20 of the Most Famous Movie Posters of All Time
Movie posters are an important part of the marketing process when it comes to new films. While everyone waits in anticipation for the trailer, it’s the movie poster that first perks your interest. Unlike trailers, which usually give away too much of a film’s plot or show the best scenes, a movie poster leaves you guessing about what the film is really about. The most famous movie posters tease the cast and offer small details about the film. Many often feature classic taglines or catchphrases that become part of the pop culture zeitgeist.
Since the Hollywood machine started in the early 1900s, these one-sheet ads have been used to hype up the arrival of new movies. What began as hand-drawn posters have evolved into modern-day movie posters incorporating professional photographs that stand on their own as fantastic pieces of art. These original movie posters cover all genres of film, with some even as well known as the movies they are trying to promote. They make for great wall art to hang inside your home or office and demonstrate your passion for film.
Without further ado, here are 20 of the most famous movie posters and why they are so well regarded by movie buffs.
1. Jaws (1975)
Not only did Steven Spielberg invent the summer blockbuster with Jaws, but he proved how important movie posters can be. This simple yet horrifying poster shows the titular shark rising up from the depths of the ocean and getting ready to chow down on an unsuspecting swimmer.
You don’t really need to know anything about Jaws once you’ve seen this poster. It’s pretty obvious the movie is about a killer shark. The poster itself is inspired by the cover of Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name and is a great piece of creative graphic design by Roger Kastel.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
Christian Bale’s Batman is arguably the greatest representation of the character in movie history. Along with directing maestro Christopher Nolan, the two gave the DC hero a new lease of life. The best movie in Bale’s trilogy is easily The Dark Knight, a rollicking comic book movie featuring Heath Ledger in his best role as The Joker.
The movie poster hints at the film’s darker edge, with Batman standing in front of a burning building that forms the Bat logo. The tagline, “Welcome to a world without rules,” also alludes to the chaos and destruction to come. Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises have similar posters, but this is easily the best of the bunch.
3. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Pulp Fiction turned independent filmmaking on its head in 1994. Riding high from the success of the crime thriller Reservoir Dogs, former video store clerk Quentin Tarantino announced himself with his sophomore effort. A non-linear collection of stories set in LA, Pulp Fiction is an incredible movie with great dialogue, interesting characters, and a cast to die for.
The movie poster used to promote the movies is also one of the most famous movie posters of all time. Made to look like a pulp novel from the 40s, it features Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace lying on a bed smoking a cigarette. It doesn’t give any details about what to expect, but the long list of cast members on the left was enough to get people excited when Pulp Fiction was released almost three decades ago.
4. Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
This is a basic movie poster that works effectively and gives moviegoers a rough idea of what to expect from this space opera. It’s slightly provocative too, with Luke Skywalker showing his chest and Princess Leia giving a glimpse of her legs. You also get C-3PO and R2-D2 in the background along with Darth Vader and the Death Star.
Designed by illustrator Tom Jung, the poster also features “Star Wars” written in text similar to the opening crawl of the movie. There were actually four different prints of this poster made, each with different text at the bottom. The movie poster was famously parodied for the National Lampoon’s Vacation movie poster.
5. Jurassic Park (1993)
This movie poster tells you everything you need to know about Jurassic Park. The logo features the silhouette of a dinosaur skeleton (it’s a T-Rex for those playing at home) while the tag line reads “An adventure 65 million years in the making.”
It’s another simple but effective movie poster that tells a lot without showing. The poster obviously worked, with Jurassic Park earning over $1 billion dollars worldwide at the box office, making it one of the most successful movies of the early 90s. The logo is now iconic and has been used in the promotion of all five sequels and an array of books, comics, and video games.
6. Alien (1979)
Philip Gips was an American graphic designer and movie poster creator who came up with the iconic Alien one-sheet. It features a cracked egg with some sort of glowing green ooze hovering above an alien planet. Then there is the catchphrase that tells you exactly what type of film this is: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
Alien would go on to be a surprise box office smash, raking in over $100 million from a budget of $11 million. Considering the time this film was released, that’s a massive amount of money.
