Put on a happy face

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Old-timers like me can remember back to the dark ages of 1990, when Ivan Reitman’s Kindergarten Cop came out.  The posters for Kindergarten Cop featured star Arnold Schwarzenegger enduring the enthusiastic attention of a bunch of five-year-olds.  The joke was clear: the Terminator can travel through time and walk through explosions, but a bunch of five-year-olds is a little too much for him.

Then something strange happened: a few weeks into the run of Kindergarten Cop, the posters suddenly changed — the "overwhelmed" Arnold became the "beaming" Arnold.  I remember clearly, I was living in New York, and all through the subways the Kindergarten Cop posters suddenly went from funny to not-funny.  Arnold overwhelmed by children is funny, Arnold proudly hoisting kids is not.

Why did this happen?  It happened because the studio heard concerns from parents, who thought that Arnold looked a little too overwhelmed in the original poster.  Schwarzenegger was known at the time for movies like Predator, Raw Deal and Commando, hyper-violent action movies with little regard for human life.  Parents saw the poster for Kindergarten Cop and read on Arnold’s face that he was about to snap and kill all the children climbing on him.  Kindergarten Cop isn’t really a family movie, but studio concerns are studio concerns and the posters were changed.  And, as you can see, the "nicer" poster still exists in some territories.

Now check this out: at the left is the original poster for Up.  There’s Carl Fredricksen, dangling from a garden hose, his face a mask of terror appropriate to the situation.  On the right is the blu-ray cover: Carl is no longer terrified — rather, he looks positively beatific, as though shot up with morphine.  Hanging by a garden hose in mid-air?  Nothing could be more pleasurable for this Carl.  He’s even carrying a dog!

Why?  What was wrong with the original poster?  I can see why the marketing people would want to crowd the other characters around Carl to make the image "read" faster in the smaller format, but why is Carl no longer concerned about his situation?  Up is, as millions know already, a delightful comedy and a heartfelt observation of humanity, why did the marketing people think it necessary to iron out the small amount of tension present in the original poster design?  You know, the image that got millions of people to see the movie in the first place?  All I can think of is that the marketing people wanted to remind people that Up is, in the end, a pleasant experience, and erase from the DVD-buyer’s mind all the non-happy emotions associated with the project — like, for instance, the pain and humiliation that causes Carl to want to tie a bunch of balloons to his house in the first place.

Then, I saw this just today, and I’m completely baffled.  The poster for Alvin and the Chipmunks, while no great graphic feat, looks just fine to me — there are a group of smart-alec chipmunks, and there is Dave, who looks slightly skeptical at the prospect of caring for the chipmunks.  That seems to me to be the kindest, most generous way to present the movie, since the narrative is about how Alvin and his pals drive Dave to ruin.  They could have presented Dave as being angry, harried or overwhelmed, but they went with slightly skeptical, and that’s fine.  Alvin and the Chipmunks is a kids’ movie, and parents want to know, for sure, that a kids’ movie is okay for kids to watch, and I understand that.  You wouldn’t design a poster for Alvin and the Chipmunks to look like a poster for Saw, you would make it bright and colorful and benign.  And you would give it a white background with red lettering, so people would know it’s a comedy (I don’t know how that formulation came into being, but it has).

But then look at the blu-ray cover.  Dave isn’t even slightly skeptical any more, now he’s — I don’t even know what he is.  Seeking approvalBlandly optimisticApologetic?  Is the studio actually trying to tell us that they were worried that the original design was too threatening, too off-putting for somebody?  The chipmunks dressed as rap stars look positively stupid next to Dave’s new face, whereas his response in the original poster seems completely appropriate: he’s looking askance at them and asking us to join him in his skepticism.  In the new image, he’s completely disconnected from the chipmunks, seemingly helpless and neutered.  He doesn’t even seem to be in the same picture-plane as the chipmunks any more, he’s just this face kind of floating near them.  Did the studio honestly think that this would help sell DVDs?  What person who wants to purchase a copy of Alvin and the Chipmunks in the first place would be put off by the original poster image?


38 Responses to “Put on a happy face”
  1. marcochacon says:

    I have only suppositions.

    1. I think it’s probably an easier sell to have a “more positive” cover under most situations when something is aimed at kids. It’ll be the moms doing the shopping (and I’m taking a gender-stereotyped guess here but I would assume it matches the thinking of the studios–and maybe their demo research).

