Eighties Elegance: Movie Posters From a Gilded Decade
Updated: Feb 4
“[They] wanna bring the Eighties back. That’s okay with me, that’s where they made me at.” —Jay Z (Blue Magic)
The 1980s was a nostalgic decade. Fashion was a fun house mirror reflection of the 1940s. The Norma Kamali-inspired wide-padded shoulder, cinch-waisted ensembles (modeled by Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, 1987) were dead ringers for World War II fashions—only more extreme. Men’s suits designed by Giorgio Armani (worn by Richard Gere in American Gigolo, 1980) were cut loose, also with broad shoulders, low-gorge lapels, and a low-slung button stance that referenced “The Bold Look” of the immediate post-war period. A well-tailored Forties movie actor, Ronald Reagan, led the free world. The era's Post-Modern towers reinterpreted architectural forms of the past. And within those buildings there were fortunes to be made. “Greed is… good!” proclaimed Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) in Wall Street, 1987.
The Internet was but a little-known novelty used by universities in the Eighties. Cross-platform marketing was still an analog affair; feature films were advertised with theatrical trailers, TV spots, outdoor media and through newspaper and magazine ads. Designer/provocateur David Carson wouldn’t proclaim “The End of Print” until the next decade. And measuring 27" x 40”, movie posters (the subject of this article) were at the top of the print advertising pantheon.
I recently took another look at at the 80 Years of Oscar poster I designed for the Motion Picture Academy. Comprised of key art (the image that provides the foundation on which a movie’s marketing campaign is based) representing all the movies that won the Academy Award for Best Picture up to that time, it’s essentially a poster about posters. Focusing on the section commemorating the Eighties, it's clear that all of the key art representing those Best Picture winners aren't necessarily the best posters—although some are outstanding. I wondered if those old one-sheets had anything to teach us—apart from providing a visual record of our pre-digital recent past. If you’re interested in movies, marketing, design, or just missing the pleasures and pursuits lost to the pandemic, read on for a guided tour of American advertising ephemera which promoted that gilded decade’s award-winning films, with an occasional detour for artistic merit. I’ve attempted to credit the creatives involved and apologize for any errors or omissions.
STARS, STORIES, AND CONCEPTS
A studio marketing executive once said to me, “A lot of the movies are crap. At least we can make a good poster!” The good and not so-good movie posters of the Eighties mostly fit into one of three compositional schemes dating back to the silent film era: (1) the story sell illustrated as a montage or scene from the movie, (2) the concept sell consisting of juxtapositions that form a new idea, and (3) the star sell characterized by big heads in the sky, often with a small cityscape, landscape, or seascape placed in the lower quarter of the poster. Some designers sardonically called the latter format “The Warner Bros. Template” regardless of the studio or setting; whether depicting Manhattan (Bonfire of the Vanities, 1990, and the aforementioned Wall Street, 1987) or Manhattan Beach, California (Tequila Sunrise, 1988). It was a durable visual trope. The most organic use of the head in the sky convention—Darth Vader’s head in outer space, to be specific—was designed by Seiniger Advertising for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, 1980. More on that boutique agency later.
TASTE AND RESTRAINT
On the poster for the decade's first Best Picture winner, Ordinary People, 1980, photos divided by hinged picture frames represent a family separated by grief. It’s a more nuanced execution than the snapshot of a family about to separate for the previous year’s Best Picture winner, the divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer.
The Chariots of Fire one-sheet, 1981 Oscar winner, is striking for its vast amount of negative space which underscores a long telephoto shot of the British 1924 Olympic track and field hopefuls running across the top of the composition. This image of athletes in training suggests the long odds they would face in competition. The one-sheet for the 1982 Best Picture winner, Gandhi, created by Kaiser Creative, conveys even greater scope. A diminutive Ben Kingsley portrays the movie’s namesake in what appears to be a frame taken from the movie. He is surrounded by a cropped-off crowd which implies—as spelled out by the body copy—that a “nation of 350 million people” continues just beyond the frame.
The 1983 poster for Terms of Endearment, 1983 Best Picture winner, uses a grayscale snapshot of a mother (Shirley MacLaine) and her adult daughter (Debra Winger). The casual image is formally framed by somber black to foreshadow family tragedy. A more striking black and white poster that same year promoted the remake of the gangster film Scarface. Its strong vertical configuration is still a brain worm for designers.
Illustration was often used to attract Eighties audiences to promote comedy and action/ adventure films, and occasionally for prestige pictures. Painted with a horror genre palette of red and black, a masked specter of (presumably) Salieri looms over the Amadeus one-sheet, 1984, whom the Best Picture-winning movie implicates as the cause of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s untimely death. As a silent visual, the key art can only hint at the sonic brilliance of the film’s Mozartian score.
In 1985, illustration was also deployed for the Best Picture winner Platoon. The hi-con, agitprop graphic of an upside down helmet is adorned with a peace symbol and a soldier's dog tags which cleverly form letters within the title treatment. Like a passage from the film's elegiac score (Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings), Mike Kaiser's copy achieves an appropriately somber tone for this anti-war film, “The first casualty of war is innocence.”
PRINCES OF PRINT
Movie studio marketing departments had long since moved from New York to Los Angeles by the mid-Eighties and were outsourcing print creative to a number of boutique advertising agencies specializing in entertainment, also located in the City of Angels. For big-budget films, they included Bacon O’Brien, B.D. Fox & Friends, Frankfurt/Gips/Balkind, and Spiros. The agencies that arguably dominated Eighties key art were led by Anthony Goldschmidt and Tony Seiniger, two advertising designers (Seiniger’s preferred term) with vastly different temperaments and artistic styles. Founded by the tall, urbane Yale-educated Goldschmidt, Intralink Film & Graphic Design, located on La Peer Drive in Beverly Hills, was distinguished by its understated gray and white Georgian façade. The firm was known for restrained designs such as the aforementioned Chariots of Fire poster.
