Miller's Crossing Poster Critique

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Apparently Netflix engineers developed a proof concept in 2014 that Ted requested today.  Since they can do it why won't they.  The Trailer Junkies would love to know.

Now for Ted's story...

On the way home from Jim’s house my family stopped for a linner at Industrial Eats, a small restaurant in Buellton. Great name, nice people, great food and when I went to the bathroom this movie poster hung over the sink. An amazing coincidence, since Jim and I were stewing up a podcasting idea to review movies based solely on their trailer. Every pod will cover two trailers and one poster.

I immediately snapped a picture of this poster and slacked it to Jim knowing Miller’s Crossing had to be the first poster we discussed. Others have discussed the movie and behind the scene but I was surprised to come up empty on my search for reviews of the poster.

Let’s dissect the choices that led to this poster and appreciate it for the rare gem that has stood the test of time. Almost thirty years later I’m fairly certain this poster would not have been made and if it were commissioned it certainly wouldn’t be the hero poster.

When you think of your typical movie poster there’s usually a few marketing goals.

  • Identify the star-power carrying the movie either by name, a glamor shot or both.
  • Hint at the story of the movie. Unlike a trailer the poster is not expected to give a narrative taste of the film to follow but rather a “hint” at the story. This should be a cleaver message delivered either stylistically or through a well-crafted strap line or both.
  • Identify and grab the intended audience. A legacy sell can communicate this quickly. Movies from a director or producer that let fans of the previous film know this is for them.

You can’t blame marketers for attempting to hit these points as directly as possible. They only have a moment to grab someone walking down a street or driving by a bus enclosure and compel the passerby to notice, like the image, recall it when at the box office and spend money. Here’s a deeper dive on these KPIs applied to this iconic poster.

First, star-power. It is clear that the marketing team and filmmakers didn’t care if you could identify Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro. When I saw it in the bathroom, I thought for a second it was Harvey Keitel standing over the sniveling Bernie Bernbaum (unmistakable, even at fifty yards on his knees). No actors’ names copy added for clarity. An interested observer from 1990 would have to squint at the billing block and thank the lawyers and unions for its inclusion.

Second, the story hint. The art of this image is from the filmmakers directly, not a glamorous photoshoot or a blend of artistic renderings of the “essence” or “meaning” of the film. It’s a shot from the film, right there, smack-dab in the middle of the movie from the Coens’ minds and Barry Sonnenfeld’s eye. No toolkit, no supplemental artwork. This “cropped production still” accomplishes the story hint but this is not a story about two guys facing off in the woods. There is a lot to unpack and delights when you see the poster after watching the film. A strictly artistic byproduct that might drive poster purchases but doesn’t, in-and-of-itself, drive ticket sales.

Usually a strap line would step in here to do some heavy lifting – not here. And maybe that’s a good thing since looking at these other movies the strap line/logline overexposes and boxes in the movie referenced and exposes these posters as pure, ham-fisted commerce.

“In a world where nothing is what it seems, you’ve got to look beyond… ‘The Usual Suspects’” reads like copy ripped from the trailer script and slapped on the poster. Goodfellas simple, straight-forward strap line “three decades of life in the mafia” lacks the creativity and evocation deserving of any Scorsese movie. If the Raising Arizona poster stopped at “A comedy beyond belief” it would have hinted of what’s to come but the addition of “Their lawless years behind them. Their child-rearing years ahead…” while poetic seemed to be marketing execs using a log line against the filmmakers.

Miller’s Crossing’s story hint rests on the quote and this quote delivers. Somewhere between a strap and a logline this quote praises the filmmakers and associates this film with The Godfather, great genre company. The addition of the word “masterpiece” is marketing gold. So much so that I'm certain reviewers give these glowing concise praise lines in the hopes they’d get on a poster or in a quote spot.

Lastly, it needs to identify the intended audience. Miller’s Crossing’s legacy mention should logically read “From …the creators of ‘Blood Simple’” and end there but the addition of Raising Arizona might at first glance seem like its adding needless confusion and while I’m not sure what marketer would allow this to get on a poster. I like to think that at the time it had to be a gamble that someone had to fight for. Maybe someone took a risk and added Raising Arizona for the complexity of storytelling and allowed the poster audience to decide if they were Coen Brothers fans.

Even while breaking norms and proven marketing techniques this worked on many levels and the experience was uniquely Coen-esque, all the way down to the poster.

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