Digital Essay by Jennifer O’Meara, Maynooth University
Since the turn of the century, increased attention has been paid in film studies to promotional materials and their propagation and reworking across digital media channels. At times, studies of ‘‘paratexts’’ or ‘‘extratextual’’ materials – such as DVD extras, trailers and websites – incorporate discussion of participatory fandom. Jonathan Gray dedicates a chapter of Show Sold Separately: Promo, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (2010) to viewer-created paratexts which, as he rightly notes, can become ‘‘important additions to a text’’ despite their makers generally lacking ‘‘the capital and infrastructure to circulate their paratexts as widely – or at least as uniformly – as can Hollywood’’ (143). Gray focuses on spoilers and fan videos, while Kathleen Williams (2012) has productively analyzed how recut film trailers serve as ‘‘incarnations of audience anticipation and desire.’’
Less attention has been paid to viewer-created posters. Although Gray considers posters in terms of their function as ‘‘pre-texts’’, serving to initiate viewers to the main text (49-57), I am concerned with how fan posters serve as ‘‘post-texts’’ which are created and shared digitally after a film has been watched. This article reflects on the trend – including variations within what I refer to as ‘‘reimagined’’ posters – and explores how unofficial film posters provide insights into: 1) the original film; 2) the standard role of the promotional poster and 3) the ability of digital fan-art to foster an interactive relationship between a movie and its audience. By tracing the influence on these reimagined posters of the modernist graphic design of Saul Bass, as well as Polish poster artists of the 1940s and 1950s, I argue that digital networks can provide a creative space in which individuals can perform fandom and unofficially remarket a given film. The article also highlights the value of reimagined posters as alternatives to official ones which, owing to film studios’ attempts to appeal to a mass audience, can be severely limited in terms of their creativity. While I focus on the value of reimagined posters as a form of fan engagement, and from the perspective of the creative and conceptual value of the designs, I will also explain how – by making older films seem current in the digital era – fan posters can be of some intangible value to film producers.
The Emergence of the Alternative Poster Trend
By the end of 2010, a variety of blogs and websites had begun to display user-created movie posters. On minimalmovieposters.tumblr.com, over two thousand films from classical and contemporary cinema came to receive a minimalist poster treatment. Elsewhere, on fakecriterions.tumblr.com, the artistic branding strategy of The Criterion Collection was applied to films that were in ironic contrast with the company’s mandate of re-releasing ‘‘the greatest films from around the world.’’ On both sites, graphic designers and amateurs alike submitted posters for display and which were sometimes available for purchase. The appearance of these hosting blogs seems to have been spurred on by Albert Exergian’s minimalist 2009 posters for popular television programs, as well as 2010 posters in this style by Brazilian graphic designers Pedro Vidotto and Eduardo Prox.
The ‘‘Minimal Movie Posters’’ tumblr was set-up anonymously in September 2010. Data on the blog archive reveals January 2011 to be the peak period in terms of activity, with 179 posters submitted to the site. After a steady period of submissions, by December 2012 the number of new posters being uploaded to the site had significantly decreased. Equally a part of this trend, although less sparse in execution, is Peter Stults’s series of ‘‘What If’’ posters. Stults reimagines films from one era in another time period with alternative filmmakers, stars and marketing. He began to display posters in 2011 via a personal profile on Behance (a site for artists to display their portfolios) but, unlike the slow-down on other poster sites, Stults is still producing new reimagined posters in 2015.
