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The future of ‘cool’: predicting the next classic college posters

By Shawn Cooke / A&E Editor

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What’s going to be the next “Pulp Fiction?” The next “Scarface?” The next “Big Lebowski?”

No, I’m not trying to guess the next brilliant, scrambled-narrative crime flick, mob boss drama or classic Coen brothers comedy — they’re all vintage posters that more than a few of your friends probably have hanging up in their apartments.

Even though they’re regarded as relatively modern classics, there will come a time when college students don’t know — or don’t care — who Uma Thurman, Al Pacino or Jeff Bridges are. There’s a chance that their respective movies could endure and continue to dominate the dorm poster wars, but audiences and critics will surely anoint a new generation of classics to take their place.

Before speculating what movie one-sheets from the past few years could last, it’s important to define what makes current posters “cool.” 

It’s rare to find an outright blockbuster in a college student’s bedroom. James Cameron, Marvel, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Disney own many of the all-time top domestic box office slots, and they might be big hits in your younger brother’s bedroom or your movie-buff dad’s basement, but they’re often traded for cultier picks in college.

“Pulp Fiction,” “Scarface” and “The Big Lebowski” all were modest hits — with the exception of “Pulp Fiction,” which was an outright hit that grossed an impressive $108 million in 1994 — but weren’t quite popular enough for your grandma to love them. A certain R-rated edge — whether it was violent, crass or profane — kept these movies from totally conquering the box office (only one R-rated movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” is in the top 50 domestic grossers of all-time). That only makes them all the more appealing to college students.

Just in the past few years, some edgy contenders with stark, memorable posters have emerged. “Drive” is a perfect match — the 2011 film is an incredibly stylish, violent and artfully shot revenge flick with a simple, effective poster that highlights a major 21st century heartthrob — Ryan Gosling — and bright pink lettering. Last month’s “Nightcrawler” also seems to be of the same mold, based on its marketing campaign and poster art. It’s been sold as an edgy, unhinged performance from a movie star — Jake Gyllenhaal — and the posters seem to capture his crazed character.

Popular posters also demand a certain level of critical and cultural credibility. Prestige period pieces probably aren’t the trendiest art to display — have you ever seen a poster for “The King’s Speech” outside of a movie theater? But the more boundary-pushing Oscar pictures, such as “Pulp Fiction,” feel right at home in a college dorm. Last year’s Academy Award-winning “Her” has a bright, simple one-sheet featuring an incredibly sad Joaquin Phoenix. Current Oscar contenders “Boyhood” and “Birdman” also combine the unconventional “indie” aesthetic with almost universal critical acclaim, and they had some of the year’s best posters.

The mob always has a place in college dorms, as evidenced by ubiquitous “Scarface” and “Goodfellas” posters. While some of the more recent mob flicks like “American Gangster” and “The Departed” were sizable R-rated hits, their audiences skewed older. That’s where an unconventional “mob” movie — “The Wolf of Wall Street” — could come into play. Take one of the biggest current movie stars, plenty of bad behavior, a tiny dose of political commentary and a bright yellow color scheme, and you get Scorsese’s next huge college poster.

Sci-fi blockbusters became complicated, and convoluted, with the rise of Christopher Nolan, so his brand of cerebral big-budget flicks has already made its way into college dorms. “Inception” has made a poster splash, so don’t be surprised if “Interstellar” does the same. However, a less successful sci-fi mind-bender could also become a college artwork hit: Rian Johnson’s “Looper.” It’s another simple image on a white background — Bruce Willis mirroring a younger version of himself that everyone seems to love, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Last but not least, there’s the raunchy comedy poster. The John Belushi “college” screengrab from “Animal House” seems to have dominated this category for decades, but comedy hasn’t been raunchier than it is in the new millennium. Judd Apatow movies would be an obvious choice to fill the vulgar void, but their posters are a bit too timid and conventional. Todd Phillips’ “The Hangover” would be next in line, but its sequels shoved any goodwill from the first installment down the garbage disposal. 

Perhaps the poster of Phillips’ earlier hit, “Old School,” could be the answer. It’s a busy frame that looks more fun than any real-life college party and comes with an on-the-nose tagline: “All the fun of college. None of the education.”

At least it’s more subtle than a beer poster.

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The future of ‘cool’: predicting the next classic college posters