We celebrate the most inspiring and memorable movie posters of all time. Is your favourite on the list?
What makes a movie poster iconic? The presence of a major Hollywood star? Not necessarily. The replication of a classic scene? Definitely not.
An iconic movie poster is one that has been burned onto the public consciousness, something that has become so recognisable that you feel that you’ve always known it. It should spring to mind as soon as you hear the film’s name, be easily described and trigger excitement and intrigue, no matter how many times you see it. The unforgettable movie posters featured here fulfil all these demands, and more.
Here we celebrate the most inspiring examples of the cinematic one-sheet, and ask some leading designers for their own take on why they work so well...
01. Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Raiders trilogy harked back to a time when men were real men, women were real women, and swarthy racial stereotypes were real swarthy racial stereotypes. This comic-book style poster design by Richard Amsel is a young boy's dream - full of swashbuckling adventure, foreign devils and a splash of romance. Amsel, who died in 1985, also created iconic poster art for 1980s blockbusters Flash Gordon and The Dark Crystal. "If I paint or draw something that takes people into the realm of fantasy, then I feel that I've accomplished something," he once told Star Notes magazine. He certainly did in this case.
While still at college, John Alvin freelanced for Hollywood art director Anthony Goldschmidt. Little did he know that his little sideline would pave the way for a career that spanned 35 years and 135 movies. He was working as an illustrator at an animation studio when Goldschmidt recommended him to paint the poster for Mel Brook’s spoof Western Blazing Saddles. Alvin would go on to create posters for films such as Blade Runner, Beauty and the Beast, Gremlins and this stunning creation for E.T. Spielberg himself is said to have suggested Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. For Alvin, who died in 2008, the design also had a personal touch: the hand of the child in the poster belongs to his daughter, Farah.
03. Jurassic Park
What rare genius was this? Create a tale about a dinosaur theme park, featuring in-story merchandising for that fictional park, which then doubles up as the real-life branding for the same movie. This iconic poster took the conceit and ran with it, setting youngsters' hearts a-racing at the prospect of seeing T-Rexes and Pterodactyls brought back to life through the then-groundbreaking medium of CGI.
04. The Thing
It is 1982 and artist Drew Struzan's phone rings. The caller is from Universal Studios. They are remaking The Thing and need poster art: is he interested? There is one snag. They need it tomorrow morning. That wasn’t even the only snag. Not only did they require it the following day, the publicity department had no photos to use as reference. They didn’t even have any concept art. -Snow Outfit-:"It was a very odd experience," Struzan told Movies.com. "I got an immediate concept, which is not unusual for me. I dressed up in a winter snow outfit and my wife took a Polaroid of me." Struzan used the snap as the basis of a sketch, which was faxed off to the studio. They approved the idea and after taking some more shots, this time with a 35mm camera, Struzan went to work, painting through the night. "At 9am a guy shows up at my doorstep and says, 'Is the painting ready?'. I had about an hour to go, so I finished painting it and he took it away."
05. Back to the Future
Back to the Future was, and remains, the people's sci-fi. Aimed at ordinary folks rather than sci-fi geeks, the suburban time-travel trilogy has maintained its popularity down the generations and still doesn't look dated (although we may be disappointed by the lack of available hoverboards once 2015 swings around...). This seminal design for the first film, by the king of iconic movie posters Drew Struzan, was cleverly recycled for the next two, with the Doc standing behind Marty for II, and then joined by his love interest, Clara, for III.
06. American Beauty
It's easy to obsess about the 1980s being the golden age of mainstream cinema, and forget about all those incredible flicks the '90s multiplexes had to offer. American Beauty for one, which took the clichés of safe, suburban life and turned them on their head with a biting, yet strangely life-affirming tale of lost souls seeking a way out of misery. Imagery-wise, the movie revolves around an unforgettable scene of a naked schoolgirl, bathed in roses, playing centre stage in a middle aged man's fantasy. That scene is slyly hinted at in this evocative poster created by Pulse Advertising. The typography is, quite rightly, pared back, giving space to the image and the seductive tagline 'Look closer' - a subtle signifier of the seedy surrealism to come.
