Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Living with movie posters... EVERYWHERE

Colossal movie murals that take up entire sides
of buildings are fairly common in NYC.
This is a topic I've wanted to write about for awhile now, because while it's an intrinsic part of living in a major media capital like New York, it's also something that many people tend to take for granted, and that's the near-omnipresence of movie and television posters.

Advertising in general dominates the environment of most major American cities, and New York and Los Angeles in particular are prime examples. Who can think of Times Square without the giant Coca-Cola display, for instance? Still, movie and television posters in particular are different, I think, because even if you don't drink soda or wear a certain brand of jeans, chances are you care about movies and TV shows, to one degree or another.

For me, movie posters and murals and billboards are a double-edged sword. As a movie fan, I can't help but love seeing them. The quality of the images themselves aside, simply seeing a poster for an upcoming movie that I'm excited about is always a bit of thrill, because it means that opening day is that much closer. This tends to apply more towards the summer blockbusters than the fall awards contenders, mainly because the former captures the imagination to a greater degree...

Movie posters and other ads in odd locations generate
more revenue for the cash-strapped transit system.
...which can lead to more creative posters. In advance of Roland Emmerich's Godzilla remake, for example, there were monumental billboards all over town that emphasized Godzilla's size, saying things like "His tail is longer than this bus," or "His foot is wider than this building" or things like that. And to my eternal shame, these posters worked on me. Not only did I go see the film, I went to a Tuesday night advance preview, one of the only times I've ever done that. The movie sucked, of course, but there was no doubt that those posters generated a certain level of interest.

That said, however, seeing them all the time, everywhere, can get old quick. I used to believe that the worse a movie is, the more posters of it you'll see. Now I know that this isn't always true, but sometimes it seems that way, such as a few months ago when posters for Identity Thief dominated the subway stations. The unimaginative and just plain stupid poster (doofy head shots of stars Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy) was a turn-off in and of itself, but when the movie improbably opened at number one despite atrocious reviews (20% on Rotten Tomatoes), that made it even worse.

Then there are the ever-popular variant posters, which isolate individual characters - quite popular for animated movies. In the past month or so, the TV show Game of Thrones has bombarded NYC subway stations and buses with character headshot posters in advance of the new season. The show is an ensemble, so there's no one dominant star, like in Mad Men or Dexter. I have no doubt it's a great show (I've never seen it but I've read the books), but the ubiquity of even these posters, which are not very imaginative either, has begun to wear on me.

The different shape of a movie bus poster
presents its own challenges.
Another curious aspect of movie posters throughout New York is what happens when they're reformatted for the bus. I'm not sure what the exact ratio is for bus posters, but they're at least four times as wide as they are high. Sometimes a different image is used for bus posters, but often times the original image is either cropped or expanded in some fashion to fit the format.

Sometimes formatting problems go in the opposite direction. The poster for the upcoming Jackie Robinson biopic 42 fits the "landscape" bus format perfectly - an image of star Chadwick Boseman sliding into a base. What they did for the upright, or "portrait" format, however (seen on bus shelters), is flip the image onto the right side of the frame, so it now looks like Boseman's falling instead of sliding. It looks very awkward.

It's the subway stations in which movie and TV posters tend to dominate most. In recent years here in New York, we've seen movie posters and other ads displayed in more unconventional spots, like support pillars, stairways, and even turnstiles, all in an increased attempt to generate more revenue for the financially-weak transit system - which has taken some serious getting used to. One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the opportunity for playful vandalism. For example, when Clint Eastwood made his perhaps-ill-informed speech last fall at the Republican National Convention, addressing an imaginary President Obama in an empty chair, I spotted a subway poster for his film Trouble With the Curve altered to reflect current events.

There's a lot to like and dislike about an environment dominated by movie and TV ads. I suppose I like it more than I hate it, though if I wasn't such an avid film fan I might feel differently. Yes, one can argue that advertising in general clutters the landscape and we'd all be better off without it, though I think that argument holds more water when applied to more rural areas. Here in the city, it's simply a fact of life, and always has been - and I'd rather look at a creative, cleverly-designed ad, for movies or anything else, than a boring, unimaginative one.


  1. Your headline spoke to me personally and the number of lobby cards I've collected over the years which added to the quirkiness of my kitchen and covered holes in the walls elsewhere in the house. They've only recently been taken down and I've put their images on a Pinterest page.

    I'm usually taken aback by a poster starring someone I've never heard of. There was a time when I could check the progress of a career by an actor's billing moving up in time. Now they just seem to pop out of nowhere. It's probably my age.

    Age may also contribute my dislike of the posters that pop up on the stairways at subway stations (Yes, they do that here in Toronto as well.) They disorient that middle-aged gal as I try not to be trampled by my fellow commuters. Yikes! The ads don't have the "gotta see that" effect on me that they once did. Old age is making me stubbornly cranky about the whole publicity business.

  2. I don't blame you! I'll probably feel the same way when I'm your age...

    I was never a big collector of posters or lobby cards. The only posters I ever had on my bedroom walls were Star Trek-related...

    An actor's billing on a poster has mattered less these days since stardom no longer matters as much in selling a movie. Sure, guys like Shia LaBouef and Channing Tatum are moving up, but I doubt the average person is as familiar with them as they are with a Depp or a DiCaprio.


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