Judging A Book By It’s Cover

Image is everything – especially in the entertainment industry. So how do you create an image for your film that’s cheap yet effective?

Going to the movies is always an experience. Good or bad. As a filmmaker and actor, I am delighted to find that I am still able to suspend my disbelief, and enjoy really good films. I was definitely feeling ill in The Blair Witch Project, and The Sixth Sense creeped me out completely (but then again, I used to freak out watching “The Magic Flute”, so that’s no great surprise).

That said, I really do enjoy the experience of going to the movies. Which is probably a good thing, considering my choice of career. And yes, my love of films most likely inspired my choice of profession. For which I am eternally grateful.

Interview With A Vampire Poster
Interview With A Vampire Poster

As a teenager, I would race off to the movies to hang out with friends, or go on a date, or just escape a difficult time. I can actually cross-reference films to events in my life. On my very first date, my new boyfriend took me to see The Evil Dead (needless to say, I broke up with him soon after). I saw Footloose on my (cough, sputter, mumble, mumble) birthday which was part of my friends ruse when they threw me a surprise party. One of my most enduring memories of London was seeing Interview with the Vampire at midnight, in winter, and being so scared that I had to stay at a friend’s place (and I was paranoid about exposing my neck for a week afterwards). The first film my brother and I ever saw on our own without Mum was Highlander (which I thoroughly enjoyed, as uncool as it was to be seen with my brother at that stage of my social development).

Movies have a way of affecting you, sometimes in ways you don’t realise until much later. And sometimes, with certain special films, when you want to remember what effect that film had, you want something to bring back those feelings, or that time in your life.

Which is where I find posters come into the picture. (forgive the pun). Sometimes you buy a poster because of the film – and sometimes you buy a poster just because the poster is so great, you want it as a piece of decor on your walls (I had the poster for The First Wives Club long before I saw the film).


Sliding Doors
Sliding Doors Poster

Additionally, as a filmmaker, I find that having a few posters around can be great inspiration. I look at the Sliding Doors poster, and it reminds me that Peter Howitt took twelve years to make that film. My paltry three years on Dalny seems nothing in comparision.

I get fed up with the state of the Australian film industry, then I look at my poster for The Piano and remember that you can get your film made anywhere if it’s got a good story and vision (and you just don’t give up). I wonder if I’ve gone mad writing a film that has fantasy elements, and then I look at my The Lord of the Rings poster and remember how much I loved the film and the way it truly did transport me to another world.

Posters aren’t just displayed by those independent writer/producers struggling to hold onto their inspiration. All the casting agents’ offices I’ve been in as an actor have their walls covered in posters. Most have posters of the films they actually did the casting for, but there’s one agent I know (no names here) that puts up posters on their walls just because they like them (well, so they say). I remember the first time I was in their office, I sat staring at the posters for films like The Matrix and Mad Max, terribly impressed because I thought they’d done the casting for those films. They later informed me that they’d had nothing to do with them, they just liked the posters (and who am I to doubt them?).

When working on investment and distribution packages, I always start with the posters. They tell you what a film’s about (if done properly) and should transmit to the public the essence of your film. It’s called “branding” in marketing circles. I wondered about attempting to do the kind of thing that distributors normally cover, but my marketing sense paid off when I came face to face with a prominent distributor over another feature film I’ve been working on – Heart.

Heart Poster
Heart Poster

I was at an industry function, and found out that he was there. Deciding that now was a good time as any to say hello, I made my way over to where he was standing by the bar.

Let me just clarify at this stage that we’d never met before, but he had been sent a distribution package for the film nearly two months prior, and we’d heard nothing from him since. I figured that I had nothing to lose, hence my boldness in approaching him (of course, that could also have been something to do with the champagne I’d had).

So, there I am, walking over to this guy as bold as brass, praying that my instincts were right and I wasn’t about to make a complete idiot of myself. He turned to me as I approached, and I must have looked like a filmmaker about to approach a distributor, because I caught a flicker of the “Oh God, I’m about to be cornered, I hope my wife/girlfriend/PA will be back from the bathroom soon to spirit me away from this person” look, enter his eyes.

A Little Rain Must Fall Poster

Undaunted, I walked up to him and said hello. We made polite small talk. “Isn’t this a lovely evening”, “So nice to see so many industry faces”, “Have you seen [insert name of current “hot” movie here] yet?” – that sort of thing. Finally I opened my little black purse and pulled out my CD-ROM presentation that had just been completed for Heart, with the image from our poster emblazoned across the front of it. I steeled myself to go into my “You’ve had our paper version on your desk for two months, maybe you’d better just skip it and look at this instead” speech, when he looked at the cover of the CD and took it out of my hands.

“Ah yes! Heart! I remember this poster! You’re that Sally McLean!”

A bit non-plussed (how many other Sally McLean’s were working in the Melbourne film industry that I didn’t know about?), I recovered from my shock and jumped at this unexpected opportunity. We arranged a time to meet during the following week, and when his wife/girfriend/PA did come back from the bathroom, he actually stayed a whole five minutes longer talking about the photo we’d used and where it had been taken, before being spirited away.

I was pretty happy with myself that evening (and it had nothing to do with the three glasses of champagne I’d consumed, truly).

Chasing Pegasus Poster

You see, I’d stumbled across a fact that all distributors are taught from birth, but many filmmakers just don’t get – well, most don’t in the early stages of their careers, and it was only due to my work in promotions that I’d worked it out, albeit instinctively. And it’s the one thing that we should all remember.

Image is everything. Image sells. And posters are the most visable and prolific version of that philosophy in the movie-making world. They’re certainly the most cost-effective way to promote your film, especially if you are an independent, still on the elusive search for funding and distribution. If you’re handy with a camera and any version of Photoshop, then you’re in with a good chance of creating a poster image that will sell your film to those that will help you make it.

That way you’re also thinking like a distributor. Now, some might say that’s unhealthy, but not when you’re trying to sell your film to them. Film’s a visual medium, remember? So you should use all your visual weapons to promote what you’re aiming to put on film. Why do you think movie websites are so popular? Of course your initial artwork will most likely be changed. But it will be changed by distributors – once they’ve bought the rights to your film.

So how do you go about creating that perfect poster that will cause all who see it to demand that you take their money and run? Well, that’s not so easy. There are many factors you’ll have to consider. What kind of film are you making? Who’s your audience? What’s the mood/atmosphere/theme of the film? What genre is your movie?

Clerks Poster
Clerks Poster

The best way to work out where you should start, is to look at what other films have done before you. If you’re making a film like Clerks , for example, then you’d want a poster that had an indie feel about it, not something that looked like The Gift. If, on the other hand, you’re making something like Sleepy Hollow, then you’d need to capture a feeling of horror, so you wouldn’t design something like the Swingers poster (unless it was a campy or comedy horror, of course).

It may all sound like common sense, but you’d be surprised the amount of filmmakers who don’t think like this, or who don’t even think about this element at all.

The best advice I can give – get hold of as many posters that fit your movie’s genre as you can, and study them. You’ll see that there’s a kind of formula, and you’d do well to emulate it.

And anyway, they look good on your walls. That’s why my office is full of them – honest.

Originally published July 2006 © S. McLean. All Rights Reserved.

One thought on “Judging A Book By It’s Cover

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