Posterphilia: How To Read A Movie Poster

Commercial and artistic compulsions, target audience, and the many factors that shape the way movie posters look
Posterphilia: How To Read A Movie Poster

In this series, Jahan Singh Bakshi talks about the relatively under-appreciated art of poster design and how it shapes our perception of a movie. 

In my previous column, we touched on some of the most basic and common elements of modern commercial film poster art and how they play a part in achieving the overall impact of a poster. Moving on, let's look at some more concepts and factors that shape the way movie posters look.


Movie posters, as I mentioned in my previous column – fall somewhere between the realms of art and design. Now while 'art' and 'design' aren't exactly watertight categories, for the purpose of understanding, let's look at the basic differences between them. Broadly speaking: Art is driven by expression and emotion. Design is driven by function. Art can exist for art's sake. Design cannot. It has a specific job to do – and bills to pay.

Polish movie posters, for instance – look more like the work of artists as opposed to designers. Abstract, surreal, experimental and sometimes even wildly detached from the films they supposedly represent – they are liberated from the pressure to actively sell or market a movie and reject most conventions of popular film poster design. To quote from this insightful piece on the art of Polish film posters'It is interesting to note the differences between artworks produced under a tightly regulated, communist regime and those created for a commercial Hollywood system'. 

But in the larger context of standard movie promotion, posters such as these remain striking oddities and artifacts belonging to specific socio-political and cultural contexts. In modern, capitalist societies, it's natural that movie posters have become increasingly designed, with a purpose to sell. And sadly, in this era of mass-production – very often, they're poorly designed, robbing them of any distinctive aesthetic value whatsoever.

An ideal poster then – so as to speak – is one that gets bums on seats, but can also adorn the walls of your drawing room. And it is entirely possible to achieve this. Commercial movie posters cannot be abstract and vague, sure – but they don't have to be an eyesore, either.


Now it's well established that while movie posters are a rich and diverse art form, they are generally commercial art. Their primary objective is to draw in an audience, and hence, they must be assessed and judged depending on the film they're representing and the audience they're reaching out to.

I'm mentioning this because we see many great (and frankly, a lot of not-so-great) fan-made posters for movies online – and often the reaction from people is: 'Hey, that's so much cooler than the official poster!'

However, these fan-made and 'minimal' posters are free from the constraints of having to sell a film- not to mention, the requirement of fulfilling formal mandates and contractual obligations. Their appeal also often lies in the fact that their audience is already familiar with the film. The same goes for the (often illustrated) special edition posters that mostly cater to fans and specialty audiences.

The point of a film's key art is not to preach to the choir, it's to convert people into a potential audience – and thus, a cool poster doesn't necessarily make for effective key art.

Films targeted at mainstream or large audiences will rarely put out a poster that doesn't feature the actors' faces. At the most, we might see a teaser poster that only uses a conceptual image, but it's almost always followed up with a poster with faces on it. (Horror movies are frequently a notable exception to this.)

Independent and art-house films can afford to take more 'risks' and go with more 'unconventional' approaches when it comes to poster design. In particular, posters exclusively designed for film festivals can take a far more radical path as opposed to a theatrical poster, as you can see in the case of Newton – the main poster uses photographic imagery while the festival poster has a more whimsical take on the film with its Gond Art inspired illustration. (Full Disclosure: I commissioned and worked closely on the creative/art direction of both these posters.)

Conversely, often producers or distributors will attempt to make a film look more 'mainstream' than it really is, which can lead to hilariously disastrous results.

Here, we see how David Lowery's The Old Man and The Gun (a genteel, retro-flavored drama featuring Robert Redford in his final acting performance) is magically transformed into a racy multi-starrer action movie with thrilling car chases and explosions (!!!).


Unlike the vintage era, when hand-painted posters were the norm – in the digital age, posters mostly are composed out of photographs. Illustrated posters are rare, and even those are usually created on a digital canvas.

Generally speaking, for commercial films, illustrated posters are always seen as a more 'risky' route. As modern audiences, we are way too accustomed to photographs and their instant, direct connect.

Thus, nowadays an illustrated approach is usually taken only to achieve a certain stylistic or tonal effect.

The posters of Rowdy Rathore are a good example of illustrated posters used smartly for a Bollywood potboiler, with its pulpy retro artwork and matching punchy taglines.

Court is a good example of an art-house film where using stills would probably not do justice to the film's dark humour, and make it appear like a staid social drama. A drolly funny illustration effectively pitches the film as a black comedy, sharply highlighting its satirical elements to its niche audience.


Just like films, posters can be driven by concept, character, or even pure mood and visual spectacle. But while an idea can sound very clever in one's head, it remains half-baked without great execution. The aesthetic tonality and context through which an idea is executed ought to be given as much importance as the idea itself.

The poster for Moonlight is a fantastic example of a fairly generic visual concept elevated by context and execution. Multiple mugshots spliced and merged into one whole isn't exactly the most groundbreaking idea – but when used in the context of the story of a young man's coming of age through three stages of his life, it works brilliantly. The gorgeous photography, treated with the right colour tone creates a rich sense of mood and atmosphere. And to top it, there's that tagline that says it all – This is the story of a lifetime.

The poster for Her plays purely on mood. It's literally nothing but Joaquin Phoenix's mug placed against a coloured backdrop. But there's something about his forlorn expression and piercing blue eyes set against red (which happens to be the dominant colour throughout the film) that creates a hauntingly emotional effect. For a film like this, one could easily go for something 'smart' – instead, they chose simplicity… and it works. Sometimes all you need is a great portrait shot. And Spike Jonze.

The poster for Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh tries to present a visual concept – a diary that holds secrets and forms a link between the film's two lead characters. But the execution is terribly clunky and the effect unintentionally comic. The diary awkwardly cut into the shape of the actors' profiles makes them look a bit like Ping-Pong paddles. The 'grungy' (read: ugly) 'Now In Cinemas' type doesn't help. (And this is still decent compared to this teaser poster – a complete Photoshop Disaster that should never have been released.)

As for these teaser posters for Raman Raghav 2.0, I can't really say what's going on here conceptually – but they do give an accurate picture of how much my eyes bled when I first saw them. There's no good explanation for why or how anyone allowed this to be inflicted upon us.

As creators producing content for a marketplace, we're often sold the idea that art and commerce must remain mutually exclusive – and it must be reinforced repeatedly that this is a myth and merely the refuge of those who choose shoddiness and mediocrity over excellence.

The lack of finesse in execution is something that has repeatedly frustrated me about posters in Bollywood – whether it's the utter disregard of basics such as proportions and perspective, too much airbrushing, Photoshop work that's tacky and painfully obvious, or crude typography. The point of writing this column isn't to rant or to throw barbs. It's not to criticize, but to critique and make people – both creators and audiences – pay attention.

The general quality of posters in our country reveals an ignorance and apathy towards this art form. And few things kill art like apathy – which is perhaps best explains why we've reached a point where business is thriving but the art of movie posters is close to being dead. It's time we cared more.

Related Stories

No stories found.