One of the most exciting and prolific design studios of recent years, All City Media was responsible for the original poster for Duncan Jones' atmospheric SF debut Moon. According to the London agency's official notes on the poster: "The main themes from the film are loneliness, isolation, madness and rebirth. We created an image that explored these themes and stylistically took influences from sixties and seventies sci-fi." The one-sheet is a poster laced with lunar clues, from the empty black void to the swirling, vertigo-esque circles forming the moon itself, with the diminutive, slightly cowed form of Sam Rockwell at its centre. Then there's the actor's name, typed solitary and understated in the top right-hand corner. Look closely and you'll see it's replicating, each new copy fading away…
When briefed to create the poster campaign for Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, designers Mark Blamire and Rob O’Connor were given a still from the Beatles biopic Backbeat to use as inspiration. They hated it almost as much as PolyGram's idea for the poster – a group shot of the film’s characters huddled together. Try as they might, they couldn’t get it to work. Luckily, PolyGram had already approved the use of individual character posters, a teaser trick that had been used for Reservoir Dogs four years previously. "Irvine Welsh’s novel was written from the multiple points of views and in the voices of each of the main characters, and we felt it was important to stress the individuality of those personalities," Rob O’Connor told Creative Review in 2011. At the time only Robert Carlyle and Ewan MacGregor were well known so it was a risky move, but one that ultimately paid off. "The characters in the story themselves almost seemed more important than the actors playing the roles." -Departures Board-:Armed with a series of strong black and white photographs for the individual posters, the design team was able to persuade PolyGram that combining the shots into a grid was the way to go. "We introduced the device of a train station departures board," recalls Mark Blamire, "and added the caption 'This film is expected to arrive 02:96' to continue the theme of the departure board."
09. Blade Runner
If Star Wars turned every kid into a sci-fi fan, Blade Runner did the same for the thinking man and woman - especially those with a keen eye for design. This epic movie is nowadays mainly memorable for its stunning futuristic cityscapes, and this stunning creation by poster maestro John Alvin certainly reflects the visual feast on offer. The strongly coloured images seem to jump out of the print, and powerfully evoke the film's themes of danger, darkness and destiny.
10. Attack of the 50-Foot Woman
The 1950s saw Hollywood in a bit of a tizz. Television was conquering America. Cinemagoers were turning their back on the silver screen to stay at home and watch the gogglebox. The studios fought back with sprawling, expensive epics for the picture-houses on one hand and sensational B-movies for drive-ins on the other. Every B-Movie needed a suitably lurid posters and the go-to man was Reynold Brown. While his career wasn’t just made up of bug-eyed monsters and invading aliens, one piece of art stands head and shoulders over the rest. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman instantly became a cult favourite, parodied time and time again. Unlike most Brown posters, this wasn’t a woman running away from a monster wearing next to nothing. The woman was the monster, albeit one wearing next to nothing.
Creative agency B.D. Fox Independent had already worked with Tim Burton on the poster for Beetlejuice, a typically gaudy, if surreal, 1980s one-sheet. Their approach to the director's first Batman film had to be decidedly different. Ever since Adam West had pulled on the pointy-eared cowl in the 1960s, Batman had been seen by the general public as a bit of a joke. Yes, hardcore comic fans knew the dark side of the Dark Knight, but your average Joe immediately thought of comedy camera angles and slapstick 'kapows'. The sight of Michael Keaton in his buffed-up batsuit may have prompted even more Joker-like guffaws, so B.D. Fox set things back to basics. The bat-emblem was unmistakable and yet somehow wasn’t the comfy, fabric patch of the past. It was weightier, hard-edged and confident. Criminals needed to beware.
12. The Usual Suspects
There was nothing usual about the poster for the Usual Suspects. Usually the ideas come from the marketing team. Usually it is commissioned while the film is at least still being shot. Usually it isn’t an integral part of the film's origins. None of that applied in this case. Following the success of Bryan Singer’s debut film, actor Kevin Spacey approached the director. The Hollywood star loved what he did and would love to work with him. So Singer set about coming up with an appropriate story. The first idea that popped into his head was the poster. Five men on a police line up. The story flowed from that image. Who were these men? What links them? What happens next? After the film was finally shot, there was no doubt that the poster would follow Singer’s original idea: five criminals, one line-up, no coincidence.
13. Gone with the Wind
As in all things in life, first impressions count, but sometimes you get a second chance to make an impact. While the original poster for Gone with the Wind (a conventional shot of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh enjoying a romantic clinch) was pleasant enough, it was the poster that accompanied the 1966 re-release that went down in cinematic history. The passionate pose was conceived by freelance art director Tom Jung and realised by painter Howard Terpning, better known for his paintings of Native Americans. Before too long, the design was being aped here, there and everywhere, from The Empire Strikes Back to 1980s parody posters starring Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
14. Forbidden Planet
There was no mistaking the star of Fred M. Wilcox's sci-fi spectacular. The seven-foot tall form of Robbie the Robot strides across an alien landscape, a prone girl draped across its malevolent arms. The poster, a product of an anonymous MGM artist, was duplicated around the world, complete with the bold, red flash reminding you that all of this is rather amazing. Whatever the language, the enthusiastic exclamation was there: 'Suprenant!', 'Verrassend!', 'Asombroso!'. The poster spawned a thousand B-movie clones, even though it bears very little resemblance to the actual movie's storyline. Which leads us nicely to our next poster...
