Movie posters are an irreplaceable part of the cinematic experience. While these pieces are meant to spark a general audience’s interest in an upcoming film, they often play so much larger of a role than studios originally anticipated.
Yes, film posters are a piece of marketing that are used to ensure a movie does well at the box office. But even from the very beginning, posters have been works of art. While their origins begin far before the advent of movies, they have definitely come to be known as part of cinema. And while their styles have changed over the decades, studios and artists have created powerful pieces of art over the years through the creation of posters.
From hand-drawn interpretations to carefully crafted photos, the following posters (split up into two parts for your convenience) are some of the greatest and more memorable pieces of poster art to ever grace a movie theater wall.
As a rule, these are official posters, not ones created by fans or studios in honor of films new and old. These posters are taken on their artistic value and impact as a piece of marketing alone and have no relation to the quality of the films they represent. For #20 – #1, read Part 2 of The 40 Best Posters in Film History. Enjoy!
40. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Artist: Bob Peak
What Makes It Great: Peak makes the poster for the first ever Star Trek film both heroic and mysterious. Peak’s art often feels like the paint is dripping off the page. Here, he keeps it in check while still retaining his signature style. This is a staple of modern poster design, and Peak creates an automatically recognizable design that doesn’t fall into any stereotypes of poster design.
39. The Mummy
Artist: Karoly Grosz
What Makes It Great: This is everything that a classic monster movie poster should be. Old school without being dated, Grosz puts the monster front and center while keeping the classic damsel in distress in play. Fun fact – an original print of this was recently sold for $435,000, making it the one of the most expensive movie posters of all time!
Artist: BLT Communications
What Makes It Great: There is barely anything to see here. But the deep, dense fog and the recognizable points of The Golden Gate Bridge tell so much by showing so little. A sense of dread and foreboding is inescapable, while the mysterious tagline and title with the killer’s logo make the film feel irresistible. Strong use of a single color makes the Zodiac poster hard to take your eyes off.
37. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Artist: The Cimarron Group
What Makes It Great: This is a true improvement from the poster for The Terminator. And like everything with T2, this is an upgrade from the first entry in every way. It’s higher quality and makes Arnold look even more awesome, if that’s possible. Decking Arnie out in a dark blue and covering the background in black helps the red lettering and computer typing in the eye pop just right.
36. Friday the 13th
Artist: Alex Ebel
What Makes It Great: Silhouette posters are usually terrible. But this is easily the best use of this in posters. Putting the killer front and center while still keeping the identity a mystery is perfect for how the first Friday the 13th handles the serial killer format. With that bloody knife and those bewildered campers is full view, you know those teenagers are doomed.
35. Blade Runner
Artist: John Alvin
What Makes It Great: Alvin captures the noir attitude of the film perfectly in the poster for Blade Runner. While this really tells nothing about the film’s story, it shows the split between future-set science fiction and old school detective stories. Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard is front and center, sweaty face and gun in your face. Throw in cigarette smoke and flying cars and this has rightfully become a well-loved piece of art.
What Makes It Great: This is all about selling the concept and the trusted face of Alfred Hitchcock. Like the trailers released before film, Psycho’s poster is all about piquing the interest of moviegoers. What is so crazy about this film that would cause late-arriving guests to be barred from the theater? Combine that intrigue with the sterling reputation of the director and audiences poured in to see the movie. Right on time of course.
33. The Social Network
Artist: Curt Beech and Keith P. Cunningham
What Makes It Great: One of the few instant classic posters of the last decade. Those words are the most important part of the poster, while the sidebar helps drive home the point that this is all about Facebook, without name dropping the network. It’s simple enough yet extremely effective. Plastering those words across Jesse Eisenberg’s dumb-looking face is absolutely eye-catching.
Artist: James H. Spencer
What Makes It Great: This is a fantastic marriage between image and text. Not even showing the main character’s face is a bold move, especially for a film in the 1970’s starring a then-unknown Sylvester Stallone. But the bold pose mixed with black-and-white imagery make the Rocky poster feel triumphant without even revealing the focus of the film.
