movie poster

When Friends are Marginalized Together

Movie posters reflect the specific genres of the movie that you are about to watch.  Maybe you’re in the mood for a sappy love story, or maybe an insane tale about friends getting to know each other better.  How can we tell the difference between friend movies and relationship movies?

Sean Hall’s concept of Center and Margin gives us an easy way to analyze movie posters and see which relationship the movie is going to be about.  According to Hall, the center of an image is the central focus, where the viewer’s eyes are drawn first, and that the rest of the image is centered around.  The center is the idealized object in the picture.  But something idealized also means that something is not idealized.  These objects are marginalized, less in focus and less significant than the central object.  Every object that is centered creates something that is marginalized.

On movie posters, it is mostly easy to see that the main character is the center focus of the film.  On the Star Trek movie posters, Captain Kirk, played by Chris Pine, is the center and idealized in a couple of ways.  He is in front of his companions Dr. Spock and Uhura, literally closer to the viewer.  He is at the very top of the poster, symbolizing idealization.  He’s also pictured more than once: there’s a tiny second him Kirk the bottom of the poster in the middle of an action sequence.  Kirk is the main character.  Spock and Uhura, important and recognizable enough to make it onto the poster, are secondary characters, revolving around Kirk’s storyline.

Star Trek Movie Poster

Source: Impawards.com

Action movies, horror movies, love stories.  These movies all clearly show who is the most important and who is marginalized.  They show who the movie is going to follow around and who the viewer is supposed to identify with.

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Movies about friends, where the whole point of the movie is building on friendship, are another story.

Movies that are based solely on friendships tend to not have a clear distinction between the center and the margin.  Not that there isn’t a center to the movie poster, but the distinction between which character we should be paying attention to isn’t clear.

If you look at the Hangover Part 2 movie poster, for example, your eyes aren’t necessarily drawn to any of the characters in particular.  All of the characters have this idea of “centrality” about them.  Alan is at the top of the page, where Kirk was idealized before.  Stu, on the left, is almost the most central, and is certainly closer to the viewer because he is higher up off the ground, in the bathtub.  Phil is making direct eye contact with the viewer, the only one that openly faces the front of the poster.  Even if Alan is face up, his eyes are closed, and Stu’s body position is slightly turned away.

Source: impawards.com

Source: impawards.com

Remember that the key ideas for a central image are its location on the page and its orientation to other objects.  The point of view of the poster is from the top-looking down.  The characters are literally subjected to begin with, aligned with your lowered standards because the viewer is in the position of authority.  Plus they’re laying on the floor.  But they are all together in this position.  All three of them are marginalized from the point of view of the viewer, but none of them is a central figure on the poster itself.

The viewer can then conclude that the movie is going to be about the friendship of the three men, each of them equally as important as the next, rather than following the story from the point of view of one man.  Their friendship is the central image – in this case, the center of the triangle that their sprawled bodies create.

Other friendship movies have the same characteristics: a lack of a center and margin, or where all of the characters are central images, or all of them are marginalized images.

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Of course, there are always exceptions that result from clever advertising.  But this is one way that the viewer can see what the central focus of the movie is going to be.

Parody vs. Copyright: Court Case Examples

In previous blog posts, I discussed the eerie similarities between movie posters.  Despite the fact that many of the posters have the same visuals and overarching theme in order to target the same audience, most of the artists that create movie posters agree that it is not copyright infringement because enough has been changed: the font, the characters, the background.  Originality in movie posters comes from the “inspiration” of other posters that were effective.

Other artists have sued over movie posters, however.  In a 1987 court case, artist Saul Steinberg sued Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. for copyright infringement of his art.  Steinberg argued that the movie poster from Moscow on the Hudson was too similar to his original work, View of the World from 9th Avenue, published on the cover of The New Yorker.

If we compare the two images, we see the striking similarities that Steinberg argued for.  The color and shadow (down to the angle of the building), the use of cars and lettering on the street, the perspective of Moscow and the Pacific Ocean, respectively.  Even the lettering for “The New Yorker” and “Moscow on the Hudson” is in the same font style, a font that The New Yorker often utilizes.