15. The Exorcist
When it came to designing the poster for The Exorcist, Bill Gold’s brief made one thing very clear. In no way was he to use an image of the possessed girl from the film. In fact, there were to be no religious connotations at all. At first, Gold’s team shot some original photos. The girl (unpossessed) lying on the bed, the girl smiling, a door opened just a crack to suggest that something nasty is lurking on the other side. However, they were all rejected out of hand, so Gold went to the box of stills provided by the studio. -Priest's Arrival-:The first picture he picked out was the image of the priest arriving for the exorcism with his briefcase in hand and knew he’d struck gold. "When you looked at this still," Gold told sabotagetimes.com in 2011, "you knew somehow that whatever is about to happen inside that house is not going to be good!" Working with colleague Dick Knipe, Gold adapted the image, taking out detail to highlight the lone figure. "After that no-one wanted to see anything else."
16. Anatomy Of a Murder
When it came to poster design, Saul Bass’s philosophy was simple: "symbolize and summarise". Never is this clearer than in Anatomy of a Murder. The dissected corpse, split into seven pieces, lies stark against an orange background. Simple but stunning, it’s little wonder why his posters have been often imitated, but never bettered. In fact, when the poster for Spike Lee’s Clockers came out in 1995, those in the know immediately got the reference. But Bass himself wasn’t so impressed. ''It's flattering that someone would look back and say it's terrific,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “But I'm also puzzled. Do these people have such paucity of imagination (and the chutzpah) that they would do this and think it would remain undetected?" The poster’s designer, Art Simms claimed it was homage, but Bass wasn’t convinced, saying: "The convention is when anyone steals something, they call it an homage."
17. Silence of the Lambs
The iconic image of Jodie Foster staring out of the Silence of the Lambs with a moth covering her mouth is a favourite for both critics and fans. The American Film Institute has named it one of their 100 best movie posters and in 2006, the Key Art Awards crowned it the best movie poster of the last 35 years. But have you ever noticed the other work of art hidden in the poster? -Dali Influence-:The skull on the back of the Death’s Head moth is a reproduction of Salvador Dali In Voluptate Mors, a 1951 photograph by Philippe Halsman, itself based on Dali’s own Female Bodies as a Skull. The image, in which seven naked females contort themselves into the shape of the skull, was reportedly given to design agency Dazu by the film’s director Jonathan Demme.
18. Pulp Fiction
The poster for Quentin Tarantino’s follow up to Reservoir Dogs screams sleaze. The femme fatale fixing you with her cold eyes, the cigarette, the gun. Then there are the trappings of the cheap and nasty paperbacks of the past. The magazine masthead, the 10-cent price tag, the creases. Pulp Fiction is a throw back to the hardboiled noir of the past and yet still feels dangerously contemporary. The brainchild of James Verdesoto, the then-Creative Director of Miramax's in-house design team, the poster soon graced millions of students' walls around the world. "The Pulp Fiction poster has been hailed by many, actually, as one of the best movie posters of past 20 years," Verdesoto told Fox News last year. "But that's for others to decide, not for me. I'm certainly appreciative when people appreciate my work."
Heinz Schulz-Neudamm's striking artwork became a record-breaker when it was purchased by collector Kenneth Schacter for a staggering $696,000 (£443,210) seven years ago. And the world's most expensive movie poster is soon going back under the hammer as part of the liquidation of the now-bankrupt Schacter’s estate. Experts suggest that when it goes on sale later this year it could become the first movie poster to sell for more than $1 million on the open market. Little wonder that its been described by collectors as the "crown jewel of the poster world". This art deco-inspired movie poster was created by German artist Schulz-Neudamm for the Berlin premiere of Fritz Lang's seminal science-fiction production. Hundreds of prints of the poster were made, although only four survive to the present day.