Understanding this reimagined poster phenomenon requires some reflection on the general limitations of official promotional posters. In a 2011 article for Print magazine, Adrian Shaughnessy describes the posters for most Hollywood films as ‘‘dismal,’’ ‘‘formulaic’’ and ‘‘hugely disappointing’’ (91). In Steven Heller and Mirko Ilić’s The Anatomy of Design, the authors are similarly critical and explain that, although advertisers ‘‘slavishly follow formulas’’ across all marketing formats, movie posters are perhaps the most clichéd since each must provide a plethora of textual information: ‘‘star billing, director and producer credits, awards and nominations, critics’ hyperbole, title, and a trademark illustration or photograph’’ (49). Using the poster for Spider (Cronenberg, 2002) as an example, Heller and Ilić identify various visual tropes that characterise contemporary horror/thriller posters in the new millennium: scratched type, a close-up of a character’s profile in silhouette, and paper that is made to look distressed (49). Aside from clichéd visual tropes, designers’ creativity can also be stifled by film stars and agents, particularly in relation to the ‘‘micromanagement of credits’’ (Shaughnessy 92).
Formulaic movie posters may be an unfortunate norm, but there are contemporary and historic exceptions to the rule. Particularly worthy of attention is poster art produced in Russia in the 1920s-1930s, and in Poland in the late 1940s-1950s. Film scholar Dorota Ostrowska (2012) details how Polish graphic designers of this period earned significant acclaim when exhibiting their work in exhibitions across Europe in the 1950s. Importantly to this article’s focus on more overtly personal and creative posters, Ostrowska identifies aspects that, more generally, can elevate selected film posters from advertising to art. For one thing, Ostrowska notes the supremacy of a singular ‘‘poster artist’’ who controls the process from conceiving of an idea to the poster’s final execution (62). This singular control is standard practice with digital posters that circulate online: there is rarely a paying client who must be allowed to weigh in on creative decisions. Ostrowska’s description of artistic posters as using a visual language that is ‘‘ambiguous, symbolic and open to interpretation’’ is also in contrast to the kind of qualities for which Hollywood studios typically aim (63), but aligns well with many of the reworked digital posters: unlike official posters, the latter do not aim to entice a maximum number of people to buy tickets by foregrounding the film’s star or by overtly aligning with genre tropes.
Links can also be made between the intended audience for experimental Polish posters in the post-war period, and the intended audience for reimagined posters that circulate digitally. For Ostrowkska, it is significant that the Polish posters were displayed in urban areas where individuals tended to have more sophisticated tastes and were therefore more receptive to formal experimentation (66). Potentially, reimagined movie posters have a much broader audience since they can be accessed digitally on a global scale. What tends to happen, however, is that designated sites such as minimalmovieposters.tumblr.com and fakecriterions.tumblr.com emerge as gathering spaces for those with a shared taste for, or shared talent for making, experimental posters. While these designated digital spaces are obviously very different from the urban streets of 1950s Poland, the idea that these posters cannot – and do not attempt to – appeal to everyone is the same.
Interestingly, a survey of the sites on which these posters circulate also indicates that there is a tipping point, whereby the ‘‘market’’ for this freely available content is saturated, particularly when sites begin to be populated by content that is perceived to be of a lower aesthetic or conceptual quality. In particular, there has been a backlash against the widespread imitation of the work of Saul Bass. The blog enoughwithsaulbassalready.tumblr.com was created in 2011 with the sole purpose of critiquing the supposed creative value of these graphic posters. The blog’s description, in the form of an address to Bass devotees, raises a number of important issues about the derivative nature of many reworked posters:
Let me guess, you have a ‘‘project’’ where you make ‘‘Saul Bass inspired’’ or otherwise ‘‘retro minimalist’’ movie posters for a recently hyped or classic movie, which you want to sell on your Etsy account despite having absolutely no licensing rights, as hopeful promotion for your fledgling ‘‘design business’’ you run from your dorm room. You and everyone else, buddy. (original emphasis)
Any discussion of graphic design and cinema is incomplete without acknowledging the impact of Saul Bass, particularly his famed title sequences for the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger. Bass’s economical designs were capable of rendering the content and mood of a film in elegant, abstracted forms. As Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham describe: ‘‘his designs shaped complex ideas into radically simple forms that offered audiences a set of clues, a sort of hermeneutic key to deeper meanings under the surface of the movie’’ (107). By posting critical commentaries on various Bass-inspired posters on the ‘‘Enough with Saul Bass Already’’ site, the anonymous writer reveals how minimalist movie posters are more difficult to executive effectively than their widespread circulation suggests. In particular, s/he identifies the blandness of overly-literal graphics, as when a fan poster for A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971) features a clockwork screw stuck in an orange. Although the blogger takes a facetious and scathing approach to the surplus of Bass-inspired posters, their commentary alludes to Bass’s own aims, as well as the reason why his work has had an enduring impact. Just as the blogger critiques the overuse of clichéd graphics – such as a large hand set against a high-contrast background (fig. 1) – Bass aimed for designs that included ‘‘a simplicity which also has a certain ambiguity and a certain metaphysical implication […] If it’s simple simple, it’s boring’’ (Bass quoted in Kirkham 20). The ‘‘Enough with Saul Bass Already’’ site draws attention to overly-simplistic designs of this nature. The site thus highlights how, in terms of the creative value of reimagined posters, this value can fall when such posters seem to follow a new kind of formula too closely.