Seiniger Advertising was helmed by its hard-driving namesake whose idea of weekend relaxation was racing vintage Formula 1 cars [full disclosure: I worked there]. The always busy shop (ad-speak for agency) was located in Los Angeles at the intersection of Third Street and La Jolla Avenue, equidistant to the major movie studios. The diagonally wood-sided complex (since demolished) had narrow stairways leading to aeries that served as improvised ateliers, an octagonal production room, a serene courtyard, and a subterranean-feeling trailer department was, depending on where one sat, an eagles’ nest or rabbit warren of creativity (both Seiniger and Goldschmidt fielded successful trailer departments).
Most Eighties one-sheets for mainstream movies weren’t overtly designed. One reason may be that studio marketers often employed focus groups to test comps (facsimiles of posters); the lowest common denominator biases of these groups may have obliviated creative risk-taking. Another explanation is that a lack of a distinctive style make Eighties key art seem less contrived, and thus a more convincing vehicle of mass communication. It sure didn’t discourage the sale of movie tickets.
The polished conservative look of the Eighties, consisting of serif typography (Garamond, anyone?) and representational imagery, matched the political climate in the United States. Ronald Reagan (POTUS, 1980-1988), whose avuncular persona was first established in Warner Bros. movies and later polished on television’s GE Theater, is credited with revitalizing conservatism; moreover, the successive Republican administration of George H.W. Bush (1988-1992) was called the preppie Presidency due to the president's Ivy League style.
Independent films required a different mentality to reach audiences; big heads in sky wouldn't cut it with “art” film aficionados. But the lack of big-name stars left space for high-concept graphic design and edgier style. Key art for indie pictures were created by boutique agencies that included Rod Dyer & Associates and Mark Matsuno. For the Oscar-nominated Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1985, Matsuno's use of Art Deco typography (Newport Land) with a silhouetted image of a woman in a tropical setting hinted at the suppressed glamour of the film's mysterious protagonist. The agency that consistently expressed the indie spirit was Concept Arts, led by Lucinda Cowell and Ron Michaelson. For example, an unlikely Mondrian color scheme and distressed surface texture skins their poster for River’s Edge, 1986, a deftly cropped image of a young woman asleep in a field. On closer inspection, the viewer realizes the woman is dead.
NOSTALGIA IS GOLDEN
The enhanced photo-assembly for the 1986 Best Picture-winner Out of Africa was more in-sync with the Eighties penchant for nostalgia. A serifed typeface replete with a swash spells out the title. In this bucolic Seiniger poster, two lovers played by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford are bathed in a golden light. However, on second glance all is not as it appears. While Streep gazes at Redford, his body is turned away from her, indicating that their relationship is ill-fated.
Symmetry conveys power—think of the aesthetics of authoritarian regimes throughout history. For a while, I avoided symmetrical design because I thought it was inherently fascist. Seiniger wasn't constrained by such naive notions. His imperial red and amber-hued one-sheet for the Best Picture winner The Last Emperor, 1987, conveys the existential absurdity of China’s last royal sovereign—a child—whose pouty face is commandingly centered in front of the Forbidden City. That same year Seiniger’s team—led by Senior Art Director Olga Kaljakin, whose elegant aesthetic shaped much of the firm's work in the mid-Eighties—also utilized symmetry for The Untouchables key art. The poster for this crime film is dominated by a looming Robert De Niro as Al Capone presiding over his city. The visual message is reinforced by the copy, “He ruled Chicago with absolute power.”
The following year’s Best Picture key art for Rain Man, created at Intralink, consisted of an understated photographic image of the film’s stars, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, sauntering through an allée. The diagonal perspective of the background indicates the ambling stars may have been stripped into the composition. An effortless look that took practiced effort to achieve, all before Photoshop.
For the decade's last Best Picture-winner Driving Miss Daisy, 1989, Dave Christiansen (an impressive talent with an equally impressive handlebar mustache) working in-house at Seiniger had channeled Norman Rockwell to paint a rearview mirror reflection of Morgan Freeman chauffeuring Jessica Tandy. Its impact is intensified by a liberal use of negative space. Christiansen's illustration represented the story of a cross-racial friendship and journey through the Jim Crow-era South—the composition would have worked equally well for the 2018 winner, Green Book.
Advertising for another Best Picture contender from 1989, Glory, handled racial themes differently. TriStar's poster for the Civil War epic was a hybrid of photography and illustration. It inexplicably obscured the identity of a group of Union soldiers within a grainy silhouette hand-tinted with patriotic hues; thereby sidestepping the central point of the movie—that Black men also fought to end slavery. Conversely, Seiniger’s Glory trailer intersperses close-ups of its Black stars Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman with shots of combat and superimposed words, “they fought for freedom” cut to the glorious sounds of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.
BACK TO TO OUR FUTURE
Fast-forward to now. For the amateur designer, apps can select appropriate fonts and achieve rudimentary montage effects. Yet despite digital advances and the terminal condition of print, the voracious appetite of streaming platforms for content still provide opportunities for creative professionals. Back to the earlier question—does Eighties key art have anything to teach us? The small insets of those once-large movie posters reprinted on my Oscar compilation make it easier to look beyond the surface design elements and other fashionable enthusiasms of the Eighties and focus on the overall compositions. How little has changed—the star sells, story sells, and concept sells used to promote movies back in the day are still utilized. They’ve just been simplified for a Netflix queue. On any platform, when these selling conventions are communicated through superlative execution and, better yet, contrasted with creative inventions, they attract the attention of audiences.
©2020 Alex Swart • All rights reserved