How do movie posters come about?

by Daniel Matsuda

We create poster artwork for the movies with obsessive pride!

River has a long history of creating poster-artwork for the movies. Any movie – good or not – is part of modern day pop-culture, and will go down in the history. And so will its artwork.

This is why I am filled with pride every time we ship a final and approved artwork for a movie. It’s not just shipped to print-production and all the other display adaptations in the marketing landscape, – no, it is shipped off into the grand history of movies. Every artwork we ever created will survive us, and may in fact be the only lasting evidence of my own existence.

The humiliating start

The first artwork we ever created was for SMALA SUSSIE, a semi-small Swedish film directed by a young & promising director called Ulf Malmros. Today, Mr. Malmros is a highly accomplished director with a fair number of box office successes since then. He is an artist and a genuine story-teller with an impressive level of artistic integrity.

But our client was the Distributor. They had asked me to create the artwork for his film. It was an exciting process with a few iterations back and forth. I remember when I finally got the call from the marketing director congratulating me for a job well done. They had approved my latest version! In my disproportionate excitement of adolescence I probably felt happier then than I ever have since. We quickly printed the poster and hung it on the office wall as a trophy.

This is why I was surprised when Mr. Malmros called a few weeks later. He wanted to come over and “work with me” on a few improvements. It was after office hours, so he said that he would bring pizza for us. I felt humbled that the Director himself was going to visit me in person, and even bring pizza! Mr. Malmros and I sat in front of my screen all evening, and by the time he was happy nothing really remained of the previously approved artwork. The distributor immediately accepted the change, Mr. Malmros got the artwork he wanted and the movie went on to become a success. (But he did forget to bring pizza that evening, which oddly bothered me the most.)

The opinions of those religiously invested

The road to creating an artwork is never the same, and the detours and dead ends can be many.

Now, any creative work in an agency is an enhanced result of compromises between the client brief, the achievable magic by the creatives involved and hard realities given by time, investment and the general laws of physics. But when creating a poster artwork for movies, there is yet another complicating factor: the highly emotional and Opinionated Movie Makers, namely the director and sometimes the producer.

Our client is usually the distributor. And the distributor cares first and most about box office numbers. The distributor will base the brief and the feedback on how we best serve the purpose of attracting the widest possible audience by positioning ourselves against selected success stories. Proven stuff, if you will. And while the Director and Producer will nod and express a shared interest in making money, they are also religiously invested in their creation. After all, they have probably spent years working on conceiving it, and their baby is now about to be sent off into the world. Their minimum requirement is to have the key art capturing the spiritual essence of the movie. And they hope to put the poster on the wall back home as a piece of art to be passed on for generations to come. These two objectives can sometime be conflicting.

A tough spot

Again, a client is a client, and we serve at the pleasure of the distributor in this case. But the Opinionated Movie Maker is a strong-minded individual with power and access. And the distributor is well aware that these celebrated artists are the ones that drives the business forward. So they pass their scientific brief to us, and trusts us to invent the magic that combines everyone’s desires. It’s a tough spot that can be awfully painful to hold if things goes south. A lot is at stake for everyone. And I’m well aware that the poster artwork will be aggressively scrutinized in the event of disappointing box office performance, all while an amazing success is never really based on the artwork alone.

But when the stars align, when our mission is accomplished, when the director is smiling of joy, and when the client is approving the final artwork, – we are filled with pride and happiness. Because in that particular moment, I silently know that the final creation is already part of the movie history. And I touched it before sending it off.

The currency of recognition – a slice of Margherita?

It is now 15 years since we created the artwork for SMALA SUSSIE and that movie is mostly forgotten around general audience, but I still come across the artwork occasionally (typically as a thumbnail on a streaming service somewhere). Every time I see it, I feel proud about my contribution to its existence. And I am also reminded that Mr. Malmros still owes me a late night pizza.

Daniel Matsuda
Creative Director / Founding Partner