The Art of the Sell — John Waters “No Smoking” PSA

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Back in the nineteen-eighties, movie theaters had to work a little harder to remind patrons that they weren’t allowed to smoke. None accomplished it with more panache than those lucky art house theaters blessed with a short reel of director John Waters addressing the crowd directly. Waters explains the policy clearly, but, contrarian to the core, he also expresses his disapproval at the prohibition, marveling that anyone could go the length of a movie — especially the high-falutin’ fare about to offered at the art house — without indulging in a smoke. All the while, Waters puffs away, all the better to taunt jonesing moviegoers.

I don’t smoke. I’ve never smoked. But even I have to concede the power of the sadistic seduction offered by Waters. He almost has me reaching instinctively for some phantom pack in my pocket.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

The Art of the Sell — Stranger Things and New Coke

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

As someone who experience formative years during the nineteen-eighties, culturally guided by Steven Spielberg’s films and Stephen King’s fiction, I am fully prepared to acknowledge my enduring affection for the Netflix series Stranger Things is tightly bound to the expert evocation of a number of my experiences from the era in which it is set. I can point to a myriad of skilled storytelling tactics employed by the brothers Duffer and their collaborators, but I must concede that the well-deployed trappings of the age leave me cheerfully spellbound. And I’m especially smitten when precisely the right era signifier is front and center in promotional efforts, which leads me straight to the latest mini-campaign in the long lead-up to the third season.

Among the odd cultural touchstones set to factor into the upcoming season of Stranger Things, a misbegotten brand relaunch evidently looms large enough to inspire a tie-in effort. In the middle of the eighties, Coca-Cola responded to a marketplace so newly competitive that the term “cola wars” was coined by showily revamping the recipe of its flagship product. New Coke debuted in 1985, prompting the publisher of Beverage Digest to tell CBS News, “This has got to be the boldest  consumer products move of any kind, or any stripe since Eve started to hand out apples.”

The prominent inclusion of one of the most famous U.S. brands in a buzzy streaming series didn’t involve paid product placement, but synergy is its own enticement. Coca-Cola collaborated with the creators of Stranger Things to brew up a special teaser, combining a treacly, very-eighties jingle with relevant clips culled from the upcoming season of Stranger Things. And it is a work of multi-faceted marketing perfection.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

 

The Art of the Sell — “Marty” trailer

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

I have a strong affection for the unique era of movie trailers represented by this promotional assemblage for the drama Marty, which would go on to become one of the rare smaller scale films to claim the Academy Award for Best Picture. As with other trailers from around this time — the mid-nineteen-fifties — it includes a remarkable number of the film’s key scenes, including the closing shot (though it’s highly decontextualized here). What I really stirs my affection is the structure, which counts of Burt Lancaster, a producer of the film, addressing the audience directly in full beaming movie star mode explaining why Marty is such a special picture. He’s chummy and gregarious, his oak tree certainty providing full reassurance that Marty is a film that absolutely must be seen. It’s unimaginable that this sort of approach would be palatable today (imagine how insufferable it would have been had the 12 Years a Slave trailer hinged on producer Brad Pitt giving it his celebrity imprimatur), but I’m a little wistful that it worked once upon a time.

The Art of the Sell — “The Dark Knight” movie poster

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

dark knight

What a strange, innocent time it was, when movie theater operators first unrolled the teaser posters for the 2008 release The Dark Knight returns and affixed them to their walls. Like the second installment of director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films, Iron Man, the opening salvo from upstart Marvel Studios, was a coming attraction, its post-credits bending of all the rules entirely unknown to the general populace. Although superhero films had achieved significant box office success, status as the dominant commercial cinematic genre of the day was still a few page turns away.

And the arch enemy of the caped crusader, a grinning villain called the Joker, had only the barest hint of true danger about him. He was skewing darker in the comic books, to be sure, the natural evolution from the transformative portraits introduced separately by writers Frank Miller and Alan Moore two decades earlier. But in countenance and carriage, he was still deeply connected to his legacy as the clown prince of crime. On the big screen, he had been portrayed by Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson, with roughly comparable commitments to instilling gravity into their portrayals. For most audiences, there was only the faintest notion of the Joker as anything other than a campy conniver.

The teaser poster for Nolan’s The Dark Knight which featured a full-length introductory image of Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker, obscured yet unmistakable, was wholesale change delivered via one-sheet. It haunted everything that followed and totally defined the character moving forward. More than that, the complexities of Nolan’s film and Ledger’s acting were ultimately less impactful for filmmakers who followed in making most DC comics film adaptations than the starkly gruesome image of dark, thick blood smeared into a smile. When Jared Leto was foolhardy enough to try and follow in Ledger’s shuffling footsteps, he essentially played the poster.

