If you want to break in to the movie-poster business, here’s some terminology you’ll need to know. Call it “key art,” which refers to the poster as the “key” to the film’s whole marketing strategy, even though there’s considerable debate about the poster’s relative importance compared with the trailer. Still, unlike most other products for sale, movies must sell on their very first day on the market, and this pressure leads to a frenzy of overkill by the many studio people charged with creating the poster. It also leads to great sums of money being tossed in the direction of the photography.

Somewhere in the back of your mind store this term, because you won’t be needing it for a while: “special photography.” It’s what they call the movie-star shoot arranged specifically for the poster. This is where most of those big advertising dollars are tossed, and this is what makes the movie-poster business both so alluring and so elusive for photographers whose names aren’t Gorman, Ritts or Watson. (They and others with their reputations and high-name recognition are known as both “brand” and “ego” photographers for their ability to massage the ego of the star who either requests them or is given them as an offering, a human version of the long limo.)

There is plenty of other work for photographers in this business, and it’s not unheard of for photographers to work their way into the inner sanctum of the special shoot. But no one says it’s easy. John Eder, a Los Angeles-based photographer who’s done record covers and some advertising and is trying to break in, says: “in my opinion, it’s the hardest club to crack in all of photography.” One way is to establish relationships with the celebrities themselves so that they will request you, either by doing editorial work or by catching them early in their careers, the way Herb Ritts did with Richard Gere.

Others start at the periphery and gradually prove themselves by developing relationships with people at the studios and agencies. Peter Tangen, who began as an assistant to Bonnie Schiffman on the shoot for “Clue” and now does special shoots for major releases, places less emphasis on “schmoozability” and more on professionalism.

“I did all the research in the world and showed my portfolio,” he says, “and one day I was hired to do a shoot. I can’t tell you how to get that first job, but I can tell you that those who succeed after that are the ones who fully know how to produce the work they’re doing. They think things through so thoroughly that they’re ahead of the process.” (A potent counter-example is Tangen’s photograph on the first of several the upcoming “Spiderman” posters, of which he was extremely proud. It depicted a web spun between the Twin Towers, and was pulled immediately after the attack.)

The other major player on the scene is the “unit photographer.” He or she is considered more of a working stiff who’s on the set for the duration of the production, earning a union wage and taking the stills that are used for magazine and newspaper reviews and features. Occasionally the unit photographer’s work will cross over to the poster, and he or she will be paid a bonus, but nothing approaching the mid-five figures a special photographer can often earn for a single session. Images by veteran unit photographer Myles Aronowitz were used for “Scent of a Woman,” “One Fine Day” and other movies, and he eventually got a big break when he was called to do both the unit and special shoots for “Big Daddy.” He and his wife Lisa Levart, a photographer and illustrator, parlayed this experience into their own boutique agency, Lush.

The glamour begins to diminish – but the work opportunities to increase — when you get to the more ubiquitous assignments to be had in the poster business: “body double work.” You might think that between the special photographer and the unit photographer, the poster designer would have plenty of juicy images to work with. This is not the case at all. Either there isn’t enough money or time for a good special session, or the leads are not available at the same time, or one is never available, or the concept for the poster changes, or is refined, in midstream. To save money, more and more studios have an inhouse photographer for the grunt work or will hire lesser-known photographers as needed. Tatiana Menke, a photo editor at Seiniger Advertising Group, one of the oldest of the agencies specializing in movie advertising, calls these foot-in-the-door projects. “I try to bring people into that realm. Maybe one or two of those people have gone on to do other things.” She says she looks constantly at portfolios, and encourages photographers to come by in person. Alas, she also admits that though she always puts in suggestions for photographers, nine times out of 10 the studio gets to do the hiring.

The bulk of the body-double work is done by a sub-industry of photographers around Hollywood who shoot and Photoshop in the missing pieces, as it were, with varying degrees of finesse. Let’s say there’s a great moody head shot of Mel Gibson. But there’s no body, or there’s a body but the arms are lying limp instead of in mid-karate chop or clutching at the upper arms of Julia Roberts. The photographer will find someone with the same body type, or the same arm type, and then blend it as seamlessly as possible with that handsome head, which is all potential moviegoers want to see anyway. John Eder, for instance, has posed as the body of Harrison Ford. Fees for body-double photography vary widely because the demands of the project differ. But it’s safe to say they run from about $2,000 to 20,000 for a project.

The importance of those movie-star faces, coupled with the arcane legal requirements the owners of those faces have written into their contracts (my face must be appear in the poster and must be the largest image) leads to one last piece of terminology you should know: “big heads in the sky.” This is the derisive term insiders use to describe the iconic movie poster, the one with the two leads floating in the ether on top, and then a little vignette from the film down below. “We never start out trying to do that,” says Rick Lynch, one of the three principals of the very hot agency BLT & Associates. “Sometimes you do hundreds of pieces that are not that, and then the studio head says ‘I want to see my star.’ I’m working on one for Lord of the Rings as we speak.”

Lynch’s experience is a good reminder that the creativity offered by posters is of an extremely diluted nature. A poster begins life at the movie studio, and it can have many, many parents including the studio heads, all the art directors and the marketing staff. Often it must be designed before the movie is in production. To cover themselves, the studios often hire more than one design agency (“double vending”). Nels Israelson, a veteran photographer who’s worked on all aspects of posters, sums up the process: “it’s not unheard of anymore to have something in the area of 400 iterations of a poster that are churned out by one or more agencies that basically mill the stuff out. Sometimes it seems to me it’s purely pulling the slot-machine handle feverishly until the time is up and whatever happens to be the last image on the screen as the midnight hour approaches whereby we can’t noodle it anymore” is the one that becomes the poster. There are many such agencies, including Seineger (known as “Seineger High” because so many young photographers just out of art school have passed through), Concept Art, B.D. Fox and Friends, New Wave Entertainment, Vox, and Shioolery.

Adds Cheryl Pellegrino, a poster designer, “You all have the same shot of a guy shooting a gun, and one of us tints it yellow and another tints it red, and they end up deciding on orange.” To avoid this syndrome, Pellegrino has carved a career working almost exclusively for independents, where they are more likely to solve problems with creativity instead of money. Her recent poster for the film “L.I.E.” creates a haunting effect simply by turning a unit still on its side.
Stephen Stickler, a former bi-coastal music-industry photographer, made a conscious choice to break in to movie posters. “I made a decision at the beginning of the year to shoot less and earn more,” he says, and adds “I’m definitely on a path that will lead me to special shoots.” Thanks to a good contact he made with the creative head at Buena Vista Pictures, he just shot a poster of corn fields for a new Mel Gibson film that doesn’t exist yet. His best advice? “I go see people. I find when I go in person there’s a much higher likelihood of getting hired. Be relaxed; show adaptability.” And never forget the big heads in the sky: “a lot of this work is personality based. You need the ability to persuade the celebrities to stick around.”

— Michele Herman