Unlocking Key Art
Key art, like all elements of film marketing, is prone to tropes and trends, and there are many blogs online that group together swathes of film posters that look near-identical to each other. If you Google ‘film poster tropes’ and then click the images tab, you will see a huge selection of these, where even the colours used can form a meaningful body of work all following a single trope.
This sheep-like approach is presumably driven by the thought that if something has worked before then it can work again, or that people simply want to rinse and repeat their viewing experiences, prompted by a simple visual aid.
There seems to be little real science behind film key art, other than that some rules seem to be sensible, such as extolling the virtues of the film via the use of favourable critical quotes and stars (4 and over), picking out the choicest quotes from the top critic’s reviews (after getting approval to use them) and visually showing off your cast (if you have one) in the best possible light.
This simple idea isn’t always so easy though, as so much depends on the supplied photography from the licensor. I recall receiving as little as a dozen (poor) stills from the licensor on several releases, from which I’ve had to create a poster. This often means that there isn’t even a full body shot of the main star to work with. Then you just have to do the best job you can, unless you can set up a new photo-shoot (specials shoot). This can be difficult to achieve, especially if you have an ensemble cast, plus it’s expensive - as you need to hire a photographer, a studio with lights, costumes and hair and make-up.
Going back to poster trends, there was a time when the majority of film posters were illustrated (think Star Wars and Indiana Jones) and then we had the eighties where floating heads in the sky seemed to prevail. These days, posters – on the whole, have become slicker and glossier, with the re-touching of movie stars almost rendering posters as perfume ads. However, photo re-touching (previously, in the pre-digital era, airbrushing), is a worthy skill to have and generally only the top poster design agencies can nail this to a high level. There was a time when I used to get raw photography re-touched by Shoemakers Elves (Rankin’s re-touchers) before handing them on to the poster design agency. But that, again, was not the cheapest way of doing things.
I find it astonishing how bad some film festival (and sales agent) poster art can be. I know that every penny goes into the making of an independent film but after it’s produced you still have to present the work to the public, and presumably sell it. For a relatively low investment you can get a professional-looking poster created. Many are clearly produced by the filmmakers themselves, which leads me on to the involvement that producers and directors can have in how a poster looks…
When a distributor pays for the rights to release a film in a given territory, they have invested in something they believe that they can make work. How they then make this work is part of that vision. And this can be all about how that film is positioned and to whom it is positioned for. What often happens is a disconnect between the filmmaker’s vision for the poster and the distributor’s own ideas. When the filmmaker, or even the talent, strong-arm the distributor to their personal preference, I often feel this is like buying a house where the seller then tells you that you need to keep the previous interior decoration intact, or simply tells you how you can decorate it, later coming around to inspect, to approve or disapprove. This is possibly a rather clunky analogy, as in a way you’re representing (or renting) the film and how it is then widely perceived, but at the same time you have the right to maximise your return on investment and, presumably, the distributor knows their market, and how to market a film, whereas a filmmaker knows how to make the film.
I have bowed to the wishes of filmmakers and gone with their preference of key art over my own, and it’s always a tricky situation to be in, when you feel that it could ultimately have been more successful with what you had personally planned to run with. If that release then falls short of expectations, you have the right to wonder whether you should have stuck to your guns… There is, I think, just a different way of looking at this and often the filmmaker wants the purest representation of their film, rather than what might put more bums on seats. This is a presumption, of course – and it’s subjective, but I would prefer as many people seeing the film as possible, if I were the producer or director.
This brings me onto subjectivity, an issue you can’t avoid when creating key art. Generally speaking, there is a difference of opinion. This is why I am such a big fan of consumer testing, as it settles the argument. Or, at least it should. I find that when I do test a poster, using more than 4 varying key art options, there is always a clear winner. If done properly, with the correct questions posed, this should determine the route you run with.
Good key art should identify, at a glance, the genre of the film, who is in the film (either via images or by the use of marquee names) and what the critical response is. Not all posters use press quotes, especially if they are released in advance of press previews or are teaser posters. I personally like teaser posters (traditionally the one-sheet format (portrait) as they tend to deconstruct the idea to its simplest form and are the kind of posters you put on your bedroom wall. Quad posters (landscape – and the format used in U.K. cinemas) are far more cinematic that the U.S. One sheets, as they mirror the shape of the theatrical screen (more or less).
With so many posters now following familiar patterns, it’s refreshing to see some originality creeping into the art. I was especially impressed by the recent posters for John Wick 3 and Under the Silver Lake. Both were arresting images, with a clever use of the title being incorporated. I am very picky about key art and take a great deal of care with the posters I create for films with my designers and agencies. Poorly cut out figures with varying light sources, not blended into their environments really irk me and there is so much bad work out there in general, which is totally unnecessary.