A tattooed body lunging in darkness. Flowing hair, shiny fur, and an inscrutable facial expression. A clearly lovely woman wearing a chicken mask in bed. Nicole Kidman looking worried. Will Ferrell humping a skyscraper. Half a dozen posters advertising one film you’ve never heard of. Character posters are dominating that film marketing landscape as of late, but few of them seem able to actually accomplish their apparent goal of making one character look appealing enough and interesting enough to necessitate their own glossy one-sheet.
The latest big batch of character posters also doesn’t do too much when it comes to introducing well, actual characters. Most of them don’t even include character or talent names. Who are these people and why should we care?
The reason that character posters exist appear to be twofold – one, they are simply part of a large-scale marketing package that includes other traditional pieces like teasers, trailer, teaser trailers, theatrical posters, teaser posters, banners, and the like (possibly also of the teaser variety) and two, they are meant to impart familiarity with an often very large cast of characters. If a film has enough people that are all essential to its narrative, sure, give them their own poster to drum up interest from the movie-going masses, but the last few sets of character posters that have been released for public consumption continue to feel randomly conceived, designed, and fired off.
Last week alone saw the release of new character posters for “Divergent,” “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” “The Railway Man,” “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” and “About Last Night.” None of these new posters did much to impart stand out characteristics to the actual characters they are portraying. If you don’t know anything about YA adaption “Divergent,” it may well just look like a film about tattoo artists. “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is straight up uninspired, and while these new posters may fit in beautifully with other “Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” one-sheets, that’s actually an issue – because they look exactly like all those posters. They are devoid of originality. “Anchorman 2” and “About Last Night” both at least try for laughs – but while seeing the “Anchorman” news team back at their old tricks may amuse old fans, “About Last Night” doesn’t do much to draw in a drove of new fans. Again, who are these people? (And what’s with that chicken mask?) Strangest of all is the set for historical drama “The Railway Man,” a film so devoid of buzz that the idea that it merits a set of character posters is actually laughable.
That newest set of posters aren’t the only ones to disappoint and confuse, however, because most of the year’s other character posters are similarly both weird and bad. Guillaume Canet’s film festival entry “Blood Ties” appears to have lifted its poster images straight from (some markedly low-resolution) stills to draw up a quick set of character images. And those posters don’t do a thing to convey not only who the characters are but what the film is actually about – thank goodness Billy Crudup holds a gun in one of them, or there is no way the film’s crime vibe could possibly be telegraphed by everyone else looking pensive and confused.
“Star Trek Into Darkness” also disappointed earlier this year with two different sets of hazy, fuzzy one-sheets that didn’t tell us much of anything about plot or characters beyond, of course, the possibility that they were all moving very fast.
Even Disney’s latest, “Frozen,” bores by way of its own set of character posters. Still worse? The kiddie-aimed film doesn’t even display character names on the posters – ensuring that their primary marketplace will only know that they “like the blonde one” and effectively dismantling brand recognition before it even has a chance to properly grow (and, if you doubt that kids know their favorite character name before even seeing a film, you need to hit a Saturday morning matinee).
It may be bad out there, but it’s not all bad, at least when studios have compelling films with incredible characters that they can actual market by way of character poster marketing (see how that works?). The last set of character posters that genuinely thrill arrived back in October to support Lars von Trier’s upcoming “Nymphomaniac.” The marketing for the upcoming film has already been stellar, and the jaw-dropping one-sheets (complete with both talent and character names!) delivers both tone and worldview. You know what “Nymphomaniac” is about (and who it stars) with just one glance at these guys.
Another October arrival, the posters for David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” might not include character or talent names, but they’ve got eye-popping visuals, recognizable stars, and the unshakable knowledge that this is a seventies-set joint to recommend them. Similarly, the posters for Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” delivered on decadence while also paying homage to the film’s literary roots (what an idea!).
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” has also churned out batch after batch of character poster over the past few months, but those have proven to be rare birds: visually interesting, serving to introduce new and old characters, actually tantalizing to fans. How hard can this possibly be?
“Despicable Me 2” character posters might not be wholly original, but they met their goals – they are funny, colorful, silly, and kids eat them right up. Another recent kiddie film, “Free Birds,” aimed for clarity with its character posters – they are funny enough, and feature both talent and character names. Yes, Owen Wilson plays Reggie and, yes, he is “the wing man.” Mock the turkey of a film all you want, but at least its character posters served up satisfaction.
In fact, animated films and kid-aimed outings seem to be the most inspiring films to create character posters for. Just look at the instant classic set for Wes Anderson’s 2009 stop-motion gem, “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Those might be four years old, but they are still some of the very best examples of what a character poster can be – funny, smart, gorgeous, and able to convey what its feature is about. Even amongst Anderson’s amazing marketing, they are standouts.
So if it’s apparently so hard to make a solid character poster set, why do studios keep turning these things out? We reached out to marketing contacts at a pair of major studios for their take on the one-sheets, neither of who were interested in commenting on the rise of character posters in even the most general of terms. Sure, they could both be way too busy to comment on something so minor, but it also seems plausible that they’re simply less compelled by the material than we are. One graphic designer we spoke to suggested that “the only reason why we have character posters is because agencies have grown large enough to have bodies to throw at projects.”
That notion also backs up the idea that character posters are a quick and cheap way to drum up some marketing buzz. “The technology is better, so you can cook things up faster…and the printing is cheaper, so you can run this s**t off like nobodies’ business,” they told us. “And hell, you don't even necessarily have to print them. Put them online and you save some cash.” That’s a fair point, as you would be hard pressed to find most of these character creations out in the wild. The majority of today’s character posters exist in digital formats only, easy to share on the web in the moment, but also entirely easy to forget – which most of these one-sheets deserved to be, and quickly. And yet, anything that maintains the mercilessly steady drone of pre-release buzz is considered a win. The sad fact is that character posters don’t have to be pretty, they just have to be everywhere.