John Waters on film posters

Hairspray (1988) British Quad poster

An excerpt from an interview with John Waters in the late 90s where he shares his thoughts on film posters:

What’s your involvement with the collateral material for your films-ads, movie posters?

John Waters: I usually have the biggest fights about that. Because a lot of times the film distributors panic at the last minute. They try to make my movies something they’re not, which doesn’t work because the regular people don’t want to see it anyway, and the people who like me don’t like that. So I’m very involved in it. When I was a child I used to pretend that I owned a dirty movie theater and would redesign all the ad campaigns for the movies. Now I try to make sure that we have more stills than most people. And I always think up an ad campaign when I give them the pitch to get the deal. I give them an ad campaign, not that they use it. But to just steer them that way. I had the best one for Hairspray. They used it in England, they didn’t want it here. ‘Their hair was perfect, but the world was a mess.’ But I must admit they did a great job with the re-release of Pink Flamingos. The headline was ‘The American Trash Classic is Back.’ But then we gave all the negative quotes from the first release. We didn’t want them to put the newfound respect in.

And I’m not saying I disliked the ad campaigns for all my movies. But I notice movie ads. I get about 90 magazines a month. I’m a media junkie. So I try to have as much say on the advertising as possible. Some of the biggest fights I’ve ever had are with the advertising people. Because if it’s bad, it wrecks a movie.

How do the advertising and marketing people tend to sell your movies?

Waters: I’ll give the good examples first. The original ad for Pink Flamingos was based on the most famous still that’s ever come out of my movies – Divine with the red fishtail gown and the gun. They did a beautiful poster of that. With a very simple ad campaign that I did think up called ‘An Exercise in Poor Taste.’ We wanted to make it sound classy, even though ti was so much the opposite. But I knew that with the kind of reviews that we were getting, we didn’t have to say anything else. I liked the original movie poster for Polyester, which was Tab Hunter and Divine in love. Because nobody could believe that it could be true. But then a nameless executive did a hideous poster to make it look like The Groove Tube, which I fought tooth and nail. They just imitated another hit movie. Which is what makes me really insane. I also hate the kinds of movie ad where it’s not based on a real photograph – it’s like a cartoon version of the characters. I love white space in movie ads in the paper. I think you notice it more. In Europe, the posters are always better. I have a great poster for Polyester, which is a giant one, as big as that wall. The French have the best ones, always – Divine in a girdle, smelling her feet. Now imagine that in America: ‘How about this? Let’s test this. This ought to do well.’ But that poster is a great poster. And I’m sure it made more people see the movie. What I’m very much against is trying to make my movies what they aren’t. And many times they do that.

— (via Graphis #314)