The Art House: Revealing the Secrets of the Modern Movie Poster

The Art House

Recently a designer for Google, twenty-eight year old Alex Griendling spent his first years out of school cutting his teeth at Intralink, an agency formed in the early 1970’s focused solely on advertising for film. The shop closed its doors a few years back after more than 40 years in the business, releasing some of the most iconic posters of the 20th century under the tutelage of Anthony Goldschmidt and John Alvin.

Rarely do we get a glimpse inside the process and politics involved in delivering a film poster to the masses. Opinions are formed based off of the final product alone, rarely taking into consideration the difficulties that hovered below the surface. But Alex, having spent the early part of his career at the end of Intralink’s, has offered to shed some light on how the look for a blockbuster comes together and whether or not a golden age of cinema art as truly passed.

Brandon Schaefer: Were you fresh out of school when you started working on film posters?

ALEX GRIENDLING: I had a two month internship at Intralink the summer before my final semester at school, doing the usual intern things (rearranging bookcases, busy work, etc) and working on any projects I could get my hands on. During that time, I was lucky enough to get a poster printed for James Wan's "Death Sentence". It was a Comic-Con exclusive poster, but they ended up using it for the wider theatrical release as well.


Getting the poster printed probably went a long way toward getting me a job there after school, but even then - I had to move out to LA and show up at Intralink before they officially offered me a position.

Was that a typical career path for interns?

Not that I'm aware of - I believe I was the only one person that started there as an intern. The print department that I worked in was pretty small (there were seven of us), and the other guys had all been there for a while.

I’m sure it’s a stupid question to ask, but why film advertising? Was there a personal love for the medium, or was it an opportunity that just seemed like a way to get experience in the design field?

I just always loved movie posters, and we had a family friend who had been working at Intralink for a while, heading up their motion graphics department. He did a lot of work to get me out there.

It’s rare to hear much about the life of a full time designer, much less an intern. Is there much overlap between the two?

My duties as an intern were nearly identical to that of my full time position. There were a lot more menial tasks - things like running hard drives from point A to B, organizing messy folders, stuff like that - but I worked full 12 hour days and tried to throw as much work into presentations as I could. A lot of it didn't get shown to the client, which was understandable, as I was simultaneously learning Photoshop all over again. Most of what I'd learned in school didn't translate as well to heavy-duty image manipulation. I think that was my biggest takeaway from the internship.

What I understood graphic design to be at the time was logos and layouts. Photography and image manipulation played a much larger role than any of the things I understood as graphic design, that the two worlds felt pretty far apart from one another. After working on a few high profile movies though, I came to understand it as more of a design niche in that most of the time went into image manipulation, not graphic design in the traditional sense.

Sure. I feel like there's an idea that you have about what graphic design is or what it can be when you come out of school, and that idealism doesn't always necessarily gel with the world you’re thrown into. School involves a lot of theory and and by extension attention to craft and detail. It rarely gets into marketing concerns or third party ideas about what a design should be.

Right, the things that you learned so much about tend to take a backseat to gradient maps and layer masks. And we never discussed middlemen in college.

That's something I want to get into, but could you first talk about the process involved in handling a campaign? At the agency level, I’m sure there are a lot of layers to go through.

It varied a lot from movie to movie. It always started with the marketing department of a studio reaching out to us - sometimes they knew exactly what they wanted. With smaller films, they'd usually come to us and say, "We need a teaser and we need a theatrical one sheet." With a larger film, it was often more open-ended, which gave us the chance to pitch various ideas, be they a character poster series or a series of discrete teaser posters.

We'd be given two to three weeks - usually two - to create our first presentation of 40-60 posters, along with multi-page document that summarized the legal requirements of the poster. (For example, if Actor X is featured in the poster, then Actor Y is also required to appear, but at 75% the size of Actor X. It also specified the size of the credit block in relation to the title, and where the director's name needed to be placed along with the size it needed to be.)

Which is why so many posters use the same font for billing, because the sizing requirements can get a little bananas.

Exactly. Using a super compressed, nearly illegible font, is the only way to fit everything on the poster. Anyway, depending on the importance of the movie and when we came into the process, we'd either have a ton of photography and assets to work from, or we'd have none. When we started working on Watchmen, we sifted through 30,000 shots that were taken during filming, which, for the most part, amounted to 30,000 shots of people in costumes running around on a green screen.

We'd get feedback, and then start iterating on what we'd already made. Every poster was reduced to 13"x20" and printed on a large format printer, mounted to foam core, and sent over to the client. We'd go back and forth with the marketing department, making the poster they thought best represented the film. At that point, it was usually sent to the director and top-tier cast for approval, assuming they had it. Sometimes talent didn't have much say in the final product, but the bigger fish always did.


"Shutter Island" (killed comps)

Once a poster was okayed by everyone and had actor approval, the Director's guild would look it over to make sure that the billing block met all the specifications. And the MPAA is, of course, another entity that has to approve the poster. This is also why teaser posters for tentpole films are much easier on the eye - these legal requirements don't usually apply.

When a poster was approved, we'd call it a finish. I only got two finishes in my two years there. The joke was always that you didn't have a finish until you were holding the printed poster yourself.

People always talk about how low the quality of work that comes from many of these big agencies can be, but then you see killed pieces they’ve produced, it’s often anything but. Do you feel that was common where you were, and if so, why?

Absolutely. Unfortunately, at that level, safe is what sells. It can be difficult to accept when you spend your time on the internet listening to the vocal minority, but the fact is - most of the movie-going public doesn't know who or what Mondo is, or what a silkscreened poster is. They DO know who Tom Hanks is. They know whether or not they like his movies. They know if it's his movie because his face is really big on the poster.