It is also worth noting that while, in terms of popularity, Bass’s economical style may be having another moment, even he had trouble convincing studios that audiences could be enticed by graphic posters. As Jennifer Bass and Kirkham explain, Bass was much more in demand when it came to title sequences and other, non-poster, formats of film promotion: ‘‘studios were often reluctant to stake their marketing campaigns on Saul’s bold designs’’ (107). One could thus speculate that, if Bass were alive today, he too would resort to sharing unused posters online.
Performing Cinephilia and Digital Literacy through Alternative Posters
In addition to my historical situating of reworked posters, insights can be gained by comparing this trend to the parallel one for fan-made trailers. Kathleen Williams argues that the popularity of unofficial trailers, and their dissemination through sites such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, problematizes the general conception of movie trailers as purely advertising (1.1). Although the same can be said of alternate posters, marked differences remain. For Williams, fan-made trailers are characterized by audience anticipation, but reimagined posters instead reflect audiences’ ability to interpret and distil films that they have already seen. Such posters thus align with Gray’s description, in Show Sold Separately, of fan-made paratexts as ‘‘pre-constituted audience research, providing evidence of how viewers make sense of texts’’ (146). Through the selected iconography, minimalist movie posters can highlight a film’s most memorable stylistic feature, plot points or characters. As a result, I share Shaughnessy’s view that alternative posters would not necessarily function well as official film advertisements: ‘‘There is a sense [that] they are wise after the event’’ (94). Indeed, this is one of the key differences between fan-made trailers and fan-made posters: the former are more effective before a film’s release, the latter are more effective afterwards. In this way, the posters align with fan spoilers, which Gray argues can help fans to ‘‘concentrate on what they consider the most important elements of the show’’ (151).
Williams interprets fan-made trailers as a vehicle for performing cinephilic and digital literacy, something which can equally be demonstrated with reference to Peter Stults’s body of ‘‘What If’’ posters. The concept underlying Stults’s work is what would happen if a film from one era belonged to that of another. Stults’s posters thus attempt to answer questions such as: ‘‘who would be the stars, the filmmakers? How would the film be marketed?’’ (Stults, January 2012) As a result, his reimagined posters reveal salient details about how he interprets a given film. Despite the sharp decline in minimalist posters since 2013, Stults has created five volumes of ‘‘What If’’ posters over roughly four years, with the most recent collection added to his Behance profile in May 2015. The reason that his work has proven more enduring, I would argue, is that it shares certain characteristics with the Polish film art of the post-war period. Although, aesthetically, the posters are very different, both forms are conceptually symbolic and engage viewers on a less didactic level: what would David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) be like if – as Stults recreates it in 2015– the film was written, directed and starring Charlie Chaplin? The poster maintains the most familiar elements of the original Eraserhead poster – a close shot of a man with gravity-defying hair – but recasts the unhinged Henry Spencer character with the equally eccentric Chaplin (fig. 2). This recasting provides a good opportunity to consider how reimagined posters are less constrained by the genre conventions of Hollywood cinema. While studios tend to produce posters that efficiently orient potential viewers about what they can expect from a movie – as evidenced by the widespread use of the colors red and black in horror posters – Stults shifts Chaplin from a silent tragi-comedy world to David Lynch’s surreal and nightmarish one.
