The Art House: The Wrong Way to Break into the Movie Poster Business

The Art House

This was never the plan. Before graduating I was offered a position at a well established brand-identity firm on the East coast, but school had left me exhausted with the idea of pursuing a career in the field. I was passionate about making films, though, so I turned down the job offer and went off to pursue my dream while delivering furniture on the side. After a year, the money dried up, and it became obvious to anyone with a set of eyes and ears that directing wasn’t my forte. I went back to work doing what I knew best, and for over a year and a half laid out catalogs and charts for biomedical equipment at a small agency near where I grew up. Eventually, the economy sagged, and my hours were steadily reduced until I was finally let go.

Then I had a bad day. Which turned into a bad week. And then into a bad month, which at that point felt like the makings of a bad year. Maybe that sounds melodramatic, but if it had been something as simple as not having a job, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning. Suffice to say, all I could do was claw through and hope everything would click in to place on the other side.

So I committed myself to making a movie poster a day. Or at least trying. I didn’t want to run away from my problems, but stewing in them only prolonged the mess I was in. My days needed focus and structure. All that mattered was finding purpose and making the process fun: to create a project similar to what I’d done in college, but without having to adhere to anyone’s definition of good design other than my own. This project was for me, and I had enough going on already that I didn’t need to throw hesitation or concern over other people’s opinion into the mix. But I did want to be held accountable to some degree, so all of the work was uploaded to a no frills website that only a few friends were given the address to.

Every morning I sat and started scribbling ideas for films I had seen or was at least passingly familiar with. I wanted ideas that felt simple but forced me to work in areas I wasn’t altogether comfortable with. Minimal movie posters didn’t exist back then, and short of Mondo at its earlier beginnings, there were very few alternate takes on film posters in general. My inspirations came from dead guys with funny hair. Scribbled on the tops of several pages were things they’d said that resonated with me at the time.

– “It’s not wise to be interested in fame and the appreciation of others, because no two people’s opinions about what is good are the same.”

– “Many stupid things are uttered by people whose only motivation is to say something original.”

– “We should be satisfied with the small things in life. The less we need, the less trouble we can have.”

– “Better to know a few things which are good and necessary than many things which are useless and mediocre.”

Maybe clinging to the musings of dead philosophers was a little pretentious. I wanted each day to focus on a new direction, forcing the turnaround on each piece to the shortest amount of time possible without completely sacrificing form or content. At best, they were a silly excuse to allow myself the freedom to ignore what I’d learned over the years while giving me an ideal to hold on to moving forward.

I’d scribbled down ideas for several films, but Blade Runner was the first that stuck. What if all the text resembled the neon signs found in Ridley Scott’s future Los Angeles? It was an avenue that made sense visually while feeling like an approach I could handle, even if I cheated a little by using techniques I was already familiar with. The sketch isn’t all that distant from the finished product, even if it is barely legible.

My notes for Annie Hall, on the other hand, took up an entire page. Film’s that rely heavily on dialogue are tougher nuts to crack if you don’t have a knack for illustrating floating heads, so I listed themes until I hit on something that would translate well to the page. The way Alvy and Annie’s relationship was presented reminded me of a slide projector carousel being clicked through, leaving the poster to become a simplified version of that idea.

A lot of what I tried to put together ran along similar lines. Although I had tried with "Sleeper" and "The Dark Knight", I didn’t have the chops to beautifully illustrate my favorite characters or scenes, giving a lot of the leg work to be done by my own thoughts about a particular film. They weren’t always clear in what they were trying to say, but they had some element that linked them back to the picture. Something like "2001: A Space Odyssey" worked directly off of the imagery of HAL 9000’s data-banks, while The French Connection aimed at connecting a heroin solvency test, New York, and France all in one image.

There were pieces that I felt were more successful than others. 8 ½ was difficult to pin down until I summed up what the story was about (film), and Planet of the Apes, a post-apocalyptic riff on Rodin’s “Thinker” sculpture, had me falling to the floor when I thought of it. But Child’s Play, "The Shining", and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" left me feeling like I’d missed the mark: each had a specific idea that didn’t translate well when I moved from page to screen, bringing to light the flaws in a “timed” exercise. Flying to finish work without occasionally asking whether an execution was truly coming together made it apparent that, despite the quantity of work being very high, the quality wasn’t always going to be at the same level.

And it wasn’t. Looking back on the work I made during that first year is somewhat embarrassing, not unlike unearthing photos of yourself from when you were much younger and, probably, a lot stupider. There’s been enough growth and change in the intervening years that those posters might as well have been done by someone else. But time has a way of shining a light on those flaws regardless so that they reverberate into the present and make you take stock of how far you’ve come. Somehow a project designed to lift me out of a difficult place became a career. It hosts it’s own set of challenges, but I can look back to a time when I handled things on my own terms and use that as a potential escape plan to move forward. That’s the power a personal project has. Agencies can dominate the field and calls for more commercially viable work might become louder and louder, but I’ll always be able to bow out and start over.