The film laid the groundwork for kickass female leads and established Sigourney Weaver as a star. It also helped Ridley Scott elevate his status as a director and resulted in one of the longest-running science fiction franchises, with a further seven films being made over the past 40 years.
7. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
This 90s thriller features one of the most insane villains in movie history. Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of cannibal Hannibal Lector won the English actor an Academy Award and made him a household name. The poster for The Silence of the Lambs features an image of Jodie Foster with a moth covering her mouth. While it might not seem like much at first glance, once you’ve seen the film it makes perfect sense.
The image of the moth is inspired by a Salvador Dali photograph. If you look closely you can see a skull on the moth’s back and seven indentations that are meant to represent the seven victims of the movie’s killer.
8. Vertigo (1958)
This Alfred Hitchcock classic has a movie poster to match the thrilling plot. Vertigo is about a private detective (James Stewart) who has developed vertigo and a fear of heights. Battling with his new conditions, he is on the trail of his friend Gavin’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who has started acting weird.
A classy thriller, the movie poster contains white spirals against a red backdrop that is meant to represent the feeling of vertigo. The black image of Stewart falling is also alluded to in this fantastic poster by Saul Bass. He was responsible for several Hitchock movie posters, including North by Northwest and Psycho.
9. The Godfather (1972)
Arguably the greatest mafia movie ever made has a poster to match. Although simple, it’s striking and has forever become associated with the movie. Just like the cover of the book, it contains an image of a hand holding the strings of a marionette spelling out the title of the movie.
While executives were worried about the plain poster, as it gives no context to the movie, it proved to be quite effective. The Godfather went on to make almost $300 million at the box office and won Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor (Marlon Brando) at the Academy Awards.
10. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s greatest movie is about an alien that infiltrates an American research outpost in Antarctica and starts picking off the crew one by one. It’s a horrifying and thrilling watch, with Kurt Russell leading a paranoid ensemble cast that includes Keith David (in his first movie role), Wilford Brimley, and Donald Moffat.
The poster for the thing is a dynamic piece of art that gives nothing away about the movie but leaves you feeling intrigued. Drew Struzan is the man behind this iconic poster design. His name might not be familiar, but he has crafted over 150 movie posters, including one-sheets for Blade Runner, ET the Extra-Terrestrial, and the Star Wars films.
With the tagline, “The ultimate in alien terror,” and an image of a man with light shining from his face, it alludes to some form of space creature you don’t want to mess with. It’s a masterclass in creating a poster that tells you about the film without actually revealing any plot details.
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11. Moon (2011)
One of the few contemporary movie posters on this list, Moon is a fantastic one-sheet that helped to advertise Duncan Jones’ science fiction thriller. Sam Rockwell stars as an astronaut who works on a planet harvesting an alternative fuel. It all kicks off when an accident occurs and Rockwell wakes up to discover there’s someone else on the moon with him.
The poster for Moon shows the isolation Rockwell’s character experiences, while also harking back to the Vertigo poster with the black and white spiral design. You don’t really know what this one is about, even with the tagline, “250,000 miles from home, the hardest thing to face… is yourself,” but it does make you curious and want to explore further.
12. The Exorcist (1973)
Bill Gold is the man behind this famous movie poster. The Exorcist is a frightening horror from the early 70s that shocked audiences across the world. Few films have caused such commotion, with many cinema-goers fainting, vomiting, and walking out during the movie.
While the poster certainly won’t have you projectile vomiting, it is a creepy one-sheet that sets the scene for what to expect. The famous image of Max von Sydow standing by a street light as the light from the MacNeil house shines on him takes center stage, with the title in bold lettering above it.
The poster also gives a short but chilling explanation of what the movie is about. “Something almost beyond comprehension is happening to a girl on this street, in this house… and a man has been sent for as a last resort. This man is the Exorcist.” Spooky stuff.
13. Secretary (2002)
The movie poster for Secretary is the most provocative on this list. The image of a woman bending down from behind and grabbing her ankles almost makes you want to look away in shame. Accompanied by the tagline “Assume the position,” this sexually charged poster hints at the power roles and sexual office politics contained within Secretary.
The movie, directed by Steven Shainberg, stars James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal – in a scene-stealing turn – as a lawyer and secretary involved in an intense relationship that gets more sexually charged as the movie progresses.