Stults’s ‘‘What If’’ posters also provide a cross-generational commentary on stardom. By replacing Natalie Portman with Audrey Hepburn in a new, old-fashioned poster for V for Vendetta (McTeigue, 2006), and by replacing Scarlett Johansson with Marilyn Monroe in his reimagining of Under the Skin (Glazer, 2013), Stults implicitly agrees with comparisons that have been made between the physical appearances and personae of the respective performers (fig. 3). Similarly, in what looks like a tamer, Beach Boys inspired reworking of Spring Breakers (Korine, 2012), ‘‘bad boy’’ James Dean replaces ‘‘bad boy’’ James Franco.
The substitutes Stults makes in terms of directors are equally inspired. On the surface, it might seem absurd to imagine Woody Allen directing and starring in Darren Aronofsky’s π (1998), but the central character of number theorist Max (Sean Gullette) shares certain traits with Allen’s male leads: paranoia, anxiety, and the status of being a New Yorker. Simultaneously, Stults thus puts his graphic design skills and degree in Film and Digital Media to good use. Moreover, although the artist has been commissioned to produce some original promotional posters (for The Canyons [Schrader, 2013], for example), these unofficial posters have garnered him with more acclaim. In 2012, a selection of his posters was displayed in Paris’s upmarket Colette boutique, and since 2013 Stults has created alternative posters for new releases for the website Shortlist.com.
Playing with the Conventions of Film Promotion
In addition to his ‘‘What If’’ posters, Stults is one of many fan artists to make fake Criterion Collection covers. Here the premise involves channelling Criterion’s style of DVD cover art, and applying the brand symbols and a label reading ‘‘The Criterion Collection,’’ to films that the company would likely consider unworthy of their niche redistribution honor. Again, the process allows artists to reveal their film and digital literacy, as when Stults gives the Criterion treatment to the stoner comedy, Dude, Where’s My Car? (Leimer, 2000). As with many of the fake Criterion covers, a humourous disparity is created between the artistic look of the fake poster and the low-brow content of the film. Unlike the original poster, in which Ashton Kutcher’s shocked face looks directly to camera, Stults’s version displays an empty parking space, with the muted yellow of the parallel lines on either side of the space echoed in the small, tasteful font of the title. In an ironic homage to the Instagram generation’s pseudo-artistic style of photography, the only human presence comes in the form of a single foot at the edge of the frame and the long shadow of that person’s legs.
In this way, the trend for fake Criterion covers aligns strongly with the mode of ‘‘play’’ that Williams attributes to recut trailers: ‘‘the technological capabilities that online spaces and services provide invite play with modes of anticipation and promotion’’ (4.10). Like with recut trailers, creators of reimagined posters tend to play with familiar promotional strategies in ways that demonstrate their knowledge of cinema’s marketing norms. The image of Marilyn Monroe which Stults selects for his reimagined version of Under the Skin, for example, is the glamourous Monroe whose sex appeal was typically used to sell musicals made by major Hollywood studios. Stults intentionally disavows the fact that – if Monroe replaced Scarlett Johansson in the central role – she would instead be playing an alien in a British, arthouse sci-fi film.