    2. It is quite possible the competition profile of a blu ray on a Best Buy shelf is a good deal different from that of a poster in a theater. There are many more titles to compete with and negative facial expressions may be one of those things that register in an instant but have significant first-impression-style impact (I’m merging a lot of concepts lifted from pop-bio-science books like Blink–but, again, I can see this being a ‘legitimate’ studio concern when the title gets thrown on the big shelf).

    So it might be two different things: I’ll admit to having been confused by Kindergarten Cop as a viewer. Was it a family movie? Action? Would it have cute-kid stuff that would make me hurl? I wasn’t sure and the posters might’ve helped me figure it out (turns out they didn’t–I didn’t see or at least I don’t remember seeing them).

    But the blu ray covers could well be due to the differences in venue.


  2. curt_holman says:

    “You wouldn’t design a poster for Alvin and the Chipmunks to look like a poster for Saw”

    Well, *I* would, but…

    With Up vs. Up, I wonder if there’s a difference between selling a movie as a one-time experience, and selling a DVD/Blu-Ray as a something you’d own for potential repeat viewings. And it may assume that the DVD consumer pretty much knows the outcome of the hit movie, so the poster says “OMG! What will happen to him!” and the DVD cover says “Isn’t this movie great? Don’t you want to own it?”

    • Anonymous says:


      i have nothing special to add here, really, other than i think this comment is correct! 🙂

  3. curt_holman says:


    Clearly, Jason Lee’s skeptical expression in the first is appropriate to the tag-line “Here comes trouble.” (Really, that’s the best they could do?) I’m not sure what the tag-line “Get your squeak on” means in the DVD tag-line, and can only assume that bland optimism is the best response.

    • Re: Alvin

      The “squeak” reference could just be a tie-in with the sequel that is coming out which is subtitled “The Squeakuel.”

    • Todd says:

      Re: Alvin

      That makes me more baffled than ever — the tag line “Get your squeak on” doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the chipmunks dressed as rap stars or Dave’s “Don’t blame me” expression. Why not re-design the entire box if you’re going to do that?

      • Re: Alvin

        In this and other cases, they’d still want it to be recognizable as the same basic image for the same product. That is, unless the sequel turns out to be more successful and different enough that they’d rather adapt it to the sequel’s look.

        That last “unless” idea is the same one that leads to DVDs of movies from yesteryear coming out with a big photo of Robert De Niro or Marilyn Monroe on the cover and their name splayed across the front, when the film itself was made before they were a star and features them in only a few minutes of screen time.

    • Re: Alvin

      I believe the intention is a take-off on “get your freak on,” strange as that may be.

  4. perich says:

    I wrote this big long argument then deleted it because the following occurred to me:

    Is it possible that the DVD rights and the poster design are so segmented that the DVD cover designers, in some cases, might not have the rights to the original poster in its exact form?

    • Todd says:

      For major studio releases like these, I’m sure the marketing people for both the theatrical release and the DVD release are the same people. In fact, the DVD packaging is likely designed at the same time as the teaser posters.

      • perich says:

        Hmm. My only other guess then is that it’s marketing people experimenting for the sake of experimenting. “We’ve already got the hardcore fans buying. Let’s see if we can get that marginal market share by positioning the DVD cover a little different!”

  5. I dunno. The DVD market is weird to me: I don’t buy them. Ever. I’ll rent, but the idea of accumulating movies to watch again and again AND AGAIN AND AGAIN is pretty lost on me. So I don’t really understand that deeply what’ll sell a DVD as opposed to a movie in the theater.

    It does occur to me that most people buying a DVD have already seen the movie, and part of what they’re buying is nostalgia, which is candy-coated anyway.

    But I would never make the assumption that marketing decisions are either smart or honest or anything. I did a couple years time working for a strategic marketer uptown, and that was enough to show me that every single stage of the research, advertising and marketing process is based on pandering and deceit – not just to the customer of the product, either. I can’t look at an ad now without getting an inner glimpse of the foundation of bullshit on which it’s founded.

    Every major advertising decision is based, ultimately, on lies told a market researcher by the sort of person who responds to marketing surveys.

    • Yeah, I’m not really one for purchasing DVDs either, though I do own about 50-100 (which is puny compared to what I’ve seen a lot of people own). I’m very picky about the DVDs I purchase and get them for the following reasons:

      1. I will want to watch them enough times that it will be cheaper to own than rent.
      e.g., Monty Python and the Holy Grail

      2. I will want to show them to friends AND they are not available for renting
      e.g., All the anime and TV series I actually own

      3. I have never and will never find them for rent.
      e.g., Meet the Feebles, The Suburbanators, Wal-Mart Movie, Undergrads, etc

      4. I had the movie on VHS and have purchased them over again on DVD (for whatever reason)
      e.g., Stand by Me, Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia, etc

      Just wanting to point out that some of us feel much the same way that you do regarding buying movies on DVD, but there are some reasons which makes the purchasing of films seem justifiable (YMMV, of course).