31. Escape from New York
Artist: Chris Horner
What Makes It Great: Horner’s poster created one of the most iconic images of Carpenter’s Escape from New York. And it never happened in the film. That’s definitely the sign of an excellent poster. Taking something as iconic as the Statue of Liberty and throwing its head in the trashed streets of New York is an easy way to selling the story of a dystopic future set in the now-imprisoned streets of Manhattan. No wonder the characters need to escape.
Artist: Empire Design
What Makes It Great: It’s so simple, yet it conveys a metric ton of emotion. Of course, having your adorable main character front and center helps. Wall-E looking to the stars from a pile of trash is a fantastic juxtaposition for the earthbound robot who dreams of something bigger. It’s also a fantastic tagline that ties into the ideas put forward by the imagery. Bathed in both warm and cool hues, the poster feels both comforting and exciting.
29. The Artist
What Makes It Great: The stark black and white imagery portrays the simple yet extremely classy style of The Artist. There’s more black than anything else, but putting the faces on full display with stark yet loving lighting makes the film feel romantic in the style of old Hollywood. Add a splash of red and it seems like going to see The Artist is the cinematic equivalent of going to a fantastic ball.
28. Pulp Fiction
Artist: James Verdesoto
What Makes It Great: While the film itself doesn’t really convey the ideas of a pulp fiction novel, the poster is a perfect play off of the title. Those ragged corners and creases combined with Uma Thurman smoking with attitude near a gun give an almost trashy air. But all those A-list stars’ names lining the side show that Pulp Fiction and director Quentin Tarantino mean business.
27. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Artist: Drew Struzan
What Makes It Great: The poster keeps Indy in focus, while conveying the dark and scary nature of this latest entry into the Indiana Jones series. The strong backlighting and focus on a solitary character make this stand apart from much of Struzan’s work, which frequently features a wide assembly of characters. Maybe taking the focus off the rest of this dark film and putting it squarely on Indy helped the studios have more confidence in how they could sell the movie.
Artist: James Pearsall
What Makes It Great: Mystery and noir are all obvious factors here, but there is something slightly strange at play. An almost sickly green and yellow fill up most of the art, while Faye Dunaway’s features are almost unrecognizable sans face and wreathed in smoke. Throw in some strange magenta hues and an almost hidden wave of water, and the Chinatown poster bridges a gap between the classic and the alternative.
Artist: Terry Lamb
What Makes It Great: The poster takes one of the greatest scenes in the entire movie and puts it right in front of you. Except it doesn’t spoil anything. You just know that whatever Ridley is looking at is terrifying. But you have to see it for yourself. Surrounding her with Xenomorph eggs, strapping on a humungous rifle, and giving her a child to protect all solidify this as an action film with major stakes. Plus, “This Time It’s War” is such a fantastic tagline.
Artist: B.D. Fox Independent
What Makes It Great: This is an extremely strong example of branding. The Batman logo was instantly recognizable even before this blockbuster film hit theaters. No other image was needed no know that Batman was coming. Not Jack Nicholson. Not Michael Keaton. Not even an image of The Caped Crusader himself. The logo speaks for itself. And letting it do so put this virtually everywhere in the summer of 1989.
23. The Evil Dead
Artist: Bart Pierce and Tim Philo
What Makes It Great: This is a classic horror poster that could be at home in the 1930’s, except even more intense and infused with a modern horror sensibility. Giving the image a dutch tilt like many shots in the film itself helps the poster avoid many trappings of designs that follow straight angles. The colors stay simple, but the blueish purple night sky and filthy dirt are more than enough to compliment the striking image in the foreground.
22. The Exorcist
Artist: Bill Gold
What Makes It Great: This says absolutely nothing about the film, yet it’s obviously terrifying. By using simply two colors – sickly green and stark black – Gold creates a foreboding air. A silhouetted black figure and mist-filled night air convey that something terrible is about to happen. Combined with an empirically evil font for the title, and it’s obvious that Freidkin’s The Exorcist is frightening, even to those unaware of the story.
21. Beauty and the Beast
Artist: John Alvin
What Makes It Great: Stark yet soft at the same time, this wonderfully shows the beauty held within this fantastic Disney story. The warm light silhouetting the two characters fills the poster with a gentle feeling of love, despite the strange beastly nature of one of the two dancing figures. “The most beautiful love story ever” is quite the bold statement, but its delicate font combined with the tenderness on display make you want to see if it’s true. It definitely could be.