I essentially grew up in a movie theater. My mother used to take me several times a week, long before you had to take out a second mortgage to enjoy a night out at the cinema. One of the theaters we frequented was called “The Berlin Twin” and it was as old school as you could get: ticket window, velvet ropes and a lobby that was plastered floor to vaulted ceiling with posters. I was mesmerized by the wild laughing face of Gene Wilder on the Young Frankenstein one sheet and I remember marveling at the early teaser for Sam Raimi’s Darkman. This was a pre-internet age, there were no teaser trailers for teaser trailers. You got a couple previews before the movie started but mostly, you got the beautiful posters that gave you a glimpse at what was to come. Over the years we’ve seen that trend go by the way side but now, in the internet age, is making a comeback. Kevin Burke’s new documentary 24×46 is a loving tribute to that bygone era as well the new resurgence of illustrated poster art.
Tackling the history of the movie poster is no small task and Burke, by and large, does a commendable job of taking viewers down a rich and sometimes woeful timeline. The doc kicks off with a brief history lesson from the early days of French art up through the masterful Universal horror works. Every artist profiled could easily fill their own documentary but Burke does a great job of keeping the tone light and pace quick as we are introduced to a cavalcade of names including industry visionaries like John Alvin (E.T.) and Drew Struzan (Star Wars). It’s after this that we make a brief stop in the trend that began in the 90’s and has, unfortunately, continued to this day of the “floating head” posters and the photoshop heavy pieces that studios rely so heavily on. It’s an important, albeit sad, marker on the timeline of the film poster but Burke does a fine job of getting various opinions on the matter and also not burying the graphic designers who work in that style. From here the documentary really begins to shine as we begin to explore the new wave of illustrated film posters.
One of the most impressive qualities about the film is the sheer volume of artists that appear. Most every major contributor to the world of illustrated and collectible poster art in the past 15 years is on display here and almost all of the participants have some really wonderful insights into the modern world of poster art. Tim Doyle is one of the real standouts here as he talks about the difference between limited release posters and having a design available all the time. In mentioning that, however, it should also be said that this is where the film falters slightly as well. There is so much material to cover when it comes to this art form that the film sometimes feels a little muddled or rushed in places depending on the topic of conversation. I feel like sections like the chat with Mondo’s Rob Jones (who doesn’t seem too keen to be interviewed at all) could have been axed to make way for other spotlights like expanding on the history of some other artists/galleries like Phantom City or Grey Matter. This is a minor complaint though as what works in the doc really works.
Burke also manages to craft a beautiful love letter to the art form while also discussing the problems that the community faces. There are a couple great sections here on the struggles of licensing a film property as well as the dreaded flippers who are buying art and then reselling it for 10 times the amount that was paid. These concerns may seem niche to the casual viewer but by the end of the film, everyone can appreciate the work and struggle that goes into this kind of design.
24×36 is one of the most stunning and accessible docs about the art form to come out in the last few years. It’s a perfect snapshot of the past and present of poster design and in some places, serves as a warning against some of the practices that could hurt the art form’s future. Burke’s film serves as a perfect primer for new fans as well as a wonderful bit of nostalgia for all of us who grew up waiting to see the next poster at our local theater.