Spring 2002


Everyone's gone to the movies

Posters for the Rotterdam International Film Festival

People, as anyone in the marketing industry will tell you, really do judge books by their covers. The same goes for films and their posters: consumers care little about the raft of problems raised by attempts to render or represent one medium through another, the textual through the visual, for example, or the kinetic through the static. At the point of purchase, a strong image, a good strapline and an excerpt from a gushing review are what is necessary to close the sale. If you are in any doubt, take an honest look at how you choose your next video at Blockbuster.

This kind of instrumentality is both a blessing and curse for the designer: on the one hand it puts design in demand as a key part of the commodity chain; on the other, in this linkage of aesthetics to the capital imperative, aesthetics always suffer. Should designers have to think of themselves as salespeople? And how might film publicity design develop were it divorced from the necessity of selling film as well as simply representing it?

This year’s International Film Festival, Rotterdam neatly side-stepped such questions by employing an advertising creative to supply all its visual materials, cutting the designer (for the most part) out of the equation. Ton van Jole, a freelance creative who has flitted around various Dutch advertising agencies, had already been working on the festival’s video trailers for five years. He rejected the iconic, deadpan design approach of previous years (of which a graphic ship and a Japanese rising sun had been two examples) in favour of a candidly market-driven one. Van Jole isolated a single, distinctive theme for the festival’s internationality and tried to communicate it through a quirky visual conceit: the ethnic restaurant.

Advertising has become infamous for using incomprehensible or cryptic straplines and images to sell product on the back of consumer confusion. (Think of the UK’s long-running but impenetrable Rizla billboard campaign, for example). Van Jole’s creative treatment for IFFR 2002 could be accused of deploying the same strategy. In the four posters he worked up, a restaurant façade is shown with the sign Gesloten [Closed] dangling in the window. Many attendees at the festival were openly wondering what this could possibly mean: the theme of internationality was patent, but why were the restaurants closed? And why restaurants, anyway? What did they have to do with film?

This was the kind of critical engagement Van Jole was aiming for, and once one watched the trailer that accompanied these posters, the underlying narrative (‘backstory’) became clear. The restaurant owners have closed up in order to watch their various national cinemas as represented at the festival, leaving the customers without anywhere to eat. (That this was precisely the inverse of the observable situation at the festival is, I know, completely beside the point.)

By following his market-driven approach, Van Jole’s campaign managed to generate interest and contempt in equal measure – probably the precise mix that he was hoping for. The distinct colour palette of Marc van Oene’s photographs kept drawing the eye back to the posters and the mind turning over what it all might possibly mean. Whatever criticisms might have been levelled at him, Van Jole did focus attention on the internationality that he saw as being at the centre of the festival. And you cannot fault a salesman for successful selling.

But back to that question of what film design might be, were it divorced from the necessities of the market. Thomas Vinterberg, director of Festen and one of the Dogme 95 collective, said of their manifesto that it was ‘exclusively aimed at the film-making process (“the making of”) and not the “afterlife”; for example, PR, marketing and distribution – of the films’. A recent Dutch design project, however, has attempted to visit that same ‘afterlife’.

‘For such maverick films,’ explains Stuart Bailey, who initiated the Dogme Publicity Project, ‘the near-conventional publicity seemed a bit of a let-down. Surely a poster should surely convey something of the fundamental idea of its subject, otherwise it misleads. I’m interested in what would happen if the posters were made in the spirit of the films.’

Bailey, a British graphic designer currently working and teaching in Amsterdam, developed a short project for final-year students at the Rietveld Academy to reflect these ideas – to design, as he puts it, ‘from the inside out’. The students spent the first part of the project watching a selection of Dogme films, attempting to define the meaning of that word ‘spirit’. What they settled upon had little to do with the marketing notion of ‘core brand value’ that Van Jole focused upon for his designs: the idea was not necessarily to work to a set of rules, but to explore specific aspects of the Dogme; process, lo-fi, character, location and so on. Some of the resulting works involved audience-participation, some exposed the nature of production, some represented the film metaphorically, some commented (both positively or negatively) on the media hype.

For Bailey, one of the key principles was that ‘the image should speak for itself’, the one thing that Van Jole’s posters didn’t – and didn’t set out to – do. And as to whose approach was more successful, and on what terms such success might be defined? That, dear consumer, is a question perhaps best left to you.

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