Columbia Pictures Industries, along with many other movie and record companies being sued for the association of the poster, argued that they were using the poster under the fair use factor, parody.  Stanford University easily summarizes the definition of parody: “In a parody…the parodist transforms the original by holding it up to ridicule.  At the same time, a work does not become a parody simply because the author models characters after those found in a famous work.”  A parody, in short, must highlight the extremes of the nature of a work to make another point about it.

Judge Louis L. Stanton believed, in this case, that Steinberg had created the parody about New Yorkers by arguing their perspective about the world, not the movie poster.  Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. may have found inspiration in Steinberg’s work, by had only borrowed the parody that Steinberg created instead of making their own.

Because they were not arguing for anything else, but using the poster to argue the same effect as Steinberg, Steinberg won his court case on the grounds that too much had been copied.  Judge Stanton believed that the perspective itself was not copyright (the poster was free to use the subjective perspective of New York citizens), but the use of other similarities was indeed a copyright infringement.

As a comparison, a movie poster for Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult featured Leslie Nielsen’s head photoshopped onto the body of a pregnant woman.  The poster was a direct echo of a Vanity Fair cover featuring a naked and pregnant Demi Moore.  Photographer Annie Liebovitz, who had taken the picture of Demi Moore, sued for copyright infringement because of the way that the photo had been digitally manipulated to mimic her own style.

Courtesy BayCitizen.org

Viewers can see the similarities between the angle, shading, general composition of the photo and pose of the models.

However, Paramount won this case because of the notable changes they made to the picture as well.  First and most obvious is the change from Demi Moore’s face to Leslie Nielsen’s, and the expression that each wear on their faces.  Second is the size of the ring on the right hand of the model: Demi Moore’s is the general size of a wedding ring, while the other is more obnoxious.  Third, the lighting is significantly different.  On Vanity Fair, the light is soft and highlights the beauty of a pregnant woman.  On the Naked Gun poster, the lighting is crude and points out the obvious flaws of a man being pregnant.

Because of these changes and their implications in highlighting the differences between the pregnancies and genders, the courts concluded that Paramount Pictures Corp. was making a parody of the work.  They used the style of Liebovitz to make another point: there is something obnoxious and not at all beautiful about a man being pregnant.

Steinberg v. Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. became a precedent case for when fair use did not apply and when parody was not effective.  Leibovitz v. Paramount Pictures Corp. became a case for when the images fell under fair use.  The distinction between commenting on or criticizing a work and simply copying it became clear.

Copycats Building on Established Audience Approval

Ever feel like you’ve seen a movie poster before?  There’s just something about it…maybe the way the woman on the poster is posed, or the expression on her face, or the way she’s half hidden behind the main character.  Maybe something as simple as the font style and the color of the background.

It’s probably because you’ve seen almost the same thing, maybe a hundred times before.

Cabin Fever/Shrooms

Credit: Shortlist.com

For anyone who doesn’t know the movies, the two can be summed up as fairly similar.  In Cabin Fever, the characters escape into the woods for a fun, adventure-filled weekend when they are struck by a horrible disease that threatens to kill them all.  In Shrooms, the characters also escape to the woods, but this time in hunt of psychedelic mushrooms.  When the main girl accidentally ingests a poisonous mushroom, one that gives her a “bad trip” that she can’t separate from reality, before ultimately wondering whether she will die or not.

The movies are extremely similar, and the posters for these movies reflect that.  The skull in both is created from the environment, from a combination of light within the trees and the sky.  This symbolizes that their environment is causing the problem; assumedly, the characters would all not be dying if they never adventured into the woods.

Shortlist.com outlines a number of these eerily similar movie posters.

9gag user Urugag shares a giant compilation of images which contrast the sheer number of movie posters with similar themes.

On another level, Cracked points out similar actor poses on movie posters.  That is, actors very often pose in the same ways on posters in which they star.  My favorite example in Eric Yosomono’s article was Jackie Chan’s foot or fist always being larger than his head.  Jackie Chan can nearly always be found in the fighting stance, and this reveals a couple things to the viewer:

  1. This is going to be an action movie.
  2. You should expect action and violence.
  3. Jackie Chan is going to do some serious action scenes, and will dominate all of his enemies.
  4. The action in the movie is going to overpower any intellectual thoughts (hence the foot and fist being closer to the viewer, with his head far behind).

