There is one rule behind every movie poster you have ever seen. And it’s not: “Superheroes must stare determinedly into the distance.” It is this: the billing block, the list of cast and crew at the bottom, must be in a typeface that is at least 15% of the size of the film title’s lettering. In 2005, when he was leading the advertising campaign for the Jim Carrey comedy Fun With Dick and Jane, William Loper didn’t like that.
The guideline, which is there to ensure billings are actually legible, annoyed Loper because it meant that if he wanted to make a film’s title larger and more eye-catching, he had to make the billing block larger too. But the then executive vice president of advertising at Sony Pictures spotted a loophole. It was the average height of each letter in the title that counted. So he made just one word in the Carrey comedy’s title huge and bright red: FUN. “We cheated,” he says.
But why? Well, between 2003 and 2013, Loper launched eight campaigns a year, each having to be as grabby as possible. And when it came to advertising comedies, there were two big typography tricks: make the title big, and make it red. When the trailer for Catherine Tate’s The Nan Movie dropped in February this year, its title was big and red. Disney’s Cheaper By the Dozen remake, which followed shortly after, has its final word in thick, ruddy, bloated type. What’s more, both posters – like Fun With Dick and Jane – have vast white backgrounds.
So, who started the big red titles on empty backgrounds trend and why is it red that tickles our funny bones? No one is better placed to answer this than Loper, who also worked on The Nutty Professor, Are We There Yet?, The Klumps, Liar, Liar, Step Brothers, Hitch and American Pie. By now, I don’t need to tell you how their posters look. “The white background, red typography,” he says, “really thrived in the mid-90s and early 2000s.”
As part of his job, Loper showed prototype trailers to test audiences. “We did the teaser trailer for Nutty Professor and it said, ‘Something big is coming’ – and then we slammed on those big titles. That was a huge hit in the focus groups.” Because producers and even stars get a say on a film’s advertising, research like this can help execs prove they are on the right track. But there is no one study that says: “Red equals comedy, big letters equal big money.” Instead, there is the humble bus shelter.
Loper explains: “A producer I used to work with would constantly tell me: ‘If I’m driving down the street at 40mph and it’s raining, I want to see a bus shelter poster that has impact. I want to see it from eight blocks away.’” Empty backgrounds help a film’s star pop out, while red is red. There’s a reason why it is the color of stop signs and classic lipsticks. In the past, when billboards and bus shelter ads were printed on paper, advertisers had to get the campaign right first time. “But now,” says Loper, “you can change a digital billboard every other day. That’s really helped.”
Poster designer Rebecca Pitt explains that, 30 years ago, the tech was more limited. “Big red letters were easy to do, whereas 3D metallic lettering only became easy 15 or so years ago.” The latter, she says, has become the default in theater posters for plays such as Anything Goes and Amélie. Although Pitt has used big red letters herself in a couple of theater posters: Groan Ups and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. “These are very accessible shows that appeal to families,” she says. “The big red letters help to signify that. We want to reassure audiences that this’ll be a fun evening out – nothing too highbrow or alternative.”
But every campaign wants to be eye-catching and appealing. Why did comedy get a monopoly on big and red – and not, say, action movies or thrillers? Robyn Larkin is the creative director of the film poster agency Bobo, who worked on Winter’s Bone and Netflix’s Paranormal. He describes it as “a sort of chicken and egg situation” whereby marketers became obsessed with “comps” (comparisons) and would ask designers to emulate other successful campaigns. He describes the situation as “a sort of fake myth, where they think that if the promotional look worked well for film A then it will also work for film B”. He cites 1999’s American Pie and 2000’s Meet the Parents as hits that inspired copycat marketing. “Yet American Pie worked because it was a great new sort of film.” Its success probably had little to do with typefaces.
Loper believes big type and blank backgrounds started in the late 1980s. So did Honey, I Shrunk the Kids father the whole thing in 1989? Perhaps not: despite its blue-sky background, 1980’s Airplane! was an earlier example. What about the Carry On posters of the 1960s, which liberally employed big red type alongside saucy cartoons?
In fact, you can trace the trend all the way back to 1937 and the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races, even to Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid from 1921. While comedies at the turn of the millennium undoubtedly caused a resurgence, the trick is almost as old as cinema itself – and it seems unlikely to be going away.
“One day,” says Larkin, “there will be a big comedy hit that uses a different style because the team took a risk and it worked. That style may then become the next trope as marketing people across the land copy the style, looking to ride the film’s success.” Perhaps the opposite could happen. With a solid 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, The Nan Movie might put the big and red to bed.