Can modern movie posters be cured of Floating Head Syndrome?
A shark rising from the depths towards a nude swimmer; a giant (perhaps even 50-foot) woman attacking cars on a freeway; Rhett Butler clutching a bare-shouldered Scarlett O’Hara. Some of the most enduring images in film history never ran through a projector, but began life as elements of promotional campaigns, and — thanks to nostalgia, notoriety, or sometimes just pure ubiquity — became iconic in their own right. Our ongoing series FilmArt looks at the advertising, posters, lobby cards and other ephemera that complement and enrich the filmgoing experience.
In May, when Sony and Marvel Studios released a particularly over-busy poster for Spider-Man: Homecoming — which quickly became a much-mocked meme — it provided another opportunity for certain corners of the internet to ask what’s wrong with modern movie posters.
Every year or two, some unimaginative one-sheet prompts web writers to investigate why the art of the film poster has seemingly gone to the dogs. The twin demons of Adobe Photoshop and “studio execs” generally take the blame for posters that feel as if they had been designed by committee — which isn’t too far from the truth. Posters afflicted with “Floating Head Syndrome” (or FHS for short) are the muddy fruit of a tug-of-war between marketing departments hoping for mass appeal and art departments trying to work within contractual obligations, as actors are guaranteed to have their photos and names a certain size in relation to the title, the credit block, and the other actors. This is also the cause of many folks’ pet peeve: one actor’s name above the floating head of another (see below for a particularly galling example).
Of course, the purpose of movie posters has always been to sell a film to audiences, actors have long been given such concessions, and Floating Head Syndrome is hardly a new phenomenon: while the posters for films like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Casablanca are beloved, they are, arguably, just particularly well-crafted displays of floating heads.
While we’ve always had memorable and forgettable posters sharing cinema walls — for every Back to the Future, there was a Real Genius — it still seems like the Age of Photoshop has tipped the scale considerably in favour of the forgettable.
This is not to say that a film anchored by a certified movie star is doomed to sink into the abyss of mediocre movie posters. Though French director Olivier Assayas works in a different milieu than the Hollywood films most often afflicted with FHS, he presents us with an interesting case study. Not only has Assayas’ career directly paralleled the rise of Photoshop-indebted posters, but his collaborations with international movie stars such as Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Maggie Cheung and Asia Argento would seem to make his films prime candidates for the easy design solution of exploiting star power. Yet despite this, the posters for Assayas' films have mostly managed to avoid the pitfalls of "Hollywood" poster design.
After an early career as a critic and screenwriter, in 1986 Assayas made his debut feature Disorder, which had a healthy international release thanks to the International Critics Prize it was awarded at the Venice Film Festival that year.
The most well-travelled of these posters was designed by Benjamin Baltimore, one of France’s most prolific poster artists. In his 40-year career, Baltimore has produced more than 600 posters for a who’s who of cinematic greats, from Antonioni to Lars von Trier (with an entire alphabet of auteurs in between).
While Assayas soon went on to work with such young rising stars as Judith Godrèche and Virginie Ledoyen, the French posters for these films all share one trait that stands in direct contrast to the posters produced in the second and third decades of his career: his stars’ faces are almost always obscured in some way.
Several of the posters above bear the mark of Stéphane Bielikoff, another of France’s most prominent poster designers; his work for Pedro Almodóvar’s Kika and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (as seen in the Spring installment of FilmArt) are among that director’s most collectible. The same year Bielikoff produced the Winter’s Child poster above, he was recognized at the Césars, which from 1986 to 1990 awarded a prize for Best Poster; Bielikoff won for his design for The Little Thief, a poster that anticipates a Hollywood trend as pervasive as (but far more troubling than) Floating Head Syndrome: The Headless Woman.
After making his breakthrough with Cold Water in 1994, Assayas truly stepped onto the international stage with his next film, Irma Vep.
