Alternative movie posters fill creative void left by film studios

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Matt Chojnacki couldn't remember the last time he liked a movie poster.

He couldn't recall the last time he went to a movie theater, looked at the posters and, compelled by the cleverness of the images, decided which movie to see. He used to do this all the time. A Cleveland-based vice president of finance for the Hugo Boss clothing company, he collected movie posters. But sometime during the mid-1990s, "I got off that train because movie posters stopped being interesting. Trailers became more important and posters stopped communicating the spirit of the movies and started selling only faces and franchises. And it's even worse now: a love story gets (an image of) two people, a horror film gets half a face, an action movie gets an actor running at an angle. Newer posters, it's the same thing, over and over."

Literal-minded, lacking mystery, invention.

But remember the iconic poster for "Jaws," its toothy beast rising from the depths? Saul Bass' minimalist swirls for "Vertigo"? Or, as recently as 1994, the dime-store-novel aesthetics of the "Pulp Fiction" poster?

That marketing is forever linked to those movies.

Chojnacki assumed such potential was dead. Until 2011, during a visit to Chicago. Browsing the concert-poster marketplace at the Pitchfork Musical Festival, he noticed a few rock-poster designers were making movie posters — creative, original takes promoting repertory screenings or simply celebrating favorite films.

What he had stumbled on was a promising, relatively unknown byproduct of the decline of the movie poster: film-loving graphic designers, quietly building a robust, increasingly popular alternative movie-poster scene.

He set to work gathering examples: "Alternative Movie Posters," his new coffee-table book, is the result, the first broad survey of what has become a fledgling pop-art niche. The artists, scattered worldwide, are as varied as the poster styles: In his free time, Ryan Black, a young Pingree Grove graphic designer, creates new posters for movies from the '70s and '80s and sells them on his website, He uses silhouettes, matching bright '50s advertising styles with lurid '80s VHS-box art aesthetics (later adding artificial creases to mimic the look of an old, folded poster). "I want my work to look like it's been sitting in someone's collection," he said. "I really love playing a counterpoint to the blandness of what's officially released now."

Some alt-movie poster artists even come from the ranks of established studio designers, bored with a timid Hollywood climate where the imagery on a movie poster can be dictated by the contractual demands of the film's star. Drew Struzan, whose lush "Star Wars" and Indiana Jones posters were once as ubiquitous as those films, said: "The creativity kind of ended when computers came into (design) 15 years ago. Studio executives realized they had Photoshop, so they didn't have to listen to artists telling them what they wanted. They could re-cast the poster of the last hit."

But Struzan has a home at Mondo, the Austin, Texas-based alt-movie-poster division of the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain. Mondo and Gallery 1988 in Los Angeles (both were founded in 2004) specialize in movie-themed art and have been the driving forces of the underground movie poster movement, commissioning and selling alternative posters of new, classic and obscure films. Mondo, in particular, is so influential that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began adding its posters to the Academy archive in 2011. When limited-edition Mondo prints goes on sale, often via Twitter, most sell out in seconds. Priced around $40, the posters can be found minutes later selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay.

Now for the twist: Hollywood likes this.

Not every fan-created poster is made with movie-studio approval. But every work that Mondo commissions is licensed through a studio; in fact, studios often request new posters. (But Mondo doesn't always accept those requests to create a new poster, and largely, a designer retains final cut on the look of their poster.)

Said Justin Ishmael, Mondo's creative director: "The first few posters we did, for small screenings (the Alamo) hosted, weren't approved. But we now have a great relationship with the studios. We help them with promotion, they help us get a poster and a screening together. And we never sell this stuff wholesale — for the most part, (studios) have carved out a special contract for our work, a collectible-poster kind of clause.

"The funny thing," he added, "is how much of this is driven by filmmakers. Studios don't give them a much input in marketing (their) films. They don't have as much say as we might think — and so they turn to us."

Some of the directors that Mondo has worked with include Guillermo del Toro, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and "Shawn of the Dead" filmmaker Edgar Wright, who said, last summer in Chicago: "Marketing gets so painful. It's all about money, maximizing famous faces — but thank God for Mondo."

"Where it gets tricky is when you don't get approval to show the likeness of a star," said Jay Ryan, an Evanston graphic designer and poster maker who has worked for Mondo, recently creating posters for "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Star Wars." He's making an upcoming poster of "Caddyshack" but does not have permission to show Bill Murray's face. "But that's good, because it forces you to come up with new angles."

Consider Matt Owen, until recently an obscure art director for a Little Rock, Ark., advertising agency. "I was bored as hell at work," he said, "and one day, for fun I tried to see if I convey a movie using very little detail."

"Dawn of the Dead" became a shopping mall schematic with clusters of zombies noted in the map key. "Big" became a set of footprints on a keyboard. His designs circulated online, and within a year Paramount Pictures asked him to design a poster for "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol." He gave them a clever, Tom Cruise-less image: The "Mission: Impossible" franchise's iconic lit fuse, sizzling at the bottom of a silhouette of the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, the location of the film's big action scene. Owen's poster was handed out at IMAX premieres.

Among his regular clients now is filmmaker Jason Reitman, who hosts a popular monthly screenplay-reading series in Los Angeles. Owen designs posters for each event; he also has made alternate posters for Reitman's "Young Adult" and upcoming drama with Kate Winslet, "Labor Day."

But so far Owen has not designed an official-official movie poster, the kind thrown on billboards and bus-stop shelters: "It's funny," he said. "I hear, 'Dude, we love this. This is amazing, creative. I am hanging this on my office wall!' But not a theater wall. Because, well, it's pretty obvious: It would need an actor's face."

Twitter @borrelli

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