10 Memorable Movie Poster Controversies

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[Editor’s note: While your Flavorwire editors take a much-needed holiday break, we’re revisiting some of our most popular features of the year. This post was originally published August 3, 2011.] As Roger Ebert says, “It’s not what a movie is about, but how it is about it,” so who knows, maybe The Change-Up isn’t going to be an inane R-rated update of a 20-plus-years-stale narrative. (But it sure as hell looks like it.) We can’t say we’re too hopeful, though, particularly considering its numb-skulled print campaign, which high-lariously juxtaposes Jason Bateman’s miserable handling of twin infants with Ryan Reynolds’s delighted groping of twin models. They’re both in white! Which do you want — babies or babes? HAW HAW! (Indiewire’s @erickohn twit-pic’ed a piece of “subway film criticism” that nailed the issue fairly effectively.)

The movie poster is a tricky form, a very specific merging of art and commerce that must sell a product but hopefully also convey the essence of the picture in question. Occasionally, the marketers and artists responsible for them can run afoul — either in the court of public opinion, or in the boardrooms of the MPAA, who not only rate films but control their advertising. After the jump, we’ll take a look at ten movie posters that stirred up some controversy — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Few upcoming films are more breathlessly anticipated than David Fincher’s American adaptation of the first book in Stieg Larsson’s bestselling “Millennium Trilogy,” so interest was high when the film’s first teaser trailer and poster were released earlier this summer. Unsurprisingly, it’s dark, and goth-y, and NSFW. But there’s more to it than that, as our own Judy Berman wrote when it was released: “We think the poster is in pretty poor taste, purely because it so blatantly misrepresents the characters. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about a survivor of rape and other abuse who has grown tough and seeks revenge. The dynamic in the poster suggests that Rooney Mara’s Lizbeth Salander is sexily vulnerable and in need of Mikael Blomkvist’s (Daniel Craig) fully clothed protection. Does anyone else find this a bit worrisome?”

Captivity

It was embarrassing enough for two-time Oscar nominee Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields, The Mission) to end up directing Captivity, a particularly mindless entry in the so-called “torture porn” trend of the late 2000s. But his entry in the nonstop-violence derby didn’t even find an audience, grossing a comically low $2.6 million (on a $17 million budget). Maybe it just needed a strong and aggressive ad campaign! Oh, maybe not. Distributor After Dark Films found itself in a world of trouble with its outdoor billboard campaign for the Elisha Cuthbert vehicle, a rather graphic four-panel display of the horrors inflicted on her character, with the captions “Abduction. Confinement. Torture. Termination.” When the ads went up on 30 LA billboards and 1400 New York taxi tops in spring of 2007, the public outcry was deafening. After Dark immediately went into spin mode, claiming that — whoops! — the wrong files had been sent to the printer, and they went straight to the billboard company without approval from the distributor. Uh huh. They also weren’t approved by the MPAA, and though the ads were quickly pulled, the ratings organization penalized the distributor for the infraction by imposing a month-long suspension of the ratings process for Captivity — causing it to miss the original May 18 release date blasted across those controversial ads.

The Road to Guantanamo

Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’s 2006 documentary/reenactment hybrid tells the true story of three British men held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for over two years without charges or cause — powerful stuff, and requiring a powerful image. But the MPAA turned down the first poster submitted by Roadside Attractions (left) — positively tame compared to the images that emanated from, say, Abu Gharib. “The reason given was that the burlap bag over the guy’s head was depicting torture, which wasn’t appropriate for children to see,” according to Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen. The MPAA would not comment on the specific reasons for the rejection, but noted that their general guidelines precluded “depictions of violence, blood, people in jeopardy… people in frightening situations, disturbing or frightening scenes.” Now if we could just get someone official to restrict that stuff at the actual Gitmo…

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Here’s another of the MPAA’s goofier rules: as anyone who has perused the action section at their local Best Buy or Blockbuster (remember those?) can tell you, they are totally fine with guns on movie posters. Gun it up, dudes! What is not cool is taking that gun, and pointing at someone. That part is violent. Why, if you show that, then people might start putting together that guns are used to hurt people, which is a total bummer. Anyhoo, when the twisted bastards behind the Werner Herzog/Nicolas Cage remake/reboot/whatever-you-want-to-call-it of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans submitted their jarring poster to the MPAA, it was turned down on account of the “guns don’t kill people, people do” rule, and was replaced by the achingly generic “giant movie star face portrait” poster on the right.

