The Future Of Film: Movie Posters Will Talk To You (And Buy Your Tickets)

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Guess the film genre from the following poster descriptions: 1) A man with a gun, looking around an imaginary corner, explosions optional. 2) A couple standing back-to-back, looking wryly at either each other over their shoulders. 3) An animal with a cocked eyebrow. If you answered 1) action movie 2) rom-com and 3) DreamWorks animation, then congratulations, you are familiar with movie poster shorthand. But if you think that just because we’ve achieved total movie poster genre telepathy that the medium isn’t evolving, think again, because that billboard is about to start talking to you.

With “roadside digital screens,” as marketeers call them – read: digital bus stop poster thingummies – replacing old-fashioned rain shelters across the country, high-tech one-sheets are about to take over cinema advertising. Advertisers can place next-generation posters near multiplexes showing the film in question, and allow customers to pre-book tickets there, in a way that is about to become commonplace and not just a “Can you really do that?” gimmick. Using your phone to interact with posters via “augmented reality” – more on that later – will become just another thing you do.

POSTERS ARE NOW THE CENTERPIECE OF A GRANDER, MORE INTERACTIVE, HASHTAGGED-TO-THE-NINES MULTIMEDIA CAMPAIGN THAT SURROUNDS A FILM.Of course, a movie poster will still tell you the name of the film it’s promoting, as well as the stars, director, writer and – if you squint at the boilerplate at the bottom – casting director and executive producers. It will still hint at a genre, draw parallels to similar popular films and establish something of the tone of the film. But many are also the centerpiece of a grander, more interactive, hashtagged-to-the-nines multimedia campaign that surrounds the film, selling the product and its related ephemera seamlessly from initial cinema release to streaming services, shop shelves and Sunday supplement inserts. It’s from this base that the future of film posters springs.

Pete Hanson, co-founder of London-based poster foundry AllCity Media, puts it this way. “It’s important [for poster creators] to design campaigns rather than to design a single image for a poster these days. Careful consideration of how the central image of the campaign can animate, interact and come to life across motion posters, gifs and online channels is key.”

2012 was a particularly strong year for still images coming to life with our round-up of the year’s best featuring Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine kneeling in the rain, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’s Mockingjay pin, well, catching fire, and Judge Dredd shooting you in the head.

Two years on, and everything from pre-roll commercials before YouTube clips to moving online adverts surrounding webpages like this one are motion posters by any other name: identifiable artwork moving dynamically to attract the eye. Empire Design (no relation) was particularly good at this during their Skyfall campaign, with specially-shot still photography that also included video snippets of the stars moving (see videos below) and, most impressively, shooting their guns off screen.

That level of inventiveness is now standard operating practice. So superhero movies get gigantic canvasses – as seen with The Avengers: Age Of Ultron this year – and character one-sheets are produced for any movie with more than four named roles. Hanson puts these extra efforts down to the high expectations of potential moviegoers, or what he calls “the Apple effect”.

“Carefully considered design has been placed in most people’s hands,” says Hanson. “This has trickled down and now, generally, people aspire to and engage with more considered graphic design. Clients are keen to move away from the ‘floating heads’.”

Marketing expert John Yorke, of Fold 7, offers up two campaigns, already considered classics in the industry, as examples of this sophistication: The Dark Knight (with its ‘Why So Serious?’ and ‘I Believe In Harvey Dent’ posters) and and Cloverfield (with its ‘What you couldn’t see’ / headless Statue of Liberty poster).

More recently, the ‘8-Bit lane’ campaign from early 2013 took the in-your-face blocky poster for Wreck-It Ralph and expanded it out into the real world, filling London’s Brick Lane with similarly blocky ‘8-bit’ polystyrene sculptures, tying in the film, its smartphone game and the poster artwork. There were even arcade cabinets of Fix-It Felix Jr., the game within the film, all with the Wreck-It Ralph artwork on the sides and the all-important hashtag #8BItLane (used 1.25million times in the first 6 hours alone).

GOOGLE GLASS MAY BE SUFFERING FROM SOME SOCIAL STIGMA CURRENTLY, BUT IT OFFERS A HUGE OPPORTUNITY FOR POSTER-BASED INTERACTION IN THE FUTURE.This sophistication in poster concepts can also be seen in the Prometheus campaign. That boasted a tie-in online video directed by Ridley Scott himself, featuring Michael Fassbender’s android David in a commercial set within the film’s world. That fictional advertising campaign, in turn, had its own poster, “selling” the mechanical man as if he were a product from Weyland Industries. And the whole thing tied in with a Verizon promotion, both helping with costs, and adding to the realism of the idea. The website that houses all this information while maintaining the myth of the film – www.weylandindustries.com – is a perfect example of the super-polished design that both studios and audiences are coming to expect. Another example is www.thebentbullet.com, which co-incidentally also involves Michael Fassbender, this time as Magneto in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, and posits a world where the Master Of Magnetism was actually behind the Kennedy assassination – or was he?