14. Apocalypse Now (1979)
The horror, the horror. War films don’t get any more impactful than Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Apocalypse Now. The making of the film is just as incredible as the movie itself, with the production beset with problems and leading man Martin Sheen suffering a heart attack. Despite all that, Apocalypse Now became a huge hit and furthered Coppola’s credentials as a director.
Commercial illustrator Bob Peak was the man behind the poster design. Marlon Brando’s gritty face bleeding into the sun is the first thing you notice, with Martin Sheen looking on stoically in the background. Brando also appears to be crying, with his tears forming the Do Lung Bridge that plays a pivotal part in the movie.
15. Scarface (1983)
A remake of the Howard Hawks original, Scarface is another epic crime movie about the rise and fall of Cuban gangster Tony Montana. Everything about this film is incredible, from Oliver Stone’s bombastic script and Giorgio Moroder’s electro soundtrack to the 80s fashion and knockout performance from Al Pacino as Montana.
The poster itself is also iconic and one that hangs in many young men’s homes around the world. Montana, in his white suit, is front and center amongst a black and white background. To the left is a long synopsis of the film while on the right is a list of credits. Al Pacino’s name and the film’s title are boldly written in red at the top, while the tagline, “He loved the American dream. With a vengeance.” is near the bottom, giving you a sense of the violence that is about to come.
16. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Unlike most of the posters on this list that are drawn by artists, Terminator 2: Judgement Day features a photo of lead actor Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator. Making the most of its lead actor, the image shows Schwarzenegger sitting atop a motorcycle while holding a shotgun, his weapon of choice in the movie. Look closely and you’ll also notice a glowing red eye, indicating that Schwarzenegger is no human.
While it’s pretty rudimentary, the poster capitalizes on Schwarzenegger’s high profile. At that time he was one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood and having him on the poster no doubt helped sell tickets and contributed to the movie’s massive box office success.
17. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
There were two posters created for Steven Spielberg’s fantastic adventure flick Raiders of the Lost Ark. Both were designed by Richard Amsel and came out a year apart. Of the two, the second is easily the best. Amsel created this poster to celebrate the re-release of Raiders in 1982. While the original has a drawn image of lead character Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) holding a rope over his shoulder, the re-release is much more spectacular, with Jones in full flight using his whip with a sly smile on his face.
The faces of the other main characters can be seen surrounding Indy, with the poster having a real swashbuckling feel to it. Although he has crafted many other movie posters, this is the one Amsel is most famous for.
18. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Horror movies often have cool posters and Rosemary’s Baby is no exception. The movie, about a young woman who falls pregnant and believes she is carrying Satan’s son, is a tension-filled horror with plenty of shocking moments. The poster is simple but quite unsettling.
The silhouette of a baby’s pram sits on what appears to be a hill with a green background featuring a horizontal image of actress Mia Farrow’s head. It’s a little creepy and unsettling, with the main details about the film (title, director, actors, etc.) displayed at the bottom.
19. Step Brothers (2008)
This classic comedy from 2008 pairs Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly together as warring step brothers who turn into best friends. The comedy is chock full of laughs and the poster for the movie will also give you a chuckle. The poster resembles those dodgy family photos your parents would get when you were a kid.
Ferrell and Reilly are dressed in similar outfits, with long sleeve blue shirts and woolen check vests, and are smiling comically at different angles, with neither actually looking at the camera. It’s an enduring image of the film and one many people copy for their own amusement.
20. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Another of the great horror of the 70s, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a surprise box office hit that had a major influence on the slasher genre. The film focuses on a group of friends who visits an old homestead only to find it occupied by a family of cannibals. While not scary for today’s audiences, when first released in 1974 the movie had the public up in arms, with many theatres banning the film due to its extreme violence.
The poster for the movie asks the questions, “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” with the chainsaw-wielding killer Leatherface getting ready to dispose of his next victim. It also has the tagline, “What happened is true. Now the motion picture that’s just as real.”
While this is stretching the truth (it’s inspired by the crimes of serial killer Ed Gein), it helped add more mystique to the movie, with many believing what they saw on screen actually happened in real life.
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