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From 'ET' to 'Star Wars': How one artist took movie posters from ad to art

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Drew Struzan was designing album covers in the 1970s when Hollywood came calling. He'd go on to create posters for some classic blockbusters, taking the idea of an ad to the level of art.

Most of us walk past movie posters without giving them a second thought. They bleed into the background like all of the other ads and signs on every wall and bus stop. But one movie poster artist has played a much bigger role in our pop culture life — and many people consider his posters not as ads, but art.

Imagine the posters for “Back to the Future," “Blade Runner" or “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” There’s a good chance at least one of those posters is stuck in your memory: the classical, painterly rendering of the film’s characters in a single image that seems to capture the essence of the whole movie. And they’re all the work of one artist: Drew Struzan.

“The reason they use me is because I can sum up their movies in one picture, without giving away the story,” says Struzan. “And that’s just because, I don’t know, I kind of understand people and their feelings, and I can paint my feelings.”

Struzan got his start designing album covers in the 1970s, back when LPs had actual 12x12 canvases for sleeves — and he painted hundreds of covers for artists like Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath. Soon Hollywood was calling, and his career painting movie posters took off.

"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" poster by Drew Struzan
©Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd. 1984
"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" poster by Drew Struzan

“I’d go through the hundred-thousand photos they’d take when they’re making the movie,” he explains, “and I pick out just the right one for Harrison or anybody else, if that was ‘Indiana Jones’ or whatever the movie was," Struzan says. "I just have the ability to feel what they were feeling when they were writing and when they were filming and editing and acting in the movie.”

Struzan painted posters for some of the biggest blockbusters of the ’80s and ’90s, from the “Star Wars” series to “Indiana Jones” and “Back to the Future.” Steven Spielberg’s company, Amblin Entertainment, was a regular customer — and Struzan’s posters are the highlights of an art gallery devoted to Amblin that opens Dec. 2 at the collector shop Creature Features in Burbank.

“I started with Steven and Amblin on ‘E.T.,’ was the first thing I did for him,” the artist says. “And I don’t know why he picked me, but — he just kept using me.”

©Copyright Universal Pictures 1982

This exhibit raises the question: can a movie poster be art? Is a movie poster any different from an ad for a new toy or a brand of cereal? I was back home in Colorado for Thanksgiving, and decided to ask some people at the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater in Littleton. I first posed my question to Ryan, who was seeing "Arrival" with his family.

“Yeah, I’ve seen some good movie posters, creative ideas, good symbolism, everything,” Ryan said. “But I also know a lot of the big-budget movie posters use a lot of the same ideas, the same color palettes, whatnot, so... 90 percent of them are just kind of run-of-the-mill.”

Ryan’s dad, Al, took a similar line when I asked him if he’d ever seen a poster he liked enough to buy and hang on his wall.

“Uh, no,” he said. “I’m not a poster kind of guy, so...”

“Are you an art kind of guy?” I asked.

“I like art, yeah,” he said.

“But they’re not the same?” I asked.

“No, they’re the same,” he said. “But we have limited space on our walls, and so movie posters aren’t something that would win that spot [laughs].”

"Goonies" movie poster by Drew Struzan
Courtesy of Warner Brothers
"Goonies" movie poster by Drew Struzan

Drew Struzan definitely thinks of his posters as art. “That’s what I’m trying to do is make art, you know, something that speaks to other peoples’ hearts and of our society,” he says. “I paint people because people connect with other people,” he adds. “You can hopefully see a person’s heart and feeling and who they are — and that’s what makes the movies so good, you know. I paint Indiana Jones and people think they know him. You see a movie and everybody has that feeling like you feel like you know the actor in the movie. And I can do the same with the posters.”

Struzan is retired now, in large part because the movie poster business became more about Photoshopping and less about the kind of artistry he strives for. So, are his posters art? Maybe it’s just nostalgia. Maybe people just love these movies. Or maybe, Struzan took a paid gig where he was asked to help market a movie — and actually transcended that function.

“We all seem to think we’re intellectual beings, you know,” he muses. “We’re thinkers and we’re moved by our minds. Well I know better than that [laughs]. We follow our hearts long before we follow our minds. So I paint people. That people are viewing it and treating it as art nowadays is far beyond anything I ever was hoping for — I just wanted to feed the family [laughs]. I’m just your average Joe here.”

AMBLIN 35: AN ART TRIBUTE FEATURING DREW STRUZAN opens at Creature Features Friday, Dec. 2 and runs through Thursday, Dec. 15.

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