THere’s one rule behind every movie poster you’ve ever seen. And it’s not: “Superheroes must stare insistently into the distance.” This is it: The billing template, cast and crew list at the bottom, must be a typeface of at least 15% of the movie title’s character size. In 2005, when he was leading the ad campaign for the Jim Carrey comedy Fun With Dick and Jane, William Lauper didn’t like it.
The guideline, which is in place to make sure the bills are actually legible, upset Loper because it meant that if he wanted to make the movie title bigger and more eye-catching, he had to make the billing block bigger as well. But then Sony Pictures’ executive vice president of advertising discovered a vulnerability. It was the average height of each letter in the title that mattered. So he made just one word in Carrey’s comical mega-and-bright-red title: FUN. “We cheated,” he says.
but why? Well, between 2003 and 2013, Loper launched eight campaigns a year, each of which should be as engaging as possible. And when it came to ad comedy, there were two big tricks in print: Make the headline big, and make it red. When the trailer for Catherine Tate’s The Nan Movie dropped in February of this year, its title was big and red. Disney’s Cheaper By Dozen Remake, which followed shortly after, has its last word on the thick, red, puffy kind. Furthermore, both stickers – such as Fun With Dick and Jane – have wide white backgrounds.
So who started the big red headlines in the trend of blank backgrounds and why is red tickling our funny bones? No one is in a better position to answer this question than Loper, who also worked on The Nutty Professor, Are We There Yet? and The Klumps, Liar, Liar, Step Brothers, Hitch, and American Pie. Now, you don’t need to tell you what their stickers look like. “The white background, the red typography, really boomed in the mid-’90s and early 2000s,” he says.
As part of his job, Lauper showed off prototype trailers to test audiences. “We did the trailer for the Nutty Professor and he said, ‘Something big is coming’ — and then we slammed those big titles. It was a huge hit on focus groups.” Since producers and even stars have a say in the movie’s trailer, research like this can help executives prove they’re on the right track. But not a single study says, “Red equals comedy, and uppercase letters equal big money.” Alternatively, there is the humble bus shelter.
Lauber explains, “The producer I was working with was constantly telling me, ‘If I’m driving down the street at 40 miles per hour and it’s raining, I want to see a bus shelter sticker make an impact. I want to see it from eight streets away. There’s a reason why it’s the classic color of stop signs and lipstick. In the past, when billboards and ads for bus shelters were printed on paper, advertisers had to get the campaign right the first time around. But now you can change the digital billboard every day, says Lauper. It really helped me.”
Poster designer Rebecca Peet explains that 30 years ago, technology was more limited. “It used to be easy to make big red letters, while 3D metal letters only became easy 15 years ago or so.” She says the latter became the default in theatrical posters for plays such as Anything Goes and Amélie. Although Pete has used large red letters herself on a few theater posters: Groan Ups and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. “These are shows that are easily accessible and appeal to families,” she says. “The big red letters help indicate that. We want to reassure fans that this is going to be a fun evening – there is no alternative or alternative.”
But every campaign wants to be eye-catching and attractive. Why did comedies monopolize the big and red films – and not, say, action movies or thrillers? Robyn Larkin is the creative director of movie label agency Bobo, who has worked on Winter’s Bone and Netflix’s Paranormal. He describes it as a “chicken-and-egg kind of” where marketers have become obsessed with “combs” (comparisons) and ask designers to emulate other successful campaigns. He describes the situation as “a kind of fake legend, where they believe that if the promotional look for movie A works well, it will also work for movie B.” He cites 1999’s American Pie and 2000’s “Meet the Parents” as successes that inspired copycat marketing. “However, American Pie succeeded because it was a great new genre of film.” Perhaps its success had little to do with typefaces.
Loper believes that large backgrounds and blank backgrounds began in the late 1980s. So darling, daddy to kids shrunk everything back in 1989? Probably not: despite the blue sky background, the 80s plane! It was an example earlier. What about the 1960s Carry On posters, which liberally used big red lettering along with saucy cartoons?
In fact, you can trace this trend back to 1937 and the Marx Brothers’ “Day at the Races,” even back to Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid from 1921. While turn-of-the-millennium comedy undoubtedly caused a resurgence, the stunt is as old as cinema itself. – It seems unlikely to disappear.
Larkin says, “Someday, there’s going to be a big comedic success that uses a different style because the team took a chance and it worked. That approach could then become the next metaphor as cross-terrestrial marketing copies the style, looking to ride the success of the movie.” The opposite may happen. With a steady 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, it might put the big, red Nan Movie to bed.