Like Watchmen, the comic book series, The Dark Knight had a seismic effect on DC superhero storytelling that followed, and the symmetry extends to an astonishing inability of succeeding creators to discern what made the inspiring work so effective. It was only the most superficial elements that were graspable, evidently. The impact was detrimental, but the original still holds power. Few posters from recent years are locked into my memory like that one.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

The Art of the Sell — “The Limey” movie poster

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

the-limey-1999

Determining the ownership of the vision behind movie advertising is tricky. There are some filmmakers who have clearly tried to take control of promotional materials attached to their art, but few get the full authority Warner Bros. reportedly gave to Stanley Kubrick. So I have no certainty about how firmly Steven Soderbergh could press for a movie poster commensurate with the coolness level of the film he created. It does seem like his works are blessed with strong posters at a rate that’s better than average.

Lending credence to the theory than Soderbergh has a strong say, there’s also a consistency to the use of bygone design trends, as in the way Soderbergh’s 1999 feature, The Limey, is promoted using imagery that recalls the classic Blue Note Records house style. It doesn’t offer much firm information about the film, and yet there’s the unmistakable promise of a bracing attitude and a strident authority. To reuse a term, it’s going to be cool.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

The Art of the Sell — Nichols and May for GE Refrigerators

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

It was hardly the dawn of broadcast television in 1958, but the medium was still finding its legs in so many ways. In particular, the commercials that provided necessary financial support to entertainment programming (TV was free and delivered over the airwaves, kids) could be delightfully offbeat in a far more understated way that now, when it’s practically a requirement to jar the viewer out of their fast-forwarding. Fiercely creative advertisements still exist, of course, but there’s something distinctly charming about the early, freewheeling days, when an ad agency might simply turn over a major campaign to bright, burgeoning comic voices and simply ask them to do their thing.

Young & Rubicam forged a quick partnership with Mike Nichols and Elaine May. In 1958, the duo of Nichols and May hadn’t yet embarked on their famed Broadway run. Their first comedy album, Improvisations to Music, arrived at the end of the year. Legends later, they were just kids, murmuring out skillfully acted, character-driven comedy sketches. Giving them a couple minutes of television time to peddle General Electric refrigerators, especially in a precisely performed spoof that’s part classic Hollywood melodrama and part Noel Coward comedy of manners may not be the height of audaciousness but it’s daring enough to look exceedingly special all these years later.

The ad is grand and surprising, And it does its basic job admirably. I now sorta want a major appliance with shelves that swing out for easy access.

The Art of the Sell — Dark Tower commercial

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

The U.S. movie industry has a long history of cruelly casting off figures who were once titans, but there is likely no more cruelly humiliating outcome than that delivered to Orson Welles. By the early nineteen-eighties, Welles’s debut feature, Citizen Kane, was already cemented in conventional wisdom as the greatest movie ever made. Even dissenters had to concede it was one of the most important and influential, creating a pliability and dynamism in narrative that sent shimmers across everything that followed. And despite impediments thrown up by skeptical entertainment executives, Welles signed his name to at least another dozen boldly impressive stage, film, and broadcast projects.

Although Welles clearly still wanted to work, he wasn’t able to complete a feature-length project in his lifetime after 1973’s tricky documentary F is for Fake. Instead, he was relegated to odd cameos, voiceovers, and other mildly demeaning cash grabs. One of his last credits on the big screen entailed voicing Unicron in the 1986 Transformers movie. And Welles did a lot of commercials. It was one thing when he shilled for wine, which at least had an air of sophistication about it. (And it seems the sponsor let him sample the wares during shoots.) It was quite another when he had to feign enthusiasm for a board game that tried to combine the bare trappings of Dungeons and Dragons with rudimentary electronic technology.

Dark Tower was simultaneously a state of the art product and a blatant stab at the nascent market of eager geeks with disposable income (or parents willing to make relatively significant investments in the name of placation). Despite his commercial closing declaration, delivered with pleasant surprise, of “I was victorious,” it’s inconceivable that the master filmmaker ever engaged in the game’s desperate quest for keys or virtual battles with brigands. But pretending he did helped keep his humidor stocked, no doubt.

And, I must admit, his endorsement worked on me. I didn’t know anything about Welles’s storied cinematic legacy at the time. My frame of reference for the man was almost entirely limited to other commercials and his forays to various daytime talk shows, kibbitzing with Merv Griffin and his ilk about Hollywood in the old days. But Welles carried gravitas on him, even in the waning, aching era of his career. I may have found my way to the game through other means, but the commercial provided assurance that this contraption of sword and sorcery was worthy of my time and, more importantly, the familial capital I would expend agitating for it over other potential playthings. In a time when there was a new fleet of Star Wars figures angling for attention every Christmas, this was no small feat.