I made the teaser poster for Angels and Demons, and the best part about that was that, of the 40 or so teasers we made that were taken to Italy and shown to Ron Howard and Tom Hanks, they both pointed to my poster as being their front-runner. Now, Tom had a legal right to be featured, as stipulated by the legalities I mentioned earlier, but he waived that right so that it could be just the sculpture, peering out over Rome. The poster still had his name on it, of course, but I was glad that he enjoyed the poster enough to voluntarily stay off of it.


"Angels & Demons" (left, killed one-sheet rough; right, final teaser poster)

So, I'd say that often the best work gets killed off because it's being presented to people who are often more worried about the opening weekend numbers than they are about creating visually engaging marketing material. That’s risky; big heads are not.

Right. Which is interesting because there's this quote out there by a former high level exec at Disney who said that some of their most successful films of the 90s wouldn't have been the successes they were had it not been for the work crafted by John Alvin. And he was one of the big heads at Intralink, right?

Yeah, Anthony Goldschmidt founded Intralink and worked really closely with Alvin through the years. I don't really know a lot about him; he was gone long before I got there, but he obviously represented, along with Drew Struzan, that bygone era of hand crafted movie posters. And Anthony was also responsible, at least this is my understanding, for being one of the first guys to put together an agency that handled print and motion work, like titles and trailers.

For an agency that had such an impact on the American film advertising, was there ever a sense that the golden years had passed on, in a sense? They were responsible for some truly iconic film posters, like E.T. and Blade Runner.

Yes, probably doubly so during my time. I worked there from 2008-2010 when the economy started its nasty little recession, and studios started cutting back on budgets. When the industry is kind of built on clients double and triple vending out every campaign, that means that a lot of studios stopped getting work. So not only was there a feeling of the golden years of hand-made posters having left, there was another feeling that the years of well-funded print campaigns falling by the wayside. I'd attribute that mostly to the rise of cheap television and web advertising.

Not to mention that all of these agencies directly compete with one another on campaigns?

Right. The important thing to remember is that the process I described earlier was usually happening simultaneously at at least one other. Blockbusters would always be double or triple vended, but smaller projects would usually just go to a single studio.


"Watchmen" (killed comps)

The unsettling thing that I saw happen a lot was marketing teams taking work from one agency, and handing it off to another to finish. I think that underlines the fact that this stuff wasn’t art to them - it was a commercial product, pure and simple.

Right. As stupid as it sounds, sometimes I do wonder if it really is a mistake to think that this stuff can more than just a disposable sheet of paper destined for a landfill.

I think that is entirely capable of being considered art. I think the problem lies in the competing goals of the marketing teams, the talent making the move, and the the talent making the theatrical campaigns.

Different people all seeing things in their own way, having their own goals and expectations…

Which is really no different from any other form of design, but I think the number of people with different goals is much higher in the film industry. Rather, people with the same goal, but each with their own idea on how to best reach that goal.

Especially with the big campaigns. Watchmen must’ve been a trip.


"Watchmen" (killed comps)

I think that film, in a lot of ways, represents what people would expect from working in the industry. We got to read a script, view tens of thousands of photographs taken during the shooting, view early footage of the film before special effects had been added, and our creative director met with Zach Snyder to discuss his goals with the movie. Naturally, creative directors from a handful of other companies also attended that meeting.

How was it treated on your end? Today it feels like a lot of the big tent-pole films that come out have a similar line of thinking on how their posters are designed and marketed.

It started off wide-open, everything was on the table. I wanted to do a Re-elect Nixon guerrilla poster campaign, since those posters and that plot line are pretty prominent in the book, but that was shot down as being too obscure - "Why would seeing re-elect Nixon posters make people want to see Watchmen?"

That's a great idea. But I can definitely hear someone voicing the concern of it being too “inside baseball".

But - like a lot of those blockbuster films, that wide open start eventually narrows down into being a series of expected pieces. The initial mysterious teaser image, followed by individual posters highlighting the various characters, followed by the final poster that becomes representative of the film and the campaign as a whole.

What’s the turnaround time on a project like that?

They were always the same, regardless of how far out the movie was. Two weeks was the standard for first presentations. So, for us, there was 7 guys each making a minimum of a poster every two days, until we got to our minimum of 35. Although we never shipped out the minimum and usually presented anywhere from 50-70 posters.

We started working on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs two years before the film came out. After an initial flurry of work, it was radio silence for months, only to come back as a constant fire drill that lasted for months, until the campaign was complete. Relaxed, reasonable timeframes were non-existent as far as I could tell.

It’s staggering to realize that, between 50-70 for one agency, and then how many others are in competition…

Yeah. I mean, when all was said and done on The Dark Knight, we had hundreds of revisions, but only finished 5 posters. And we weren’t the only ones working on that.

Do you feel like more is better in this instance? Or do you think it’s partly responsible for posters looking the way they do? It feels like the less focused you are, the more watered down the quality is going to be.

The simple fact is that producing completely original work on so many projects in such a rapid succession is entirely unfeasible. So designers are forced to reuse and recycle concepts they've already hammered out for other projects with equally short turnarounds. It's a vicious cycle.

Taking that into account with your personal experience in the field as a whole, do you think we romanticize this idea that there was once a time when posters were better?

It's difficult to say. I remember talking to Anthony Goldschmidt once and telling him that the Empire of the Sun poster that he and John Alvin made was, hands-down, my favorite poster. It still is. It is such a beautiful and evocative image.

Anyway, upon telling him, he told me that that poster was one of three that were presented to Steven Spielberg, and that it was picked on the spot. Was Anthony romanticizing, or embellishing the past? It's hard to say for sure, but I do know that I haven't seen Hollywood produce a poster that striking in a long time.

Alex Griendling is a freelance graphic designer. His work can be found at