Why Are Movie Posters All the Same?

You may or may not have heard people time and time again complain about the “floating heads” problem in movie posters nowadays. Think of pretty much any Marvel movie, and that’s what they’re referencing. Personally, I have to say I somewhat agree. Now, “floating heads” emphasizing the actors in a film aren’t anything new; take a look at some old Hollywood films like Casablanca or Citizen Kane for example. You could call those floating heads, I suppose.

However, what people are usually referring to in this case is a formulaic composition of the floating heads. Marvel, Star Wars, even Dune have fallen into this template of posters. Nearly every actor in the film is squeezed into the poster, all with the same neutral, uninteresting expression. They’re all in the center facing outwards with the protagonist being the biggest, then with the title card beneath. These kinds of posters are usually found in movies based on already existing franchises or stories, so Hollywood only needs to rely on starpower and a pre-made fanbase to spend their money on a movie ticket. It really bums me out to think about.

Let’s contrast the use of floating heads with an older movie versus the template we see now.

In the poster for The Wizard of Oz, the cast is as floating head-ified as you could get. However, take a look at the expressions they have. Each one so easily tells you about the character, so their faces serve a purpose.

Dorothy’s got a naïve, happy smile to demonstrate her child-like curiosity. The Wizard is eccentric and enthusiastic. The Tin-Man has a very frozen, robotic look to him. The Cowardly Lion has a disgruntled look to him. The Scarecrow is very goofy and happy. They each are very different in their expressions. As for the rest of the poster, there’s lots of colors and whimsical shapes bordering the poster, as well as some illustrations which harken back to the book and demonstrate the lightheartedness of the film. This is portrayed in the type too, which is off-kilter and rainbow. Everything about this poster screams a whimsical, adventurous film.

Now, look at the poster for the 2022 Dune film.

We have a floating head for each of the characters, a sand background, and Paul Atriedes at the bottom. The only clue it gives us for the plot of the film is that it takes place somewhere with sand, and that it has Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, etc. All of their facial expressions are neutral, so we can’t really figure out much about their characters, compared to the Wizard of Oz, which has such a wide variety of expressions. As with a lot of these modern floating head posters, the characters on the Dune poster are all facing away from each other. There is no interaction between the characters to surmise any relationships. They’re just there to show you which actor you need to come see on the big screen. And nobody bats an eye, because the studios know there’s already a built-in fanbase for the source material, and outside of that, anyone who likes any of the cast on the poster will also be drawn in by them alone. The art of a movie poster is barely breathing when it comes to this genre of posters.

Now, this is just a very, very brief look into the deteriorating state of Hollywood when it comes to the industry valuing communication in art, in both marketing as well as the films themselves. And of course there are several posters that are used over the course of advertising a movie. It just seems to be the most boring or formulaic ones that become the central poster. So many existing franchises, remakes, sequels, just to draw people in to see the next installment of characters they already know. Of course that doesn’t mean these movies are inherently bad (I go see them, too, and enjoy a good amount of them!), but it definitely contributes to the saturation of an industry who values numbers over the art of the industry they work in. There’s a missing passion to a lot of the substance behind the big blockbusters now. I want it back. I’m hoping this next generation of filmmakers brings that back. There are certainly a trove of fantastic movies still coming out today as well! It’s just the bigger studios that fall into the trap of reliving what’s already been done before for the sake of it alone.

*This post was written by a human named Alex.