I have a friend, we’ll call him Nate (not his real name), who is a filmmaker. Nate made an low budget horror film that he’s been trying to sell. I gave it a look and he did a decent job for the his limited budget. Not a great job, but a good job. No stars, obviously, and nothing terribly original, but he chose the horror genre and an equally marketable sub-genre. Is it sellable? That’s what he wants to know. Well…maybe. He’s not going to get Lionsgate or Miramax to pick it up, but he can probably get a smaller company to take it. Will they get it into Redbox or Walmart? Probably not, but there can be life in video on demand – and that’s a big enough arena where he could possibly see a profit (if the distributor doesn’t screw him over).
So, what was the biggest drawback with his film, he wanted to know? Keep in mind I’m big on constructive criticism, here. I don’t go to a filmmaker with a complete picture and say “I wish you’d gone this direction with the story….” If there are little changes that I think are possible, I’ll thrown them out. I’ll point out issues with the audio that need fixing. I have no problem with berating bad titles. I have no problem telling a filmmaker he really needs to cut 20 minutes from the picture to make it tighter. This is a surprisingly common issue among first-time filmmakers…they spend all this time writing, then all this time shooting, then all this time editing a scene and have so much invested at that point they can’t bring themselves to cut it. But I digress…there are plenty of problems with virtually all indy films, but only a handful are even worth mentioning since the vast majority are beyond repair. Nate’s biggest problem was, fortunately, an easy one – his poster sucks balls! It’s terrible. The thing that bothers me the most is that there’s no way any person wouldn’t know this…but I see it ALL the time.
I can’t fathom that some filmmakers just don’t understand how significant a poster is…especially for a film with no name recognition and no other discernible “hook”. A good poster is half the battle…maybe more! I see posters all the time and the nicest way I can give a filmmaker a virtual slap in the face is to say “Go to the video store. Tell me if you see ANY box cover that looks anything like that.” I shouldn’t have to say this. I makes me wonder what the fuck is going through the head of the filmmaker to send out something packaged like that. It doesn’t take thousands of dollars to come up with a professional poster. It can be done for a few hundred. I’ve found amazing graphic artists willing to do posters for $300-$500 dollars. Some don’t turn out so well, but some look great. The fact is, there are TONS of talented artists out there and many, if not most, would love to work on a movie poster. Yet so many filmmakers settle for using their rudimentary Photoshop skills to come up with their own poster and they are, most times, beyond terrible. Just because you successfully cut, copy and paste Angelina Jolie’s face onto the naked body of a Penthouse model doesn’t mean you’re good enough with Photoshop to make your own poster….unless your movie happens to be about a incompetent graphic artist who lusts for Angelina Jolie. (my next project, in fact!)
I know you’re wondering what the poster looked like. Out of a desire to not embarrass my friend, I won’t post it here, though I would love to. But, the poster is of a car. A head-on shot of a car. The movie isn’t about a car. In fact, it’s been a couple months since I saw the film, but I don’t even remember this car being in the film…or any car for that matter. Granted the car looks “scary” since it’s a horror film, but it’s dreadful. On top of that, the car was drawn/painted. Not an awesome job, by any means. On a 1 to 10 scale, this poster is a 1. So I relayed my strongest objection and he seemed to agree. So readily, in fact, it seems obvious he KNEW the poster sucked…he certainly didn’t me to confirm it.
Jump forward a couple of months later. I just got his latest version of the poster. He went in a totally different direction. He clearly went with a graphic artist with more talent than the previous (though that may well have been himself). The bad news? The new poster still sucks balls…just a different sweaty, hair pair! It’s still a 1 out of 10! He went a whole new direction, but this time the image is a hand coming out of the ground, out of a grave. Could that work for a horror film? Possibly. Maybe. Probably not, but I can’t say never. The biggest problem…it was a cartoon! Yes, an animated image. In case you’re wondering – NO, the film is not animated. ”Why would you have an animated image on a poster for a film that’s not animated” you might ask? GOOD GOD DAMN QUESTION! How did the filmmaker never think to ask himself the same? Anyone looking at this new poster is going to think the film is animated. Why wouldn’t they?
Again, I’m consistently amazed that these painfully obvious points even need to be brought up, but they do time and again. What was the last live action studio film you saw with an animated poster/cover? When I relayed my sentiments to the filmmakers, he was quick to agree (again). At least he’s not being stubborn like is so often the case. So Nate is back to the drawing board…and wasting months of time screwing around with this.
The reality is, you are probably better off having a shitty film with a great poster than a great film with a shitty poster. If people don’t like the poster, they won’t watch. If people like the poster, they’ll watch…and if they hate that film at that point, you already have their money. Anyone else see the logic in this argument?
You can get away with ”unusual” or “original” poster designs in very few cases. Django Unchained, Tarantino’s newest film has an atypical first poster. How does it work for him? He’s Tarantino. You’re not.
Don’t try to be too original (that actually goes for the movie itself to a greater degree). If you have stars – show them on the box. If you have skin to sell the film – put some on the poster. If your movie is scary – let me know that from the main image. To this day, I doubt The Casino Job would have made the sales it did without the sharp, sexy poster we had for it. We sold 100,000 DVDs the first month on a movie with names, no promotional budget and no public awareness. It wasn’t critics praising the film prior to release that drove the sales (obviously if you saw the film you’ll know why that wasn’t the case). It was the box. Blockbuster, Hollywood Video and Redbox loved the box cover. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that they didn’t even watch the film. Why? Because they already know what I mentioned above – once someone has rented the film, it doesn’t matter that much if they like it…you already have their money. Some Blockbusters stocked 50 or more copies…that still amazes me!
Your poster is your gatekeeper – you blow that and your film is dead on arrival. I hope Nate’s next version is better, but I’m concerned after two failed attempts that he just doesn’t get it. I even told him EXACTLY what I think he should do…let’s see if he’s smart enough to realize my unfaltering brilliance in this area and take my advice to heart.
I’ll keep you posted, dear readers. That’s off the record, on the Q.T. and very Hush Hush…