IN ONE MOVIE? Cool!" And that's the end of that. It's as empty and disposable as everything that marks our consumer lives. The Avengers poster is capitalism in a nutshell – sexed up, amped-up, vaguely eye-catching, and utterly forgettable five minutes later. It's enough to re-animate the corpse of Don Draper, so that he could design the poster around feelings and stories.
If 8 year old Beth was walking down a movie theater hallway in 2012, and saw The Avengers poster, she wouldn't be impressed. Her heart wouldn't go pitter-pat. Because she would have already seen the teaser to the trailer, the teaser trailer, the Super Bowl spot, the Twitter Q&A, the trailer, and so on. Unlike Jurassic Park or The Little Mermaid, she wouldn't need to wonder what the movie was, because it's already been spelled out in numerous places. Whereas if The Avengers had been made in 1990, Drew Struzan would have whipped up something incredible and haunting, and kept her wondering until she sat down in the theater on opening day. How do they assemble? What do they fight? What's going to happen? Who is going to die?
It's sad. It's a sign of the times, too. There's artistic reasons to design a pleasing Avengers poster (and I can understand the sheer challenge of trying to render that team in a coherent and cool way, but that's why people have art degrees), but no real financial or marketing ones that I can see. All the 21st century poster needs to be is what the Avengers posters is – a signpost full of the faces you'll see, with the most popular or pretty ones up front, and a release date. Hey look. Avengers. We'll assume you already want to see it, but here's a reminder. They might be missing their limbs or 'shopped out of all proportion, but we know you won't notice. (And 99% of America doesn't.)
I suspect the half-baked though that goes into it indicates the beginning of the end for movie posters altogether. It's significant they release them digitally before they ever print and post them, indicating that this is probably the way Joe Moviegoer will stumble on them in the future. Perhaps they'll flash across his Prius screen when he drives near a theater, or is walking down a street playing on his iPhone. ("Whoa! They made a Doctor Strange movie? I love Doctor Strange!") I can even see a multiplex where paper posters and standees cease to exist altogether, and those blank spaces target moviegoers with specific digital posters based on the purchase they just made. We already have this in our web browsers and coupon packets. It's only a matter of time before they invade brick and mortar buildings. (Studios long for crossover hits, so I don't think the woman who buys a ticket to a rom-com will only get rom-com posters. Rather, she would get a blockbuster poster that emphasized the romance or the hot guy.)
They're a relic already (and believe me, I don't want to say that, and I truly believe they have value beyond marketing), and will soon be something only specially produced for fans who want to go out of their way to by them. I suspect we'll see more fan creations and companies like Mondo leading the way, preserving posters for what they are, rather than what they sell. And maybe that's the way it should be. Posters to the people, and marketing to the faceless numbers and graphs that make something profitable.