The tendency for conceptual modes of play can also be used to explain a certain embracing of reflexive meta knowledge, as is the case with the so-called ‘‘Criterion Double Fakeout’’ contests run on the Fake Criterions site. The ‘‘double fakeout’’ here refers to a fake film poster being made about a fake film that is referenced within an actual film, book or television show. Making one of these entries therefore requires detailed cinephilic knowledge, as well as speculation about the how cited fictional production might turn out (if it were to be made). Eisen Bernando, a Filipino graphic artist, chose to create a poster for the adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey made throughout Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (fig. 4). Given that the plot of the latter involves Paul (Michel Piccoli), a screenwriter, being hired to save the Odyssey adaptation from the direction of Fritz Lang, it is amusing to see Lang’s name – but not Le Mépris’s protagonist – on the Double Fakeout poster. Again, Gray’s work on paratexts proves illuminating. Writing on fan-made videos, he notes that they can be seen as ‘‘an insular art form’’, one which requires ‘‘fannish and interpersonal knowledge to decode them in full’’ (161). In terms of the level of speciality knowledge required, Double Fakeouts can be considered the most difficult to ‘‘decode’’, and hence the most insular, form of fan posters.
For Tribute/Homage/Parody Only
The appropriation of cultural capital is one of the more complex issues surrounding reimagined movie posters. Unsurprisingly given its direct appropriation of a brand name, the ‘‘Fake Criterions’’ tumblr site states that the displayed posters are ‘‘for tribute/homage/parody only.’’ Visitors to the fake site are thus directed to the ‘‘real releases’’ available on Criterion.com. Presumably, this is an effort to assuage any potential issues with Criterion. But if these posters are sold, either as a digital file or a physical copy, should their creators profit from artwork that channels films with which they have no legal connection?
There are currently over seven hundred posters classified as ‘‘minimal movie posters’’ for sale on the website ‘‘Fine Art America’’, for instance. The majority of these are sold by an Amsterdam-based artist who goes by the name of ‘‘Chungkong Art.’’ Although not all of the prominent reimagined poster designers sell their designs – Stults profile makes it clear that his files are not for sale – the question of whether this constitutes appropriation remains. The issue is foregrounded in the blog description of enoughwithsaulbassalready.tumblr.com, which criticizes those who try to sell their posters in order to promote their new design business, and ‘‘despite having absolutely no licensing rights.’’ Yet even those who own the rights to the original movies may be content to have reimagined posters circulating digitally: after all, this unofficial marketing helps to make old films seem current in the digital era, as well as generating fresh interest in a studio’s back catalogue amongst younger viewers.
As this article aimed to demonstrate, the trend for alternative, digitally-shared film posters is thus more complex than it initially seems. These posters vary considerably in terms of their conceptual aims and execution and, as I have shown, the trend can be considered as the latest in a series of reactions to formulaic, official posters, and as a complement to other forms of fan-created paratexts such as re-cut trailers. Through their circulation in a digital environment, reimagined posters typically allow creators to perform individual fandom and media knowledge, and to express a collective desire for official posters to be more creative in style and content.
Thank you to Peter Stults for his interest in, and input on, this article, and to the reviewers for their helpful suggestions.
Bass, Jennifer and Kirkham, Pat. Saul Bass: A Life in Film Design. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2011. Print.
Cronenberg, David, dir. Spider. Grosvenor Park Productions, 2002. Film.
Glazer, Jonathan, dir. Under the Skin. BFI; Film 4, 2013. Film.
Godard, Jean-Luc, dir. Le Mépris. Les Films Concordia, 1963. Film.
Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. NY: NYU Press, 2010. Print.
Heller, Steven and Ilić, Mirko. The Anatomy of Design: Uncovering the Influences and Inspiration in Modern Graphic Design. Beverly, MA: Rockfort Publishers, 2009. Print.
Johnston, Keith M. ‘‘Introduction: Still Coming Soon? Studying Promotional Materials.’’ Frames Cinema Journal 3, 2013. Web.
Kirkham, Pat. ‘‘Looking for the Simple Idea.’’ Sight & Sound, vol. 4. February 1994: 16-20. Print.
Korine, Harmony, dir. Spring Breakers. Muse Productions, 2012. Film.
Kubrick, Stanley, dir. A Clockwork Orange. Warner Bros.; Hawk Films, 1971. Film.
Leiner, Danny, dir. Dude, Where’s My Car? Alcon Entertainment, 2000. Film.
