'Ghostbusters' to 'Deadpool': Why Movie Posters All Look the Same

Why Movie Posters All Look the Same-H 2016
Courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney; Twentieth Century Fox Films (2)

Marketers have come to rely mostly on what insiders call the three main genres: Face-off, Giant Logo and Giant Face. But the 30-second "living" poster for Fox Searchlight's 'The Birth of a Nation' is bucking the trend.

With the average studio spending up to $200 million to market a wide release tentpole worldwide, one might expect that posters would offer a hint of innovation.

But with executives increasingly exhibiting a risk-adverse mindset, there's comfort in familiarity. That's why the typical movie poster is like a cup of Starbucks coffee: soothingly predictable.

There's a number of go-to images that have become as ubiquitous at the multiplex as popcorn and Junior Mints. There's the single face taking up the entire landscape indicating a man in peril (think Thor or Bridge of Spies). There's the classic face-off showcasing some sort of battle (one can forgive Batman v. Superman given that the two superheroes actually sparred, but even the Angry Birds got in on this action recently). And as if speaking to some primitive part of the human brain, a large circle hovering in the middle of a black background might be the concept du jour (Jurassic World).

"As a business, there is a lot of following," says Fox Searchlight executive vp marketing Larry Baldauf. "If you look at posters from the '70s, they were all created in a certain way. There was a time when illustrations were the thing. They go in circles, and something becomes the norm until something breaks ground and then that thing becomes the norm."

With its new teaser poster for Nate Parker's upcoming slave revolt drama The Birth of a Nation, Searchlight is trying to do just that. Harkening an Antebellum era museum document, the poster is visually unique and is being described as "living" because it features 30 seconds of moving pictures before dissolving into the flag image. The closest approximation in the past are posters for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which used a 5-second Flash animation clip of flames that morphed into the still posters.

"Fortunately, we have a property that allows us to do that," Baldauf says of the Birth poster. "I think we have to be as groundbreaking and vehement in our material as the film is in its message and intent."

Like every other industry, Hollywood is selling something — i.e., a movie or, more ambitiously, the start of a franchise. But unlike most other businesses, Hollywood exhibits a surprising uniformity with regards to the art used to lure customers — Birth notwithstanding. After all, print ads for sneakers or cars feature a wide spectrum of representations, with a mandate to be non-formulaic.

So why isn't Hollywood following the lead of Madison Avenue? One factor at play is movie stars and their contracts. On a given film, there are often clauses influencing the image.

"If you've got four people whose faces have to be the same size on a poster, you're pretty screwed," says Steven Soderbergh. "Like you just can't make a good graphic piece of art with four things that have to be exactly the same size, taking up most of the space. That's just a legal thing that sort of hobbles your ability to come up with a good piece of art."

After all, the amount of square inches a movie star can command on a poster represents a major deal point for representatives. Similarly, a studio may have its hands tied when it comes to showcasing an actor at all. Reps are known to create a rider that bars a studio from featuring a star client who is only making a small appearance.

For Soderbergh, who famously works without an agent (he's instead repped by Anonymous Content and attorney Michael Adler), he simply tries to go around the contracts.

"There have been occasions when I felt like we can really get something here if I get some leeway," he explains. "I'll make a call to somebody and go, 'Look, we have a great piece of art. Here it is. Take a look at it. It technically violates what you have in your contract. But I think it's a better piece of art than in anything else they're showing me. Will you?' And the actor involved has always said, 'Yeah.' It's not even something they were aware of most of the time. This is something their agents got them."

But even if contract knots can be untangled, the fact still remains that studios often test print ads, and not surprisingly, the recognizable motifs usually score better. Searchlight, for one, rarely tests print ads because it can produce both false positives and false negatives.

Says Baldauf: "I think you run the risk of people looking at something and saying, 'That looks and feels like a movie poster, therefore that's the one I'm going to respond to.'"

A version of this story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.