Irma Vep finds the director working in a mode that would eventually impact the way his films were marketed: a close collaboration with an international superstar, in this case the Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung, who was then at the height of her fame. As designer Adrian Curry recalled, “I was working for Zeitgeist Films when we released Irma Vep; I got to design the US poster for the film and was lucky enough to meet Maggie a couple of times, first at the Rotterdam Film Festival and then in New York when she came for the premiere. I have rarely been more starstruck.”
Despite Cheung’s status as an international star, the various posters for Irma Vep don’t trade on her celebrity the way one might expect; rather, it is the character of Irma Vep and the film’s aesthetic that are highlighted, perhaps best of all in a recent fan-made poster by Liam Higgins that combines the best elements of the original one-sheet and elements from the film itself.
While Assayas’ Late August, Early September and Les Destinées offer relatively straightforward takes on their respective films, the almost uncategorizable demonlover — an icy meditation on sex, violence, media, technology and late capitalism — clearly presented a challenge to the various distributors charged with marketing it, with each region taking vastly different approaches.
The early 2000s DVD boom and its need for easily-digestible cover art is often linked to the rise of Floating Head Syndrome, so it’s no surprise to see a spatter of FHS across demonlover’s various home video releases from 2004 (the year DVD sales hit their peak).
Laurent Lufroy, the artist behind the iconic posters for films such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie and Luc Besson’s Léon (as well as the Les Destinées poster seen above), states that his work has one aim: “If the poster can be original, beautiful, it's even better. But, really, the main thing is not to betray the film.” But oftentimes, the easiest way to sell a film is to trade on its star power, to the detriment of its more salient elements — a tension that is on display in almost all the Assayas posters from the mid-2000s onward.
Of the examples below, the journeyman Japanese poster for Clean does the best job of following Lufroy’s dictum in its representation of both star and subject, but it’s hardly the most framing-worthy of the bunch. (Honourable mention to the Japanese Boarding Gate poster for its retitling of the film.)
Carlos, Assayas’ ambitious biopic of the notorious international terrorist, was initially broadcast as a three-part mini-series before being released theatrically in a variety of lengths, ranging from 338 to 166 minutes. The broadcast promotion by Canal+ focused on the destruction wrought by the film’s protagonist (including this agitating TV spot); by contrast, posters for the various theatrical releases, picking up on the manner in which Assayas frames Édgar Ramírez’s Carlos in the visual language of celebrity, carried that notion over into their designs, most notably in Sam Smyth’s retro-infused US poster for IFC Films.
On their website, Troika, the studio behind the French artwork that was ultimately used for most of the international releases, offers an insight into the process behind their work on the film with a number of pieces of unused concept art, including one particularly divine yet tonally inappropriate approach.
Assayas’ next film was announced via pre-production advertising that spotlighted its star, Juliette Binoche.
However, by the time of the film’s initial release, it was being promoted with a Troika-produced poster that took an opposite approach — though given the film’s starry cast, it’s no surprise that this strategy wasn’t embraced for most of the film’s releases.
Interestingly, almost all of these takes are anticipated somewhat in Troika’s concept art for the film, as would be the case with the agency’s unused concepts for Assayas’ next film Personal Shopper.
Before producing the French poster above, Le Cercle Noir created a number of other fascinating takes on the film; but none capture Personal Shopper’s spectral qualities quite like the US one-sheet from InSync Plus.
As Assayas continues to work with above-the-title talent, the urge for distributors to lean on those names in their promotions is likely to grow irresistible. Many of the international posters for Sils Maria and Personal Shopper show signs of the creeping spectre of celebrity — perhaps most hilariously exemplified by Personal Shopper’s Dutch distributor, whose typographical treatment is clearly banking on viewers remembering that Kristen Stewart rose to prominence in a very different sort of supernatural film:
Posters above courtesy of Cinematerial, eBay, and the portfolios of the respective artists, studios and distributors, including: AllCity Media, Benjamin Baltimore, Stéphane Bielikoff, Carnival Studio, Adrian Curry, Havas, Liam Higgins, Indika Entertainment Advertising, InSync Plus, Le Cercle Noir, Laurent Lufroy, Jeff Maunoury, P+A Design LLC, Sawyer Entertainment, Sam Smyth, Troika.