The top 25 movie posters of all time

What makes a movie poster iconic? The presence of a major Hollywood star? Not necessarily. The replication of a classic scene? Definitely not.

An iconic movie poster is one that has been burned onto the public consciousness, something that has become so recognisable that you feel you’ve always known it. It should spring to mind as soon as you hear the film’s name, and trigger excitement no matter how many times you see it.

Here we celebrate the most inspiring examples of the cinematic one-sheet, and ask some leading designers for their own take on why they work so well...

01. Raiders of the Lost Ark

This comic book-style poster wholeheartedly embraces stereotypes

This comic book-style poster wholeheartedly embraces stereotypes

The Raiders trilogy harked back to a time when men were real men, women were real women, and swarthy racial stereotypes were real swarthy racial stereotypes. This comic-book style poster design by Richard Amsel is a young boy's dream – full of swashbuckling adventure, foreign devils and a splash of romance.

Amsel, who died in 1985, also created iconic poster art for 1980s blockbusters Flash Gordon and The Dark Crystal. "If I paint or draw something that takes people into the realm of fantasy, then I feel that I've accomplished something," he once told Star Notes magazine. He certainly did in this case.

02. E.T.

Movie posters: E.T.

The hand in this poster belongs to the designer's daughter

While still at college, John Alvin freelanced for Hollywood art director Anthony Goldschmidt. Little did he know that his little sideline would pave the way for a career that spanned 35 years and 135 movies. 

He was working as an illustrator at an animation studio when Goldschmidt recommended him to paint the poster for Mel Brook’s spoof Western Blazing Saddles. Alvin would go on to create posters for films such as Blade Runner, Beauty and the Beast, Gremlins and this stunning creation for E.T.

Spielberg himself is said to have suggested Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. For Alvin, who died in 2008, the design also had a personal touch: the hand of the child in the poster belongs to his daughter, Farah.

Designer view:

Alex Mallinson, digital artist and animator: "E.T gave us two iconic images: the Elliot-on-flying-BMX symbol that graces later posters (and the Amblin logo) and the image of E.T. and Elliot's fingers coming together on a starry backdrop. The former image embodies the Spielbergian modern urban fantasy but the latter is the more interesting. 

"It's a reference to Michelangelo’s depiction of the creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, and that simple allusion heaps meaning on the poster. E.T. is cast as Jesus and references to his sojourn on Earth continue through the film. Elliot is the innocent, needing guidance or salvation. 

"Of course all that went over my head as I queued for this film as a child, and I took its most apparent meaning: that of wanting a friend from outer space. Frankly, I still do."

03. Jurassic Park

The branding for this film's fictional theme park doubled up as branding for the movie itself

The branding for this film's fictional theme park doubled up as branding for the movie itself

What rare genius was this? Create a tale about a dinosaur theme park, featuring in-story merchandising for that fictional park, which then doubles up as the real-life branding for the same movie. This iconic poster took the conceit and ran with it, setting youngsters' hearts a-racing at the prospect of seeing T-rexes and pterodactyls brought back to life through the then-groundbreaking medium of CGI.

04. The Thing

Drew Struzan was tasked with creating this poster overnight, with no concept art for reference

Drew Struzan was tasked with creating this poster overnight, with no concept art for reference

It is 1982 and artist Drew Struzan's phone rings. The caller is from Universal Studios. They are remaking The Thing and need poster art: is he interested? There is a snag. The deadline is tomorrow morning. And what's more: the publicity department have no photos to use as reference. They don't even have any concept art.

"It was a very odd experience," Struzan told "I got an immediate concept, which is not unusual for me. I dressed up in a winter snow outfit and my wife took a Polaroid of me."

Struzan used the snap as the basis of a sketch, which was faxed off to the studio. They approved the idea and after taking some more shots, this time with a 35mm camera, Struzan went to work, painting through the night. 

"At 9am a guy shows up at my doorstep and says, 'Is the painting ready?' I had about an hour to go, so I finished painting it and he took it away."

Designer view:

Aaron Blecha, artist and animator: "A simple, mysterious, terrifying design. With its stripped-down, cold colour palette, bold graphic ice forms, and backlit character in winter gear, the poster only hints at what the movie is about and what The Thing is, does or even looks like. It follows the old rule of not showing the creature and lets your imagination do the work. But once you've experienced the film, you realise how perfect the poster design is."