But these are wonderful keys for the audience.  If you like Jackie Chan movies, you’re going to like the one that the poster is advertising.  If you know you don’t like the movies, you can stay away from the new movie.

jackie chan for 2Credit: Cracked.com

Other movies trying to emulate Jackie Chan’s expertise also copy this style.  Even though Owen Wilson’s movie is obviously going to be a comedy, we can still expect to see action moments in a Jackie-Chan style.

Drillbit Taylor Credit: Impawards.com

The real question: why not come up with a completely new movie poster, so that audiences can recognize that this movie is going to be something they haven’t seen before?

One answer is obvious: because we have seen this before.  Same movie with different characters means the director should at least acknowledge how similar his movie is going to be with the ones who came before it.

Another answer is based on the audience.  If the audience liked a movie with specific themes, then, in recognizing the similarities, they will be drawn to the new movie as something they already know they will like.  If you like one movie about a vigilante, like V for Vendetta, you’ll probably like another, like Blade.  It’s an easy way to point viewers in the right direction.

It’s up to the viewer to decide whether he’s ready for repetition or a breath of fresh air.  It’s not that we can’t enjoy them, but change is good.

Idealizing the Hero

We’re in the middle of a superhero movie craze.  It started with remakes of superhero movies like the Dark Knight in 2008 and is continuing with the upcoming movies like Captain America: Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 this year, and even The Avengers 2 in 2015.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the movies and the ambition behind them.  But I’m getting tired of the advertising: these repetitive movie posters.  Taking a closer inspection the movie posters are functioning in a pretty obvious way.

Sean Hall, in his book This Means This. This Means That outlines the many ways that viewers judge an image.  As he explains, “the forms of placement tell us what is most important to the producer in terms of communication” (89).  So what do the producers of movie posters want us to know about the movie, about the superhero?  If you think about audience perspective, the viewer can only see the movie poster from one angle: directly from the front.  They can control exactly what we see.

Let’s look at some of the features of posters.

First, nearly every poster places the superhero in the dead center of the poster.  The center is the most important place, “the thing that is seen to prevail over that which surrounds it” compared to the marginal objects (98).  In this case, the marginal objects are the rest of the city, like the buildings that surround Batman as makes a leap in his Batpod.  In the case of the Iron Man posters, it’s a handful of enemies and supporting characters that float somewhere around his shoulders in the background.  All of this points to the superheroes importance – basically, that the superhero of the movie is going to be the main character and the one the viewer identifies with, along with numerous other reasons.

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Photo credit: Splatter.com

Photo credit: sci-fimovieposters.co.uk

Similarly, the hero is closest to the viewer out of the other images.  No matter what is shown in the background, the superhero makes up the definitive foreground.  This has the same effect of being in the center because everything is geared around the hero.

Third, the hero is “larger than life” – that is, depicted much larger than other people and his surroundings.  When the superhero is looking down, the viewer is essentially looking up to the hero.  The superhero gains more power from this position, since being higher is generally a place of superiority.  He becomes a role model.  The hero’s skills, his aspirations, and his very identity become something to look up to, no matter what the personal morality of the viewer is.

An interesting note is that the most idealized object is placed at the top of the image.  It isn’t too much of a stretch to compare these images of superheroes to gods.  God is always at the top of his images, at the front and center of whatever else is marginalized.  The superheroes are effectively the gods of their small worlds.  Pretty true.  Batman holds the city together by himself without the credit.  Captain America single-handedly brings down one of the most powerful men in World War II (according to the movie, anyway).

 

All in all, it’s a good setup that sucks the viewer into the world of the superhero, setting him or her up to believe in the hero’s power.  It’s predetermined after the viewer sees the poster that the hero will not fail, or will come out triumphant no matter the cost.  The posters that show the hero involved in some kind of heroic action while also the focus of the poster only emphasize their heroic nature.

All we need now is a new way to advertise movies, so we don’t need the same thing every time.

Source:

Hall, Sean.  “Visual Structures.”  This Means This.  This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics.  London: Laurence King, 2007.  89-108.  Print.