As we proudly launch the new edition of the Radio Times Guide to Films in its luxurious new format, our thoughts are dominated by debonair cover star Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s dazzlingly theatrical remake of The Great Gatsby.
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of Leo’s career-minting turn in Titanic, so the bold tagline for the Fitzgerald adaptation seems especially meaningful: “Can’t repeat the past? Of course you can!”
A film’s tagline is essentially a slogan, strap, hook, catchphrase or USP (Unique Selling Point). But the cleverest, wittiest and most durable somehow transcend their marketing brief and enter the national discourse. “Be afraid… Be very afraid” is a timeless example used all the time, but not everyone remembers it comes from the 1986 remake of The Fly.
“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water” is possibly the best thing about Jaws 2, and the original Superman was a perfect package, its tagline the perfect wrapping: “You’ll believe a man can fly.”
Hucksterism has been a central plank of the movie business since it first lured punters into nickelodeons in 1905. The gorgeous, illustrated Hollywood posters from the 30s employed a straightforward hard sell. “Thrills! Chills! Mystery!” promised The Circus Queen Murder in 1933, a shopping-list gambit still used 40 years later for the Charles Bronson flick Cold Sweat: “Action! Thrills! Suspense!”
In the 40s, studios became needier: “If you believe in Santa Claus… please see this picture,” requested Once upon a Time in 1944, adding, “Even if you don’t, see it anyway… it will make life gayer for you!” As TV threatened Hollywood’s monopoly in the 50s and 60s, quotes from critics served to elevate its biggest films (“A superspectacle with spiritual vitality and moral force!” vouches the man from Time on a poster for Spartacus).
When Dr No was released, it was sold as “The first James Bond film!” For later films, “James Bond is back!” would suffice.
The 70s and 80s saw sophistication creep into marketing. Love Story intrigued us with a line from the film with deeper meaning once you’ve seen it: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
The Omen demonstrated a new, less tacky way of selling horror: “You have been warned.” Some film titles do all the heavy lifting – think The Greatest Story Ever Told – or are so descriptive they don’t need a line at all: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
The RT film team has compiled some of cinema’s most unique and memorable poster pitches. All we need you to do now is vote for your favourite below. Can’t decide? Of course you can! It’s unlikely to make anybody else’s list, but my own favourite for sheer guilelessness is from the first posters for Citizen Kane: “It’s terrific!”
The Radio Times Guide to Films is out now for £25 (including p&p)