      • Fair enough! I do grok the Anime thing, come to think of it, though I haven’t been active with that for about ten years now.

        • Yeah, it’s been a few years or more since I really watched much anime either. Before I moved away from my mom’s some friends and I would get together on a semi-regular basis to watch different anime series. However we’ve all moved away since then, having all finished university. :/

  6. mr_noy says:

    This never fails to surprise me. Granted, poster art can vary wildly from region to region but invariably the DVD box art is inferior to the original movie poster(s) – probably for all the reasons other commentors have already proposed. It’s annoying sometimes since I’m often using my memory of the poster art to help me find the DVD on the shelves. I guess the marketing people figure if you already saw the movie at the theater and enjoyed it you’re more inclined to buy the DVD anyway but a new campaign is required to lure people who are still unsure. The different images can also be used to distinguish different editions of the film so I suppose that it’s sometimes helpful.

    On a related note, just last night I was browsing through the poster art gallery on the Inglourious Basterds DVD and found it interesting that all of the American and International posters and lobby cards basically look alike except for the language used. The only exception were the Japanese posters (as well as the Japanese trailer) that used that bright yellow featured in the Kill Bill marketing campaign. I can only assume that Kill Bill did well in Japan so the marketing people wanted to remind everyone that Inglourious Basterds was, indeed, by the same guy. I wonder if the DVD box art in Japan followed suit.

  7. popebuck1 says:

    My personal theory as to why this happens: it happens because there exist a whole class of studio and marketing executives whose sole job is to voice concern over things like “Carl’s expression on the poster.”

    Someone probably got a big bonus just for coming up with Jason Lee’s precise expression of bland optimism.

  8. leonardpart6 says:

    Curiously, the single-disc Up DVD contains artwork mostly unrelated to the original poster, adding plenty of “adventure” elements – and showing Carl with a frightened look. Considering that’s the disc being marketed to kids (us adults get the pitch for the fancier releases), I’m really baffled by Carl’s smile on the other one.

  9. I’m guessing: there are 50 (or 1000) versions done for each of these posters, and thousands (or millions) of dollars are spent to get “normal” people into a room and stare at a few of them at a time while eating free sandwiches. Then the “normal” people (with the sandwiches) “decide” which facial expression works best for them, based on intentionally-vague multiple-choice questionnaires, etc.

  10. mimitabu says:

    the overall trend is pretty interesting… but i have to chime in and comment on how hilarious that alvin and the chipmunks blu-ray cover is (and i suspect using that as the payoff/punchline in the entry is the reason for the entry’s existence). holy shit. i love how they photoshopped the first one, but didn’t even bother for the blu-ray cover. that picture is amazing.

  11. Very interesting. I’m glad you brought this to our attention. Have you noticed this a lot, or are these sorts of changes an exception? You might not even know offhand the number of covers/posters which are retained from the original vs those which are altered. However, I do notice that overall they try to maintain the overall image for easy recognition by the consumer.

    • Todd says:

      DVD cover art varies from the original theatrical posters all the time, it’s nothing unusual. What confuses me is this completely unnecessary whitewashing of a perfectly good graphic idea.

  12. I’d point out that all three of these movies are aimed at children, at least it seems to me that kids are the audience that would enjoy these films the most. (Which, of course is not to say that an adult can’t enjoy “Up”.) I’d go further and say that while the second poster is obviously designed to allure kids, the first is designed to convince adults, the people who are actually paying to see the film, and will be forced to watch every minute without leaving the room, that the viewing experience won’t be completely excruciating. The first poster instills a measure of pathos, a concept foreign to many human beings younger than twelve.

    Also, the first poster sells the experience of watching the film, while the second sells a kind of ownership of the film. Instead of selling the experience of a single viewing of the film in a theater, the second sells an object, the DVD and its packaging.

    • Todd says:

      Well, Kindergarten Cop is not aimed at children — it features shootings, sex, profanity and drug abuse. Which raises the question of whether or not the original poster was appropriate in the first place.

      • maakies2 says:

        Movies need to be a little scary. Moms buying DVDs want kids to be happy.

