Not Just Another Half-Dozen Pretty, Floating Faces
SINCE the dawn of film marketing, studios have relied on posters featuring "floating heads": as many movie star faces as can be crammed onto a single page. In 1927, for instance, state-of-the-art ads for "The Jazz Singer" featured two disembodied Al Jolson heads - one in blackface, one without makeup.
Since then floating heads have become an industry cliché: the formula that once guaranteed success is now so ubiquitous that posters in that vein are nearly invisible. So what does it take to get noticed some 80 years later, especially when you're selling yet another horror film, without the luxury of big stars?
Surprisingly, the answer may be fine art.
Tim Palen, the executive vice president of worldwide marketing for Lionsgate - the company responsible for the gory "Saw" movies - was recently looking for a fresh campaign to introduce "Hostel," a slasher film that is to open on Jan. 6. Directed by Eli Roth, it is about a group of gullible and horny American males who find themselves in a Slovakian hostel, where promises of easy sex turn to gruesome snuff.
Mr. Palen said he figured that a poster with mangled bodies wouldn't do the trick.
So he dropped by the airy, tastefully decorated Chelsea studio of the Australian photographer Mark Kessell. A soft-spoken former physician who practiced medicine in Sydney for what he calls "several unsatisfying years," Mr. Kessell, 49, now takes pictures of things he's fully aware the larger public may not appreciate. One collection of daguerreotypes, "Perfect Specimens," shows the human body in its physical extremes; there are several shots of fetuses and old people near death.
But it was Mr. Kessell's "Florilegium" (or "collection of floral images") daguerrotypes that caught Mr. Palen's eye: each image is close-up of a surgical instrument, so poetically rendered that it seems almost organic. Some of the macabre implements resemble exotic flowers. One, from a distance, could be mistaken for the horns of a gazelle. "We were sort of blocked, and all the pieces fell into place once I saw that image," Mr. Palen explained. A deal was made to use that daguerreotype, which actually shows a surgical clamp. It now appears in theaters and on widespread promotions. (Billboards for "Hostel" rely on a more conventional image of a masked tormentor with a chain saw, which, a Lionsgate spokeswoman explained, translated more easily to the horizontal format.)
Mr. Kessell may seem an unlikely choice to sell unapologetic horror to a large youth audience; he has no interest whatever in popular culture. Over tea in his loft, the elegantly dressed Mr. Kessell confessed to not having seen "Hostel" or, indeed, to remembering the last film he had seen.
"It may have been 'Dogville,' " he finally allowed. With a grin, he said that in selling his work to Lionsgate, "I am prostituting myself." But he added: "The money has to come from somewhere." And, he said, that money would be poured right back into an art project. In the process, his work is placed before an audience of millions.
"I have a lot of trouble as an artist getting people to either look at my work or know my name," said Mr. Kessell, who generally finds that his pictures repel as much as they fascinate, much like the horror genre. "I'm interested in what makes us human," he said, "what makes our sex drive and the drive to violence the way they are. And what happens at the other end when we die."
Bill Sienkiewicz, an illustrator, writer and director who has worked on movie posters for more than 20 years, said the tide was turning toward more provocative designs. "If there are any floating heads, it will have to be a decapitation," he said by telephone from his studio in Stamford, Conn., where he was working on a poster for the horror movie "Evil Aliens."
Mr. Sienkiewicz, whose work has included posters for Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" and "The Green Mile" starring Tom Hanks, pointed out that some classic posters, like the one for Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," found a more artful way to use actors' faces.
"It had headshots," Mr. Sienkiewicz said of the "Apocalypse" poster. "But it also had the ambience and the heat of the jungle, and the levels of desperation. There was lots of information in the poster that set the tone. You don't see that today."
Universal Pictures' president for marketing, Adam Fogelson, agrees that a saturated marketplace has forced everyone to think differently about poster ad campaigns.
"I would say that there is a mistake in equating artistic with distinct," he said, citing Lionsgate's creative use of two strategically hacked-off fingers to sell its "Saw" sequel as a good example of an approach that managed to do both. "Making something different or artistic for its own sake is not the answer I advocate. I am not in the business of creating art, I am in the business of creating advertising."
Mr. Fogelson pointed to his studio's use of Steve Carell's incredulous face for the "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" campaign as an example of a floating head that worked because of the actor's connection to the audience.
Using fine-art images to promote movies isn't entirely new: the practice has been common in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland. Charles Evans Jr., a film producer whose credits include "The Aviator," recently displayed his personal collection of Polish film posters at the Hollywood Entertainment Museum, including a prized one for Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) in which an infant hand is clearly seen to be demonic - a plot spoiler, which would never allowed in this country.
In Communist Poland, Mr. Evans noted, poster art wasn't so much about commerce as about expression. "An artist could turn in whatever he wanted," he said. "They were allowed freedoms the other Eastern bloc countries were not."
By contrast, the current trend in the United States is largely about getting people in seats. But once trained to expect a more compelling vision on their billboards and buses, audiences aren't likely to settle for less imaginative, traditional advertising.
"They'd turn on you like a pack of wolves," said Mr. Palen, of Lionsgate. "These campaigns are arduous, and finding people like Mark Kessell is harder than doing floating heads. But it's absolutely necessary."