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Movie Poster of the Week: Bill Forsyth’s “Local Hero” and the Business of Marketing Movies

A Criterion release of the much-loved Scottish comedy leads to a blast from the past for our movie poster columnist.
Back in 1983, when I was but a wee lad in Wales, I saw an episode of the British arts TV program The South Bank Show about the making of Bill Forsyth’s new film Local Hero (my family already being huge Gregory’s Girl fans). It covered the whole process of making the film, from script to screen, but the scene that most interested me, and which had stayed with me ever since, was the marketing meeting in which hot-shot producer David Putnam and the staff of the British branch of 20th Century Fox discussed the various concepts for the film’s poster. I remember thinking that that would be the greatest job in the world, but it was so far from anything I thought I’d really end up doing.
The Criterion Collection is releasing Local Hero on Blu-ray and DVD on September 24, and I was very happy to discover that one of the special features on the discs is that South Bank Show episode. Seeing the show again recently, I was struck by how the marketing meeting that I remembered so fondly is so similar to the meetings that I attend weekly at Kino Lorber (where I work as as the design director): just seven or eight people sitting around a conference table talking about release strategies and marketing angles. Somehow, like Felix Happer (the astronomy-loving oil tycoon played by Burt Lancaster in Local Hero) making his way from Houston to the Highlands, I found my way to doing the thing that made such a mark on me thirty-six years ago.
The iconic poster for Local Hero, with Peter Riegert in a suit carrying a briefcase and wading through the Scottish surf towards a red telephone box, is not the first concept offered at the meeting. The first illustration shown around the table is a Mad magazine-esque rendering of the village ensemble with a tartan border that the design director prefaces with the warning that “if we’re not careful and it’s not properly executed could [make the film] come across as a rollicking farce” and of which one of the publicists says it looks like “Carry On Up the Bagpipes.” (For those that don’t know, Local Hero is a gentle comedy about a Texas oil company attempting to buy out a quaint Scottish village to exploit the offshore drilling possibilities).
The next concept shown shows Riegert in the sea (despite the caveat that “these are, I hasten to add, very rough,” it looks practically like the finished artwork) which Putnam calls “seriously, unequivocally, no messing around...smashing” but about which someone says, “the question we have to ask ourselves...it’s a very striking image but does it tell you anything and bring you into the cinema?” One of the publicists counters that telling you what the film is about is not necessarily the poster’s job, saying that “if we’ve done our editorial work by the time the poster appears on the Tube [the London Underground being still one of the major venues for movie posters in the city] everybody should know what the film is about and it will just be a reminder to them.” And Putnam adds, approvingly, that “a poster like this, which is neutral, reinforces whatever anybody’s view is about the film. The problem with [the cartoonish design], because it’s not neutral, it sets up an attitude. And the film doesn’t deliver that attitude.”
So they all seem to be leaning towards the second design, but then some bright spark in the room suggests adding “one of the most intriguing images in the film,” the red telephone box, the idea of which Ascanio Branca, the UK head of 20th Century Fox Distribution (described in the book The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain as being “a man who was small in stature but who doubled up in tenacity”) sitting to Putnam’s right, calls “a little bit à la Hitchcock” and Putnam himself concedes is “a depressingly good idea.” It was that aha moment above all that stayed with me all these years.
After the release of the film and the rave reviews it received Fox put out a second poster removing the phone box to make room for quotes.
What is remarkable about the original UK poster—which I love—and about the marketing meeting that the South Bank Show was privy to, was that the question never comes up about having the film’s one genuine movie star, Burt Lancaster, on the poster. (In fact, one of the publicists talks instead about the appeal to housewives—their stated target audience—of “the new sex symbol” Dennis Lawson who played pilot Wedge Antilles in the original Star Wars trilogy and who plays the pub owner in Local Hero.) The US one sheet—with its rather long-winded tagline—put that to rights, adding Lancaster for, as they say, “the American market,” but at the same time removing the phone box.
Other international campaigns followed suit. The Spanish and Italian posters have variations on the US design, one reintroducing the phone booth, the other adding signs that give a few cryptic hints about what the film is about. (Oddly, the Italian title Local Hero is subtitled “Local Hero.”)
The French poster (subtitled “the Scottish miracle”), redrawn by Gilbert Raffin, keeps Lancaster in the foreground, puts back the phone booth, adds a rabbit and a helicopter, and, ghosted in the background, the skyline of Houston.
The Swedish poster (with its tagline “a well-oiled comedy”) keeps many of those elements in different configurations, but changes the phone box to something that looks more like a bird cage. I asked a Swedish friend if that resembled a Swedish phone box and she assured me it didn’t (they used to look like this) so I’m at a loss to explain that alteration.
Which brings us, thirty-six years later, to the brand new Criterion cover, illustrated by Mark Thomas, which puts the red phone box front and center, puts Riegert back on dry land, and keeps Burt Lancaster, once again, out of the picture. For the sake of symmetry Criterion should have filmed the boardroom discussions that led to that final design.
Many thanks to Kate Elmore at the Criterion Collection. Their DVD and Blu-ray of Local Hero can be pre-ordered here. I urge anyone interested in filmmaking and especially film distribution to watch that South Bank Show. Maybe it will change your life.

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