Lynch, David, dir. Eraserhead. American Film Institute, Libra Films, 1977. Film.
Maske, Kris. ‘‘The 20 Finest Fake Criterions for Really Sh*tty Movies.’’ Uproxx.com, 29th November, 2011. http://uproxx.com/webculture/2011/11/the-20-finest-fake-criterions-for-really-shtty-movies/#page/1 [Accessed 11th May 2015]
McTeigue, James, dir.. V for Vendetta. Warner Bros.; Virtual Studios, 2006. Film.
Ostrowska, Dorota. ‘‘Poster Graphic Design and French Films in Poland after World War II.’’ Steven Allen and Laura Hubner (eds.) Framing Film: Cinema and the Visual Arts, Bristol; Chicago: Intellect, 2012: 57-74. Print.
Schrader, Paul, dir. The Canyons. Prettybird; Post Empire Films, 2012. Film.
Shaughnessy, Adrian. ‘‘Moving Pictures.’’ Print 65.4 (August 2011). Web.
Stevens, Isabel. ‘‘Revolution in Design.’’ Sight & Sound, Vol. 24 Issue 2 (February 2014): 46-9. Print.
Stults, Peter. ‘‘What If… Movie Reimagined For Another Time & Place.’’ January 3, 2012. https://www.behance.net/gallery/2783319/What-if-Movies-reimagined-for-another-time-place [Accessed 13th May 2015]
— ‘‘Fake Criterion Covers.’’ January 3, 2012. https://www.behance.net/gallery/2789481/Fake-Criterion-Covers [Accessed 13th May 2015]
— ‘‘What If Movie Posters Vol. II.’’ April 22, 2013. https://www.behance.net/gallery/6782155/What-If-Movies-Re-Imagined-Vol-II [Accessed 13th May 2015]
— ‘‘What If Movie Posters Vol. III.’’ April 14, 2014. https://www.behance.net/gallery/16088367/What-If-Movies-Re-Imagined-Vol-III [Accessed 13th May 2015]
— ‘‘What If Movie Posters Vol. IV.’’ November 2, 2014. https://www.behance.net/gallery/20985917/What-If-Movie-Posters-Vol-IV [Accessed 13th May 2015]
— ‘‘What If Movie Posters Vol. V.’’ May 6, 2015. Available: https://www.behance.net/gallery/25965817/What-If-Movie-Posters-Vol-V [Accessed 13th May 2015]
Williams, Kathleen Amy. ‘‘Fake and fan film trailers as incarnations of audience anticipation and desire.’’ Transformative Works & Cultures Vol. 9, 2012. Web.
 Film promotional materials were the subject of a special, 2013 edition of Frames Cinema Journal. Introducing the topic, editor Keith M. Johnston describes this area of media studies as ‘‘often overlooked, but increasingly potent.’’
 Adrian Shaughnessy also uses the term ‘‘reimagined posters’’ in a 2011 article for Print magazine, which I draw on later in this article.
 According to the official website, the full purpose of The Criterion Collection is: ‘‘gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions of the highest technical quality, with supplemental features that enhance the appreciation of the art of film.’’ Available at http://www.criterion.com/library. For a discussion of the ironic choices for ‘‘Fake Criterions’’ see Kris Maske’s 2011 article on ‘‘The 20 Finest Fake Criterions for Really Sh*tty Movies.’’
 Exergian’s TV posters were shared by Maarten P. Kappert in ‘‘Poster series: Popular TV shows.’’ Available at http://minimalissimo.com/2009/11/poster-series-popular-tv-shows/.
 The most recent poster uploaded to the site is from October 2013.
 For a discussion of radical Soviet poster art see Isabel Stevens’s 2014 article entitled ‘‘Revolution in Design.’’
 Eisen Bernando’s poster is available at: http://fakecriterions.tumblr.com/post/20975340151/homers-odyssey-1963-from-the-movie-contempt#disqus_thread.