      • notthebuddha says:

        Well, Kindergarten Cop is not aimed at children — it features shootings, sex, profanity and drug abuse. Which raises the question of whether or not the original poster was appropriate in the first place.

        The entire promotional campaign was fubared – I remember watching the kid being held at gunpoint and thinking how pissed the parents who somehow overlooked the R rating and brought their kids must be.

        To address your larger point and drawing on my time as a business major, I think that it’s likely that marketing research has shown at least that different people are deciding to buy tickets than to buy DVDs. A person who liked the film doesn’t neet to be marketed to to buy the DVD, they just need to be able to identify the product. Meanwhile, happy faces may appeal to the comfort zone of people who don’t like the hassle of getting in and out of theater crowds and parking lots, plus lots of DVDs are bought as gifts by different people than will ultimately watch them. Then there are the opportunity costs: DVDs still compete for the same total money, but not for the same free time available for viewing, so people can usefully buy them in bundles without having to worry if they picked *the* *one* they want to watch *right* *now*, so you want a simpler, less interpretative image to pitch your DVD in hopes of triggering the decision to buy sooner in the limited browsing time of the customer.

        Taking the time to think about it, I’m surprised there aren’t more differences and altenate posters as it is.

        Oh, p.s. do you have a cite for the parental-studio feedback on the Kindergarden Cop change over?

        • Todd says:

          I have plenty of citations regarding people being angry about the ad campaign, which seems to market the movie as a kids’ movie, but only my own memory for the parent-studio feedback. This all happened before the internet.

          • notthebuddha says:

            just about a year before the web was invented, yeah, but I was hoping you remembered reading about it in a particular magazine or watching it on ET or something.

  13. Anonymous says:

    This is not a defense, merely an attempt at explanation

    In most cases, the marketing for a home video release IS handled by different people than the theatrical campaign. They are different departments within the same studio, each with their own marketing people. Now, ultimately there is a small handful of folks at the top who approve both but they’re not originating the work, just commenting on it. Theatrical marketing is original; the people are usually more creative and talented than their HV counterparts. They essentially craft the entire strategy for selling the movie and, if they were successful, the HV departments will merely build on that and make it their own a little to comply with regulations unique to home video. I’m not putting them down (it’s my sector of employment if you can’t tell) at all; they are serving an important and profitable need for their companies. Lastly, theatrical marketing tends to be more precise and laser-like with territories and demographics whereas HV marketing tends to go broader (safer) since it’s a product that will sit on shelves for years instead of the few months a movie poster might be up. I’m not saying this explains these specific cases but hope it helps explain that it’s probably not arbitrary either.

    • Todd says:

      Re: This is not a defense, merely an attempt at explanation

      Oh, I’m sure it’s not arbitrary, I’m just baffled as to why one design is chosen over another, and in all cases toward happy, smiling faces, regardless of the content of the movie.

  14. Anonymous says:

    The original Toy Story DVD does this as well. The poster was Woody hanging off of Buzz’s foot as he flies, looking horrified and confused. The DVD is of course of him grinning waiting for adventure.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I was disappointed that on the DVD cover of The Little Mermaid, they removed all the wangs that made the VHS cover so memorable.
    – Doctor Handsome

  16. Even Taxi Driver’s DVD does this, plastering a big goofy grin on Travis Bickle’s face as he skips down the sidewalk past the adult movie theatre, hands in his jacket pockets.

    (Joking, of course. The home video case before the remastered re-release a few years back did have a much more romanticized image, but he wasn’t smiling.)

    Could it be that the size of the thing comes into play? A person is more likely to be dominated by a large, looming poster or a film viewed on a movie screen. But that person picking up a tiny, tangible DVD case in their hand and considering whether or not to take it home to their living room, where they are in control over the picture and sound levels, is in a stronger psychological position. So maybe the small case makes up for that by trying to be nicer and less threatening. The potential owner looks down at case on the rack, which smiles and asks “hey, wanna buy me?” instead of looking up at the poster in awe with a “ooh, I gotta see that.”

  17. greyaenigma says:

    I assume someone out there in executive-land has read the studies saying people will buy more exposed to a smiling face, and altered the covers, artistry or accuracy be damned.

  18. Anonymous says:

    another example

    After seeing this I immediately thought of the new monkey island special edition remake, they did the exact same thing with the cover art. The original was much more appropriate to the character and the story IMO.

    Monkey Island Cover

  19. bougieman says:

    Haha this is the funniest bit of movie blogging I’ve seen this year so far. I am friending you! I publish CINEMA SEWER magazine, by the way.