05. Back to the Future

Each installment in the Back to the Future trilogy uses the same poster structure

Each installment in the Back to the Future trilogy uses the same poster structure

Back to the Future was, and remains, the people's sci-fi. Aimed at ordinary folks rather than sci-fi geeks, the suburban time-travel trilogy has maintained its popularity down the generations and, although not all its predictions proved correct, still doesn't look dated.

This seminal design for the first film, by the king of iconic movie posters Drew Struzan, was cleverly recycled for the next two, with the Doc standing behind Marty for II, and then joined by his love interest, Clara, for III.

06. American Beauty

The poster for American Beauty references its most memorable scene

The poster for American Beauty references its most memorable scene

It's easy to obsess about the 1980s being the golden age of mainstream cinema, and forget about all those incredible flicks the 90s multiplexes had to offer. American Beauty for one, which took the clichés of safe, suburban life and turned them on their head with a biting, yet strangely life-affirming tale of lost souls seeking a way out of their misery.

Imagery-wise, the movie revolves around an unforgettable scene of a naked schoolgirl, bathed in roses, playing centre stage in a middle aged man's fantasy. That scene is slyly hinted at in this evocative poster created by Pulse Advertising. 

The typography is, quite rightly, pared back, giving space to the image and the seductive tagline 'Look closer' - a subtle signifier of the seedy surrealism to come.

07. Moon

Movie posters: Moon

AllCity's stylised moon brings to mind Saul Bass' poster for Vertigo

One of the most exciting and prolific design studios of recent years, AllCity (who most recently created the theatrical campaign for La La Land) was responsible for the original poster for Duncan Jones' atmospheric sci-fi debut.

According to the London agency's official notes on the poster: "The main themes from the film are loneliness, isolation, madness and rebirth. We created an image that explored these themes and stylistically took influences from 60s and 70s sci-fi."

The one-sheet is laced with lunar clues, from the empty black void to the swirling, Vertigo-esque circles forming the moon itself, with the diminutive, slightly cowed form of Sam Rockwell at its centre. Then there's the actor's name, typed solitary and understated in the top right-hand corner. Look closely and you'll see it's replicating, each new copy fading away…

Designer view:

Andy Thomas, creative director at Huge: "A wonderfully minimal and striking movie poster that beautifully captures the isolation and loneliness one would feel 950,000 miles from home: Sam Rockwell looks pretty bloody miserable! It's lovely, simple and very graphic while avoiding the usual moony clichés."

08. Trainspotting

Movie posters: Trainspotting

This poster references a train station departures board

When briefed to create the poster campaign for Danny Boyle’s original Trainspotting movie, designers Mark Blamire and Rob O’Connor were given a still from the Beatles biopic Backbeat to use as inspiration. They hated it almost as much as PolyGram's idea for the poster – a group shot of the film’s characters huddled together. Try as they might, they couldn’t get it to work.

Luckily, PolyGram had already approved the use of individual character posters, a teaser trick that had been used for Reservoir Dogs four years previously. 

"Irvine Welsh’s novel was written from the multiple points of view and in the voices of each of the main characters, and we felt it was important to stress the individuality of those personalities," Rob O’Connor told Creative Review in 2011.

At the time only Robert Carlyle and Ewan MacGregor were well known so it was a risky move, but one that ultimately paid off. "The characters in the story themselves almost seemed more important than the actors playing the roles."

Departures board

Armed with a series of strong black and white photographs for the individual posters, the design team was able to persuade PolyGram that combining the shots into a grid was the way to go.

"We introduced the device of a train station departures board," recalls Mark Blamire, "and added the caption 'This film is expected to arrive 02:96' to continue the theme."

Designer view:

Simon Jobling, web designer and developer: "Arguably, this is one of Britain's most iconic movie posters of all time. The distinctive style set of the white/orange lowercase Helvetica under grayscale photography of the main cast, captured the tone of the movie perfectly: dark, moody characters encapsulated in the vibrant, young drugs scene of the 90s.”

Read on for more examples of iconic movie posters

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