by Nathan Blake
While analyzing the first promotional materials for Steven Spielberg’s The Post, I was immediately struck by the font used in the trailer and on the film’s poster. The Helvetica font was previously used in posters, trailers and opening titles for Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, which also starred Tom Hanks. The font also played a part in advertisements for Saving Private Ryan, though that was not the font used for titles within the film itself.
One difference between the font’s use here and the way it appeared on posters for previous Spielberg films is the use of capitalization. The Post uses capitalization, whereas in the other two posters, the stars names and the film’s title are lower case.
Intrigued by these similarities, I did some digging into who designed the posters. All three were done by BLT Communications. You can see many examples of the films they’ve recently worked on here. They have also created the poster for Spielberg’s upcoming sci-fi adaptation Ready Player One. While scrolling through the collection of posters on BLT’s homepage, a gallery that spans all the way back to 2008, it appears Helvetica is not a font the company uses very often. Aside from Spielberg films, it is used only in the poster for Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs.
If the use of Helvetica is something that Spielberg requested specifically for these posters, then the question becomes why? Does it have to do with a common setting, period, theme? Is it because one or more of the same actors are involved? Maybe it’s a little of each.
Before digging into this question, it is worth noting that approving poster design falls into the category of distribution, which is usually the concern of the producer. Since Spielberg and many other auteur directors are also producers on their films, it is likely they get to approve of the artwork used to promote their work.
The settings of the three films mentioned above probably has the least to do with the common font in the promotional material. Saving Private Ryan mostly took place in Europe, though it was very much a story about Americans and their experiences in WWII. Catch Me If You Can was mostly set in the U.S. in the 1960s, though Frank Abagnale Jr. did flee to Europe for a while and the film follows him for some of that journey. The Post is set in the early 1970s, during the Nixon administration, and primarily takes place in the U.S., though the trailers suggest there will be at least some of it that takes place in Vietnam. Perhaps, because these films are set in successive decades and star Tom Hanks, Spielberg is implying some loose connection between them, an ongoing American saga with one of the auteur’s favorite actors playing different roles as history unfolds. But then where does Bridge of Spies fit? In terms of period, it falls between Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me If You Can. It also stars Tom Hanks and tells another part of 20th century American history. So why no Helvetica in the poster? For one, it was not designed by BLT Communications. But more importantly, Bridge of Spies differs in one big way from the other three films.
My interpretation of the use of a different font is that it reflects the difference in viewpoint provided in the narrative. Though it still very much tells the story from the side of the Americans, Bridge of Spies is also critical of the American process at times, and forces the audience to consider the experiences of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance in an Oscar-winning performance).
Spielberg’s use of Helvetica in the instances mentioned above aren’t the only examples of similarities between promotional materials for his films. Check out the posters for Munich and Lincoln below. It is worth noting that both of those films were written by Tony Kushner.
Other auteur directors do this too. Check out these posters for two Alexander Payne films.
When determining if a director is an auteur, we often look at his or her canon, the actors they work with repeatedly and the unique personal stamps they place on their films. Maybe the first place to begin looking for those stamps is on movie posters.