The Hills Have Eyes 2

Here’s another absolutely random judgment call: when Fox Atomic submitted the poster for their 2007 sequel to their earlier remake of the Wes Craven flick, the MPAA rejected the poster on account of that disturbing hand trailing out of the hill guy’s makeshift body bag. What to do? The marketing folks put on their thinking caps and — voilà — submitted a new version, this time with feet and legs trailing out of the body bag, because that’s totally different, right? And here’s the best part: Approved! Night and day. Apples and oranges.

I Spit on Your Grave

Few remakes were less necessary than last year’s unrated revisiting of the 1980 rape-fest I Spit on Your Grave, which Roger Ebert dubbed “a vile bag of garbage” that was “one of the most depressing experiences of my life.” But the film was remade anyway — with a sexually-charged poster that merged the original film’s poster “art” (right) with the aesthetic finesse of a Maxim spread. Criticism was widespread and vicious, and entirely justified; the best of the rants, from Pajiba’s Dustin Rowles, fumed thus: “The only thing you can say for this poster is that it sexualizes a rape victim. And not just any rape victim, but a woman who is brutally gang raped by several men and left for dead. And they show the bruises and the dirt and the dried blood, but they make goddamn sure that they also airbush that ass. Because the assholes who put together this poster want to titillate you; they want you to see the movie, not because this woman takes revenge on her rapists, but because this hot lady with a nice ass gets gang-raped on a rock. That is the only explanation for this movie poster.” Unlike, say, the Captivity distributors, the makers of I Spit on Your Grave kept the poster out there (which, it should be noted, the MPAA was totally cool with), presumably thinking that controversy=ticket sales. Ha ha, joke was on them; the remake made less than $100,000 in its meager, 12-theater run.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

The title and premise of Kevin Smith’s 2008 sex comedy was both its blessing and its curse; he reportedly sold it to the Weinstein Company on the strength of the title alone, and it was music to the ears of his fans, who usually find his work best when it is raunchiest. But that title became a problem when it was time to market the movie. Networks wouldn’t run ads for it — some at all, some at any time but late at night — and many newspapers followed suit. The Weinstein Company was forced to advertise in some markets with title shortened to merely Zack and Miri, resulting in (to say the least) a rather confused campaign. And then there was the poster — a pleasant portrait of its two stars up top, with some raunch at the bottom. The MPAA turned it down flat (it was used in Canada), and the Weinstein marketing people, presumably exhausted by the film’s ongoing trouble, created the final poster (right), which is basically the design equivalent of throwing up your hands and screaming, “WE GIVE UP.”

The Rules of Attraction

This clever (and sick and twisted) poster for Roger Avary’s 2002 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s sex-and-drugs-soaked collegiate novel was widely distributed in Canada and Europe, but the MPAA rejected the copulating stuffed animals — presumably because the use of children’s toys would put parents in the position of doing some awkward explaining. It was replaced by a more conventional one-sheet, pushing the sexy young cast.

The People Vs. Larry Flynt

“It does seem strange that a film whose message is anti-censorship has its poster censored,” noted Alan Isaacman, the civil rights attorney played by Edward Norton in this 1996 biopic of the Hustler founder and First Amendment crusader. But that’s exactly what happened when Columbia Pictures submitted the rather loaded image of an American flag diaper-clad Woody Harrelson in a crucifixion pose across a woman’s pelvis. The MPAA rejected the ad, without comment (as usual); according to the film’s director, Milos Forman, “what MPAA President Jack Valenti basically said to me is, ‘I will have to protect more important freedoms for us through self-censorship so that we don’t provoke very conservative forces.’ I respect it, but I don’t like it.” The film was released in the US with the less-controversial American-flag-as-gag image (right); the pelvis-crucifix image was used in several foreign markets.

The Outlaw

The queen mother of all controversial posters — and movies — was The Outlaw, Howard Hughes’s 1943 Western vehicle for actress Jane Russell and her rather prominent bust. In those pre-MPAA days, Hughes (who produced and directed, along with an uncredited Howard Hawks) had to battle the Hays Office, which demanded the removal of several shots in the film that violated the Motion Picture Production Code by lingering on Miss Russell’s bosom. The film became a cause célèbre, which Hughes eagerly embraced as cheap publicity; posters not only highlighted Russell’s cleavage, but proclaimed The Outlaw “The Picture That Couldn’t Be Stopped!” It wasn’t; thanks to Hughes’s savvy PR and the condemnations of churches and censors, it became a huge hit when it was finally released some three years after its original target date.