Secrets Behind Hollywood’s Greatest Movie Posters
When Bill Gold goes to the multiplex near his home in Old Greenwich, Conn., he shudders as he passes the rows of posters for upcoming movies. Having spent much of his life designing and defining the art of movie posters, he feels a sense of disappointment. “I can’t believe they are doing so little,” Gold says. “I can’t believe they’re not marketing the movie.”
Gold, 90, spent six decades creating posters for such iconic films as Casablanca, My Fair Lady, Woodstock and every Clint Eastwood picture from Dirty Harry (1971) through Mystic River (2003) before his retirement in 2004. He laments the low expectations for today’s posters. “They’re just showing the actors, so every movie looks like the next one,” he says. “If a man and a woman are next to each other, it must be a love story.”
Gold did it his way beginning in 1942 as an employee of Warner Bros. and then from 1959 on with his own design company. His prodigious output is collected for the first time in the limited-edition art book Bill Gold Posterworks (Reel Art Press, London), written by Christopher Frayling.
“Gold approached every single movie as a chance to advance the storytelling,” says Michael Bierut, a partner in the New York design firm Pentagram and graphic design critic. “A static image, in theory, can’t possibly have the same power as a 90-minute film, yet he could somehow encapsulate the adventure you are going to have in 90 minutes.”
Design critic and historian Steven Heller says he found it surprising how many posters Gold did that were instantly recognizable: “I was impressed by how many of them, even with the strictures and structures of the movie business, are what I consider really effective and powerful designs.”
Movie critic, author and poster collector Leonard Maltin says he found it interesting that each of Gold’s posters is “as individual as the movies they are promoting. I can’t discern a Bill Gold style, which is a compliment, because rather than trying to shoehorn a disparate array of movies into one way of thinking visually, he adapted himself to such a wide variety.”
“He would find a way to match the movie to the right style,” Bierut says. “In a way, that is the opposite of what a film critic would call the auteur theory. It’s like he managed to be a complete chameleon so that it kind of obfuscates his own handwriting on these things. Each is absolutely quintessential of their type. On the Casablanca poster, you see that and you see everything you need to know about the movie, about the era, about that point in time of studio filmmaking.”
His legacy is so indelible that Warners held one of its most successful employee-information days ever when Gold came to speak in March at the historic Stephen J. Ross Theatre in Burbank. Workers from all across the lot came — including Warners execs Sue Kroll and Blair Rich as well as a cavalcade of exec alumni — to bask in the nostalgia that is as much what the studio sells as the Harry Potter movies.
“He was important,” says Leith Adams, Warner Bros. corporate archivist, “because he went from being one of the poster designers at Warner Bros. to actually running the poster department to then becoming an independent designer who continued to work with Warner Bros. but also adding his unique touch to other studios movie posters.”
Nancy Goliger, who spent seven years in New York as Gold’s assistant before coming to Hollywood to take executive positions in movie advertising for Warners and Paramount, says Gold was “the consummate art director. He had great strength in conceptualizing what a movie needed. There was nothing artificial or slick about the way he worked. He was really focused on the movie. That was his strength. It wasn’t about what I can show, or what he thought his client would appreciate. He really tried to be true to the movie, and he had very high standards. He was never afraid to do things out of the box, unconventional. That confidence came from being a real art director and an impeccable designer.”
A native of Brooklyn, Gold grew up loving movies. After graduating with a design degree from Pratt Institute in New York City, he didn’t aspire to work in advertising like his classmates but instead sought out a movie company. That led him to Warners, where his first poster was for Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942; his second was for Casablanca. The art of poster design was his life, except for three years during World War II, when he made training films for the Army Air Force.
Producer Sid Ganis, who headed advertising at Warners during the 1970s, recalls Gold as “a scrappy little creative, handsome man who had this great smile and very fertile advertising mind. It was so fertile he was a little ahead for that day — certainly ahead of the day in terms of movie advertising.”
Ganis says that Gold was very much the leader of his company and in working with the team at the studio and filmmakers. “he was the maestro,” Ganis says. “He was the one directing his art directors and directing his copy writers on what to do, which was a great thing. He was also the one who communicated with the studio. He was the guy in charge of the symphony.”
For many, memories of working with him are as strong as the work: In the intro to Posterworks, Clint Eastwood wrote, “With Bill I knew he would bring great ideas, and the poster he created would be one less thing we had to think about. He respected the film, he respected the story, and he always respected what we were trying to accomplish.”
Gold played a significant role in the evolution of movie posters from simple advertising into an art form that is collected and studied. “I think I was responsible for changing them because I’m more interested in the stories,” he says.
Today, Gold lives with his second wife, Susie, who was a designer herself, and has two children and grandchildren from his first marriage. Although he is retired, he says he would still consider consulting for the right project.
Roger Huyssen, a former designer in Gold’s studio says, “His work is the printed history of the movie business and will live forever.”