Where do Movie Poster Quotes Come From?

Quotes on posters: they're just taken from reviews, once reviews are published. Right? Er, not always...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Bourne meets Inception,” screamed the poster for the underrated The Adjustment Bureau, back in 2012. Universal Pictures’ marketing team can hardly be blamed for jumping on that particular phrase when it first appeared in Total Film magazine, and it became an integral part of the film’s subsequent promotional campaign.

It made sense, too. Inception, at that time, had earned Warner Bros over $800m at the global box office. It had attracted Oscar attention. And as for the hugely successful Bourne films – which also starred Matt Damon at that stage, as The Adjustment Bureau did – well, The Bourne Legacy hadn’t happened back then. Marketing gold.

The problem, though, was the source of the quote. It was an honest quote from the pages of Total Film. The issue was that it came from a preview feature. The film hadn’t been seen at that stage, and to be fair to Universal here, it didn’t try and present said quote as a review. But it’s but one example of where the magical quotes that appear on movie posters tend to appear from.

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You would assume that the quotes all come from reviews, and the studio then cherry-picked the best ones for its needs. But you would not always be correct.

Please note: the posters used in this piece are for illustrative purposes only, rather than implying anything specific about them.

When It Works

To be clear, though, the majority of movie poster quotes do originate this way. In the bad old days, studios had a habit of taking a quote ruthlessly out of context and presenting, say, the word “Brilliant”, but omitting the bit where the text before said “it’s a shame, because if that had happened, it would have been…”. That’s a hypothetical example, but again, once upon a time not far off the mark.

More often than not, now a big studio will check and get permission for a quote before it’s used. Outlets had previously complained that their words were being misrepresented, and this seemed like a nice compromise. So far so good. An outlet has the right to veto a quote (as we’ve done in the past), and on the world turns.

But inevitably, things get murkier.

There’s arguably an advantage to the profile of an outlet in getting a poster quote. After all, if you’re looking to gain exposure for a website or publication, and there’s a chance you can get your name on a poster that’s going to be seen by potentially hundreds of thousands of people, then it’s at least enough to make you stop and think.

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The Daily Mail‘s former film critic, Christopher Tookey, was one of those particularly damning of people he called “quote whores”. It’s an uncomfortable phrase, yet as he outlined on his website, it describes “the movie critics who praise films that ought not to be praised, and act as unofficial PR men and women for the film industry”.

He collated a top 30 list of the people he described as “the top 30 quote whores in the world,” but just to give you an idea how long it’s been since he updated it, the highest ranked UK writer is Paul Ross, from his News Of The World days. The chart is here.

This website has been quoted on posters many times in the past, and in truth, in the early days it was quite a thrill to see our name up there. Furthermore, when it feels like you’re giving fuel to a film that genuinely deserves as much exposure as it can get, then it’s hard to grumble.

However, increasingly, there are things about movie poster quotes that make them seem less like any kind of badge of honour, and more like an all-too-brief representation of what you’re actually trying to say. After all, there remains much debate about the merits of star ratings, yet the main review many casual moviegoers see is a rave review quote on a poster.

But where else do those quotes come from? Well sometimes, from people who haven’t seen the film concerned at all.

The Anticipation Quote

We’ve touched on the growing, worrying trend of the “anticipation quote” before at this site, but it’s worth going over the key points again. Because there have been occasions over the past couple of years where big movies have been labelled with quotes that the outlet concerned has been asked to provide. Specifically, the “anticipation quote.”

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The first call we ever took about one of these was a good few years back. Would we like to pen a quote or two, about how much we were looking forward to a major blockbuster that happened to be released that summer? Could we, we were asked, say something along the lines of “the big movie for summer 20XX/”

No. No we couldn’t. This isn’t just a holier than thou moment, although we appreciate it may sound it. But how can you deliberately provide a promotional quote for a poster, that puts a value judgement on the film itself, if all you’d seen was a trailer?

Said film had no trouble filling its quote quota, though, and sure enough, a few weeks later as we walked through London, there was a huge poster, proclaiming it to be ‘the must-see movie of the summer’, with the name of the outlet concerned underneath.

That felt odd then, and feels odd now. That feels like you’re on the side of a movie marketing department, rather than readers for whom a trip to the movies is a big deal. But we’ve seen a few ‘anticipation quotes’ since then, and a few more we’ve suspected to be (although couldn’t be sure).

Request A Quote

Somewhere in the middle of all of this is an approach that tends to be used by small distributors.

The battle such distributors face is being able to get people to watch their films in good time in the first place, to be able to gleam a quote. Thus, selected journalists tend to be approached. The idea is thus that if an early screener or streaming link (of the finished film) could be provided, would the outlet concerned provide a quote that could, perhaps, go on the poster, or the DVD cover?

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This happens a lot. Some are more happy to provide quotes than others. If there’s an issue, it’s that the quote may end being written before the review, and there’s a question then about whether you’re being a reviewer, or a PR auxiliary of sorts. But again: at the heart there is the issue that smaller films often need all the help they can get just to get noticed, yet alone watched. You don’t have to provide a quote, and you do watch the film first.

The Right Approach?

The excellent The Shiznit website nailed the best way forward in an article back in November 2013. Arguing that “the biggest bum-lickers do their best fawning in the vain hope of having their name appear on a one-sheet in 12 point Arial Bold”, it suggested that the right approach to getting your review quoted on a poster was to “work hard, gain respect, write truthfully and make your words mean something”.

But then many critics now attempt to sidestep being quoted on posters. “Somebody said recently that I never get quoted on posters,” Mark Kermode told us back in January. “And I was kind of rather proud of that. That I don’t. I genuinely don’t, partly because I never answer the emails asking for instant reactions but partly because, as you know, being quoted on posters is… sometimes a single-edged sword. Sometimes there’s only a downside to it.”

It’s hard not to see his point. Because after press screenings of films now, more often than not a reviewer will get an email from the PR company who put it on, after a reaction. Said reactions aren’t compulsory, and given the crazy deadlines PR companies tend to work under, again it’s an understandable approach.

But the problem? Those instant reactions have a habit of forming the poster quote. That if you send a reaction back, that may end up being quoted, even if it’s not a phrase that’s ultimately used in the final review. In which case, again, it’s a piece of writing not for the service of readers, but for a marketing department.

Maybe that’s all being a bit picky. The vast majority of poster quotes you see now are at least representative of the reviewer concerned, even if the reviewer is rarely named (the outlet tends to be). For PR and marketing departments too, there are more outlets than ever reviewing films, and so even a film such as the pretty terrible Nativity 3 can glean a couple of positive notices to plaster on the DVD box.

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Still, it’s worth remembering: those words of encouragement staring at you from a piece of poster art aren’t always as gleeful and helpful as they may appear…