But as real-life experiential events and online super-websites bolster bigger campaigns, the way posters are displayed to the public is the real future of billboards. The “roadside digital screens” don’t just offer moving posters; they also provide cinemas and studios the chance to use “NFC” to book tickets, enter competitions and engage in a film’s campaign.

Hanson explains that “NFC” stands for ‘Near Field Communication’, and it’s enabled on some smart phones (where it’s attached to the battery) and contactless payment cards. “It’s like an Oyster card, so by touching your phone on or near a NFC device you can establish a radio connection. This can launch a link on your mobile browser.”

The NFC technology can also send the tickets directly to your smartphone’s screen, bypassing the actual box-office entirely and linking to calendars and reminders with ease. Currently, all new Apple and Samsung phones have the tech, with others joining the club soon. This is a vast improvement on the previous methods for connecting passers-by with film, such as Quick Response (QR) Codes – the black and white blocky boxes – which require reading apps and never really took off.

Augmented reality reading apps – which can turn a movie poster into an interactive, informative, space-age-esque virtual reality experience – have been making waves. Using technology known in the business as “Markerless AR”, it makes your phone screen pop up with surrounding information and options. American cinema chain AMC has a clever video showing how it works for their customers through their own app, while another app, Zappar, is keen to show off the work they did bringing the One Direction movie poster to life (below).

The biggest AR app to date is Layar, boasting over 33 million downloads and offering the unique benefit of allowing users to look back at previous AR experiences when they’re away from the poster or advert in question. There’s also Google Glass, which may be suffering from some social stigma currently, but offers a huge opportunity for poster-based interaction in the future.

Then there are the improvements in bringing big-screen advertising to big screens outdoors. Piccadilly Circus’s giant curved screens offer McDonalds-munching tourists the chance to design Wii Mii-like cartoon character versions of themselves and place them into the advert they’re watching. This is something which could be easily transferred to a movie-related arena: think of upcoming Despicable Me spin-off Minions (out July 2015), and try not to shudder at the possibilities.

"CAREFULLY CONSIDERED DESIGN HAS BEEN PLACED IN MOST PEOPLE’S HANDS. THIS HAS TRICKLED DOWN AND NOW, GENERALLY, PEOPLE ASPIRE TO AND ENGAGE WITH MORE CONSIDERED GRAPHIC DESIGN. CLIENTS ARE KEEN TO MOVE AWAY FROM THE 'FLOATING HEADS'." PETE HANSON, ALLCITY MEDIAAnother clever outdoor poster is British Airways’ “#LookUp” big screen trick, which features an adorable child who looks like he’s watching any BA plane that passes overhead, with specific flight details appearing instantly alongside. This one shows the BA475 from Barcelona passing over central London in a way that’s had 1.4 million views on YouTube – just imagine what would be possible with Top Gun 2.

Also worth remembering is the sheer size of a growing number of poster locations in the UK. Besides the motorway-side giants, there are placements like the gargantuan IMAX mega banner. That circular set-up offers designers enormous scope to flesh out their designs, as seen with the Skyfall wraparound, again re-emphasising the campaign’s main poster: Bond in a blue tux, Walther PPK in hand. Similarly, if you walk out of Liverpool station, you’ll quickly spot the 30 metre by seven metre, recently revamped Liverpool Media Wall, which is smart enough to change its brightness depending on the time of the day. Iron Man 3 looked particularly cool there last year.

“Miniaturisation of tech, and the cost and bulk of screens dropping mean the barriers for creating interactive outdoor campaigns are disappearing,” says Hanson. “These are really exciting times!”

But it’s not just modern technology and ever-bigger banners that are helping movie posters innovate. Sometimes, as Hanson is keen to point out, going back to pens and pencils, paints and brushes, can help one-sheets stand out.

“We often step away from the computer and use hand-crafted analogue elements and in-camera effects to achieve results that would ordinarily take a lot longer in Photoshop, without achieving the same level of detail,” says Hanson. “For example, our campaign for Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (see below).”

Mr. Turner Poster

The Wolverine garnered attention thanks to its use of throwback, old school techniques, with the success of the Japanese sumi ink wash painting of Logan himself encouraging designers to create tie-in character one-sheets for the rest of the cast. Likewise, old-fashioned artistic invention could be seen in the critically-acclaimed map poster for You’re Next, which couldn’t be further from the super-integrated motion posters of Skyfall if it tried.

In the face of ever-changing technology and studios’ lust for gimmicks, the humble poster still has its place: online, by the bus, on the bus, in your newspaper, on your tablet, talking to you at a train station. In fact, the poster is more important than ever.

“It is often the first piece of information an audience will see,” says Hanson. “At this point they will decide to engage further communication. A poster establishes the movie as a brand. It is packaging that can quickly and effectively sum up the unique selling point of a story in an attention-grabbing piece of graphic design.”

After all, this is a medium that gave us James McAvoy as a policeman riding a giant bucking pig, and that – whatever it evolves into – is something we should cherish.