By Shanee Edwards · July 28, 2021
As screenwriters, we put blood, sweat, and tears into our screenplays. From that first spark of an idea to creating our heroic protagonist and wicked antagonist to getting the dialogue perfect, we spend countless hours putting our soul on the page.
While doing all the deep, personal work, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that making a film is ultimately a commercial venture. Your screenplay is a product that you will eventually try to sell in a highly competitive marketplace, so it better have a high degree of commercial appeal for those studios or investors who will be putting up millions of dollars. This is true even for indie films, especially if you want to attract notable talent.
One way to distill the commercial appeal of your screenplay is to create a simple, do-it-yourself movie poster at home before you even write FADE IN.
Creating a movie poster can:
Your job as a poster designer is to crystalize, in one image, what you are selling. Typically, a movie poster promises an experience, a glimpse into the journey the audience will go on, and entice them to buy a ticket. Keep in mind movie posters look different across genres, so it can also help you sharpen your genre choice.
Let’s look at some examples.
Is your script a fun, colorful, romantic romp that skewers social norms like EMMA. (2020)? Or is it a dark, gritty story about an emotionally unstable antihero like Joker (2019)? Or is it a terrifying, racially-charged nightmare like Get Out (2017)? Each of these movie posters tells you what kind of world you’ll be entering once you step foot into the movie theatre without giving too much away. Let’s look at each of these individually.
The first thing you notice in this poster is the color yellow worn by Emma, the protagonist.
It’s bold like she is. It’s the color of sunshine, implying a sunny, romantic adventure awaits. The film’s title is also in yellow, but it is placed behind Emma, with the two men further back behind the title. This signals that Emma thinks she’s in charge of the narrative, but the tagline that is in front of Emma implies otherwise: LOVE KNOWS BEST. While Emma may think she knows best, it’s really that amorphous, uncontrollable thing called love that’s running the show.
Questions to ask yourself: Who’s really driving the story in my screenplay? What color would best represent that character or concept? What other characters are important for the poster? Why?
The first thing you notice is the color red against the dark, gritty, urban background. Red is the color of blood, passion, and danger. Joker is all of those things, so the color suits him well. Complementing the red suit, is the yellow vest, green shirt, and matching clown makeup. But we know he’s not your typical clown because he’s not in a circus setting. He’s on the street, on top of a staircase with jagged handrails, framed by dozens of fire escapes and staggered streetlamps that, together, create chaotic angles that perhaps represent the chaos in Joker’s mind. No tag line here, just the font that reads “Joker” is smudged and tattered, just like Joker’s life.
Questions to ask yourself: What setting or background makes the most sense for my protagonist? What is my protagonist struggling against? How would my protagonist be standing in the poster? Upright and confident or bending backward, arms spread out with eyes closed as if having a spiritual awakening (or mental breakdown)?
The first thing you notice is blue-eyed Rose, perfect teeth, smiling up at Chris. She is white, he is Black. Rose’s shirt has red and white stripes, connoting the American flag. Subtle, but it is a nod to America’s racist history that includes slavery. Going clockwise, we see Dean embracing Chris, but is it a loving embrace or a predator capturing its prey? We don’t see Chris’ reaction until the next crack in the mirror where Chris looks concerned. Next is someone in what looks like a medieval knight’s helmet, hiding their identity, prepared for battle. All the images are placed inside the cracks of a broken mirror implying that there is a problem with America’s reflection. The tagline reads: JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE INVITED DOESN’T MEAN YOU’RE WELCOME. Judging by the film’s title and tagline, it’s clear something very bad is going to happen.
Questions to ask yourself: How does the past affect the present in my movie? What secrets are my characters keeping? What is in my protagonist’s blind spot? What is my protagonist struggling against?
Different than a logline, a tagline should be simple and memorable, yet invoke emotion. This can be a powerful marketing tool, especially for a film. Think about this tagline: “You’ll never go in the water again.” Our brains automatically recall the terror of the shark in the movie Jaws (1975). Or this tagline: “He is afraid. He is alone. He is 3 million light-years from home.” This could only be from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and prompts an image of ET’s giant frightened eyes in our mind.
Keep your tagline short and remember the goal is for it to work in tandem with the images on the poster, not to stand alone like a logline.
Because sometimes our unconscious minds take over in different ways when creating images (as opposed to writing words), I recommend drawing your movie poster by hand – even if you’re not a skilled artist. Get a poster board, borrow your kid’s markers and go to town. Have fun with it and see what you discover.
Another way to make your poster, especially if you want a specific actor to star in it, is to make a collage from magazines. Or you can try something minimal like this. There is no right or wrong way to make your poster, but you should put it on the wall or near your computer to serve as motivation as you write and combine your artistic and commercial processes.
Want to learn some other ways to up your screenwriting game? Check out TSL 360!