How to design a movie poster – top ten tips to grab the eye of a sales agent, distributor or audience member


Given poster pop art is all around us and everyone has access to photo / graphics software, I am often amazed how some filmmakers turn in polished films, will also deliver terrible posters and key artwork. So bad that often sales agents and distributors will throw it away and start from scratch.

And I am writing this post in light of the 50 Kisses poster competition that is opening up –

Let me be straight, I have no design training, I am self taught at Photoshop and I don’t work directly in film sales. But I do think I understand what makes a great movie poster and why some poster work where others fail.

Top Ten Tips When Designing a Poster or Key art For Your Movie

1. The poster is NOT a piece of art…
well of course it is art, and I love movie posters, they adorn my walls. But I suspect they never began life as artwork that would be traded many years later and thought of as ‘art’ for the home of geeks like me. They began life as a way to catch the eye and tempt the mind. I know we all love some classic movie posters, but they were designed to sell tickets, not look cool in our office or bedrooms. Don’t design a poster for your homee. Design a poster to sell tickets.
2. Make the title BIG…your poser should convey the title and genre in a glance. Most posters I see for indie films have small, difficult to read titles. Don’t use fonts or colours that stop the title from popping out, make it readable in a glance.
3. Haunted…
right now you may well be haunted by two things – first is that terrible title you held onto through script development, shooting and the edit. If the title is wrong, change it. And second, you didn’t get enough great stills from the set, so you have little or nothing to build on. This may mean you need to get your cast back for a studio shoot where you can really control the environment and focus on stills. This is a very good idea. Poster here is for a friends horror film that was retitled in post from ‘The Hollow’ to ‘Don’t Let Him In’ and the art was designed by the sales agent. Consider the simple, bold combination of artwork and title. It’s flying off shelves in ASDA.
4. Follow the conventions…
movie posters have a form, a specific ‘balance’. You know a movie poster when you see one right? If you move away from this layout, you are risking looking like you are not a ‘real’ movie, or that you are selling something else, maybe a novel or album. Break the conventions at your peril. Remember, this is not art, this is sales – your movie is a can of beans on a shelf and when was the last time you got worked up about the design for a can of beans?
5. Don’t feature your actors like they are movie stars…
unless they are REALLY movie stars, or somehow evoke the very essence of your story (or if you have given it real thought and done a photoshoot). I have seen to many posters with five actors faces, imitating a Hollywoood film (where they have five megastars) but on this poster, none of the actors I recognise No-one cares who is in your film unless they are recognisable. Remember, this is sales. Don’t agree to actors on the poster in contracts too.
6. Be bold…
go for a single, strong, clear genre image that somehow conveys the central idea, conflict or problem – it does NOT need to feature your actors or locations verbatim, just evoke a sense of what your story is. But it must be well executed.
7. Avoid too many colours…
most posters work best when drawn from a few colours, creating a bold and eye catching image. The poster must first catch the eye, then intrigue the mind. This is why the guerrilla filmmakers handbooks were bright yellow and green and had a bomb on the cover.
8. Know your genre…
you’d be amazed how many people simply don’t know the genre of their film, or more often, they know but become afraid of committing to what the genre will mean when it comes to their poster. How often have I heard, ‘it’s not just a horror, it’s an amazing drama too…’ and you end up with neither drama nor horror and your film gets passed over.
9. Keep your PSD files layered…
while your final files may be huge, don’t be tempted to ‘flatten’ them in Photoshop, keep them multi layered so other people can work on your artwork later – maybe replace the title for a different language version for instance.
10 Hire an expert…
seriously, if you are going to get professional crew and actors, get a professional film poster designer. You may be surprised at how much they charge and you will more than likely be delighted with their ideas based on industry knowledge and practice, AND the fact that they are NOT emotionally connected to the work like you may be.

I know from experience that most people have no time to look at your poster – consider how many sales messages your brain is bombarded with in any given moment. Messaging and branding is everywhere, and it’s also usually created by experts too. And most terrifyingly, you and your film are in direct competition for that headspace.

Here’s how it normally works…

  1. Glance – somehow your poster is seen by a person. Their action? Either it’s not noticed / ignored / phased out… or it’s noticed. I don’t have a scientific number but consider only 1 in a 1,000 people even notice it. I made that number up, it may be much much worse.
  2. IF they acknowledge it’s existence – people then ‘see it’, but may pass immediately, or linger for a moment and consider.
  3. If they show ANY interest – that linger may turn into a second or two of  further investigation (who is in it? Etc), or they may pass…
  4. Finally, if they do show interest, it may log it in the brain – most of the time this will not happen, but ideally a person will remember the poster and film. They may even pick up that DVD, click on a link, by a theatre ticket.

If they do engage, they will have passed through all the above hoops first – and remember, you are in direct competition with thousands of other messages and images EVERY day. This is why posters are big and campaigns run in all media – think the sides of buses and the visibility that offers.

That’s why it’s essential to have a killer image for your movie.

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones
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