20. Clockwork Orange
As with Jaws, the image we now associate with Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange wasn’t the first past the gate. Poster veteran Bill Gold had been creating winning compositions since 1942's Casablanca, but after six months of sketching had drawn a blank for Kubrick's dystopian fantasy. Eventually he teamed up with Ivan Punchatz to create a stark image of the film’s lead character Alex DeLarge crucified on a computerised cross. Kubrick wasn’t convinced. "We submitted it to Kubrick," Gold told the New York Times in 2010, "and he didn't like it. He's very tough, very exacting. He knows exactly what he wants. I guess it was too scientific looking. He wanted more of a flesh-and-blood violence look." Gold's new design placed Alex at the centre and is dotted with eyes, hinting at the extreme therapy the character will endure in the film.
Saul Bass didn't just design the poster to Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece, he created the hypnotic and haunting opening sequence as well. A celebrated graphic designer long before he turned to films, Bass's unique style came to the fore with the poster campaign for Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm. Vertigo is pure Bass. Stark flat colours, off-kilter and jagged figures, hand-cut typography and of course those hypotrochoid curves familiar to any child who ever played with a spirograph. You can’t help but be pulled in towards the poor figure who is stumbling at the heart of this movie poster. Over 50 years later, Bass's design seems as contemporary as ever. Is it any wonder he is still regarded as a giant in graphic design? "Before I ever met him, before we worked together, he was a legend in my eyes," said Martin Scorsese in 2011. "His designs, for film titles and company logos and record albums and posters, defined an era."
22. Star Wars
Tom Jung wasn’t 20th Century Fox’s first choice for Star Wars’ poster art. They wanted Frank Frazetta, the American artist best known for muscle-bound Conan the Barbarian book covers. Frank wasn’t to be, though, so Jung - the man responsible for the posters for Dr. Zhivago, animated Lord of the Rings and Papillon - was drafted in. His brief was to deliver something suitably Frazetta-esque. Perhaps that’s why Luke Skywalker has abs that would make Arnie jealous or why Princess Leia is showing so much leg. -Sexing Up the Princess-: "We had a problem with Carrie Fisher," Jung admitted to Cinefantastique in 1997, "because they wanted to make Princess Leia more glamorous.” Jung persuaded his wife to pose in place of the young actress. The sexed-up space princess was a hit with Fisher’s mother Debbie Reynolds. “She called David Weitzner at Fox's advertising department and asked if she could have the painting, so he asked me to do a duplicate painting, which is now hanging in Carrie Fisher's house. The original painting is at Skywalker Ranch."
According to Tony Seiniger, the man behind the Jaws poster, there are two rules when it comes to creating an iconic movie poster. First of all, it needs to be different: “something nobody has seen before — that'll get it attention.” But that’s only the beginning. The poster has to tell its story in mere seconds. After all, most people will be driving past it at 30 miles per hour. "That's the challenge, to try get two hours of entertainment down into a simple graphic that you can read in three seconds," Seiniger explains. -Making It Look Scary-: He certainly rose to the challenge here, with the instantly recognisable image of the great white shark rising from the depths to snack on a bathing beauty. Not that the final image came easily. Seiniger’s agency spent six months perfecting the poster. “No matter what we did, it didn’t look scary enough,” he told USA Today in 2003. The problem was that no matter how they were drawn, the sharks ended up looking more like friendly dolphins. Then, in a stroke of genius, Seiniger realised where they had been going wrong. “You had to actually go underneath the shark so you could see his teeth.”
"In space," copywriter Barbara Gips wrote, "no one can hear you scream." Even after all this time, the slightest glance at the Alien poster makes you uneasy. The uncanny yellow light spilling through the crack of the central egg immediately warns you that the contents aren’t going to be cute and cuddly. Of course, the egg itself bears no resemblance to the face-hugger egg from the film. Early effect tests were made using regular hen eggs, some shots even finding their way into the original teaser trailer. This lead to design agency Bemis Balkind smearing modeling clay onto a hen’s egg to create the poster. A staple of the breakfast table became the stuff of nightmares.
Today it would be known as viral marketing. In 1984 a poster started to appear. It was a cartoon ghost caught in a red ‘restricted’ circle. There was no title, no list of stars, no director’s credit. There wasn’t even a release date. All we were told was that someone was 'coming to save the world this summer.' We had no idea who they were, or why the world needed saving in the first place. It was the poster that put the tease into teaser. The title, cast list and credits came later, but by then the poor trapped spook had been burnt into everyone's consciousness and has remained there ever since. -Logo Mystery-:But who was behind the design of the logo itself? It was a mystery for years until the release of the movie on Blu-ray in 2009 when art director John DeCuir Jr. revealed that it was the brainchild of writer Dan Ackroyd himself. "The no-Ghost logo was in Danny Ackroyd’s first script," DeCuir Jr admitted. "I take credit as having art directed and designed the original logo but I did not conceive it."