You know what they say – don’t judge a book by its cover. If we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover or a film by its poster, why do distribution companies spend so long organizing their campaigns? Sure, if a film has poor advertising then it’s likely it won’t make as much money; but doesn’t that entirely depend on our snap judgements?

What is it about a film poster that either entices me or bores me? For a whole lot of us, posters are often the first glance we get of a film. If it’s not a movie that you’ve read about in festival programs or on Indiewire already, chances are we’ll encounter a poster in the cinema foyer that we’ve never seen before. Festival wreaths and award declarations can make a big difference to someone who isn’t rigorously following the awards season. Given that film trailers are readily available for everyone on the internet, posters probably aren’t as important as they were, say, 20 years ago. Still, the second I see a poster with floating heads and questionable lead casting choices, I’m inevitably going to be less interested in its film.

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Floating Heads. Shawn Levy’s The Internship

When I look back at certain 2013 posters, there’s some which immediately come to mind as knocking it out of the park. By ‘knocking it out of the park’ I mean that they not only successfully intrigue me, but they also successfully capture the atmosphere of a film.

One of the first pieces of promotional material that was unveiled for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (around about the time of the clip premiere at Comic Con) was the poster which depicted a tiny floating astronaut in the black sea of space. Seeing the poster made me feel the opposite of claustrophobic. In a time where every almost action film poster involves a dozen floating heads, large cast billings, the objectified female lead in a bikini, maybe an explosion here or there and, of course, the title in a glorious san-serif type (because nothing says masculinity like a phallic typeface), it was nice to see something so simple yet nonetheless intriguing. But my appreciation didn’t stop there. Coming out of the cinema after experiencing the film, I couldn’t help but glance at the poster and nod in accordance to the movie it was pitching. Sure there was action in the film, but it didn’t need explosions or floating debris to capture the fear, suspense and emotional turmoil that Cuarón’s film put us through.

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Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity

Just about everything worked well for the poster. The aesthetics were a spectacle: it avoided using too many colours (a trick which tends to gain the attention of children more than adults) and the contrast between the blackness of space and the white astronaut suit ensured that she was impossible to miss despite proportion. The legibility was commendable too, the tracking of the title made it easy to read from a distance (tracking: gravity vs. g  r  a  v  i  t  y); and, like our floating centred protagonist, the font was white and thus easy to read without resulting to the aforementioned large bold sans-serif typeface covering up half the poster.

On the other hand however, posters might fulfil both the criteria above, yet turn out ridiculously stupid. Take the poster from Parker for example: it is legible and has a generally nice aesthetic with solid shade of red. The masculine Jason Statham grips onto his phallic object of choice (Google: Freudian masculinity) and forms the archetypal image of a one dimensional action hero, yet someone obviously thought it would be a gosh-darn good idea to superimpose a floating Jennifer Lopez head over his suit.

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Taylor Hackford’s Parker

Now I’m not saying it looks that stupid seeing as floating heads seem to be a common thing in film advertising, but this poster just goes to show what can happen when distribution companies get desperate to use the star appeal over a good design. On that note, one cannot glance over 2013’s year in film posters without mentioning the controversial Italian posters for 12 Years a Slave which billed white supporting actors Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt (whose total screen time probably equates to less than the duration of a Top 40 song) over the black protagonist Chiwetel Ejiofor. Forget that Brad Pitt looks like he belongs on the cover of an erotic novella from the 80s, the poster has been deemed xenophobic and has offended many: and that just doesn’t do the marvellous film justice at all.

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Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave

So maybe I was wrong: perhaps we should forget about legibility and aesthetics when we judge how good a poster is. Maybe its accuracy in capturing the atmosphere and emotions of a film is the most important thing to take into account.

The poster for The To Do List didn’t really work well in appealing to the target audience of teens hyped up on testosterone, but it certainly captures the feel of the after school special that it’s going for. By all means, the slow fade into lined notebook paper and the cartoon choice ofcolours isn’t all that appealing. However, the poster succeeds in being homage to film posters like Animal House and American Graffiti, accurately capturing the raunchy teen sex comedy feel with an overdue gender inversion.

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Maggie Carey’s The To Do List

Maybe then, the poster for Parker isn’t so bad after all. Looking at it, any awkwardly placed floating head would suggest a pretty average film, and that’s exactly what Parker provides. The reason I’m so disappointed with the poster for 12 Years a Slave is that it makes the film look baked in homoeroticism. Take the posters for A24 productions Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring. On a superficial level, the poster for Spring Breakers looks like the cover of a borderline-pornographic film you find in the ‘Special Interest’ section of a DVD store, whereas the poster for The Bling Ring could be found in a scrapbook that one of the main characters made themselves. Both posters look quite trashy; but, then again, isn’t that sort of the point? Isn’t that exactly what both Harmony Korine and Sofia Coppola are going for?

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Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring

You can’t deny that the image of four college girls (two of which were Disney stars) in candy coloured bikinis from the entire Spring Breakers advertising campaign hasn’t been burned into your brain. The vibrant yellow of The Bling Ring’s poster is so harsh and in-your-face that it grabs your attention like Nicki Moore would crave. In the end, these posters aren’t necessarily that appealing and unique like, say, the poster for Miranda July’s 2011 flick The Future. Yet, one thing you can’t deny is that they truly capture the feel of both films. You could come out of the cinema, look at the poster and say ‘Yeah, that’s the film I just watched’; whereas if you saw the Italian poster for 12 Years a Slave you’d question whether you walked into the correct cinema.

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Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers

What I love most about the posters for Her is that they aren’t conventional. Who would let someone wear a red shirt in front of a hot pink background? Who would sacrifice showing the face of Amy Adams or Rooney Mara just to feature our lonely protagonist? But watching the film with its myriad close-ups and use long lenses is just like looking at this beautiful poster. It’sso unconventional that it could have been made in the not-too-distant future that the film depicts. The warmness created by the red and pink resonates in the love that Samantha provides and is heavily featured in the costume and production design of the film. The piercing blue eyes of Jaoquin Phoenix draw you into his character, and before you even walk into the cinema it feels like you’ve already gazed straight into Theodore’s soul.

Forget general aesthetics, legibility and typeface, it’s these posters that capture the entire atmosphere of a film in a single 24” x 41” display which can be deemed good. By no means is that an attack against designers who make their film posters look the best they can, but as a film buff, all I look for in posters is something to give me a feel of the movie, not an award-winning use of composition and negative space. If a mediocre film is all explosions and bikinis, maybe it’s a good thing that the poster depicts just that and doesn’t deceive the viewer into hoping for anything more. For me at least, a good poster is one that captures the atmosphere of the film it advertises, intriguing you and visually preparing you for what you will witness in the cinema.

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Spike Jonze’s Her

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