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THE CRITERION COLLECTION’S CINEMA A semiotic analysis of Criterion’s vision of Cinema according to its releases and the posters that promote them.

By Dorian Pironneau Written under the guidance of Ophélie Hetzel







06 08 18 20 24 36 42 46 62 63 78


INTRODUCTION While DVD and Blu-ray sales are progressively dwindling with the general public who now turns to on-demand online platforms, the domestic distribution of films is changing. As we now live in an era of bingewatching, of streaming and instantaneous downloads, the general public abandons physical copies to accelerate its watching rate and lessen its cost. Following this demand, online platforms are lowering their prices to be more competitive, while DVDs are struggling to be as financially accessible. DVDs and Blu-Rays’ future might be as a niche product, a collector’s item. Some film-lovers seem to still be attached to physical copies as they usually offer more of a comprehensive version of the film than online platforms, with bonuses and special features. The basis of this analysis is the fictitious wish of a client to enter this niche market. Our client, is the Cinemathèque Française, a french institution dedicated to preserving, restoring and screening films and film related documents and objects. Situated in a Frank Gehry designed building in the Bercy district of Paris, it contains a few screening rooms, a cinema museum, a gallery dedicated to temporary exhibitions, a library, a shop and a café. As the release of DVDs and Blu-Rays targeted at film lovers is Criterion’s specialty, we have decided to make the company the subject of this case-study. Criterion is a company affiliated with Janus Films which, since 1984, has been releasing classic and auteur films, from all over the world, in definitive and comprehensive editions. Each film is restored and accompanied by such additional content as documentaries, director and experts commentaries, cut-scenes or alternative soundtracks. A lot of care is put into making these editions, and it shows on the content and on the form. Through laser-discs at first, then DVDs and Blu-rays, Criterion is aiming to create a canon collection for cinephiles.



One major particularity of the Criterion Collection is that each film released has a new poster made for it, differing from the original release one, used as the DVD Cover. This feature, on par with the additional content to the film, plays a big part in the public’s love for the Collection. Criterion’s art director, Eric Skillman, collaborates with many different artists to make these posters. Some elements that do not vary, which we will discuss more later, have been set by Paula Scher and Pentagram during the 2006 rebranding of Criterion. We will see how these new posters/dvd covers differ from the original ones, and how they serve as Criterion’s visual language. What interests us is how the company uses this medium to address its audience and to illustrate its vision of Cinema. This analysis is a semiotic one. According to Ferdinand de Saussure, Semiotics is “a science that studies the role of signs as part of social life” in order to understand their messages and structures. These signs, composed of a signifier and a signified, are used in systems like language. It is important for a student in visual arts and communication to understand the mechanisms of this communication, how images produce meaning and why. This analysis will be using the “immanent systemic” method created by Anne-Marie Houdebine. It consists in the constitution of a comprehensive pool of images in order for similarities and trends to emerge. This pool can then be a solid basis on which to conduct an objective analysis. Our main pool is made of 85 posters made for the Criterion Collection between 2006 and 2018. Our secondary pool is made of 85 original posters of the same films, made for their theatrical release.



THE SEMIOTIC STRATAS Criterion’s vision of Cinema resides in part in the choice of films that the collection releases. Before we dive into the analysis of our pool of posters, let us take note of the year of original theatrical release of these films as well as the nationality of their production.

Decade of release : 5 films (≈6%) have been released during the 1930s 8 films (≈9%) have been released during the 1940s 17 films (≈20%) have been released during the 1950s 18 films (≈20%) have been released during the 1960s 16 films (≈19%) have been released during the 1970s 9 films (≈10%) have been released during the 1980s 6 films (≈8%) have been released during the 1990s 3 films (≈3%) have been released during the 2000s 2 films (≈2%) have been released during the 2010s

20 %

15 %

10 %












Decade of release



Criterion posters for The 400 Blows by François Truffaut designed by Lucien S. Y. Yang, and The Story Of The Last Chrysanthemum by Kenji Mizoguchi, designed by Michael Boland, respectively a French film and a Japanese film.

Country of origin : Germany : 4 films (≈5%) Angleterre : 8 films (≈9%) Australie : 1 film (≈1%) Autriche : 1 film (≈1%) Danemark : 2 films (≈2%) Etats-Unis : 27 films (≈31%) France : 12 films (≈14%) Inde : 1 film (≈1%) Italie : 6 films (≈7%) Japon : 12 films (≈14%) Pologne : 1 film (≈1%) Russie : 4 films (≈5%) Suède : 5 films (≈6%) We will now decompose the several elements that form a Criterion poster. As we touched on it earlier, we can identify two kinds of elements : Invariable elements, and variable elements. THE SEMIOTIC STRATAS


Invariable Elements : Let’s talk about the elements that do not change, or not entirely. These are linked to the collection system established by Criterion. They make the brand and visual identity of the collection visible. The first invariable element is the format: 135mm width by 172mm height. Then, we can identify three invariable elements that make the brand visible. These elements were created by Pentagram and Paula Scher during Criterion’s rebranding in 2006. First, the Criterion logo, a circular arc at the top left of the cover. Then, on the left border, underneath the logo are two rectangles. One contains the film’s original year of theatrical release, and the other “Criterion Collection”. Everything is written at a 90° angle. These elements are always found at the same place but their color can vary, according to the new poster’s look. The date also changes for obvious reasons, but its place remains the same. The typeface used for the date and the name of the Criterion Collection seems to be Gotham. A sans-serif font used here in “Regular” for the date, and “Black” for the name of the collection.

Diagram of the invariable elements



Variable Elements : The rest of every new poster can be broken down into two kinds of elements : the typographic and linguistic elements and the illustrative elements. Let’s start with the latter. Illustrations on Criterion posters vary greatly, in terms of technique or colors. Figurative, they don’t necessarily feature characters. Before we get into the different components of these illustrations, it is important to note that none of these 85 Criterion posters use the same illustrations as the original theatrical release posters. However, we will see later that some elements can be reused. Regarding the technique used for the illustration, photography seem to be dominant one (45%). The second most used technique is photomontage (28%), which is also linked to photography. Painting is found in 25% of posters, drawing in 21% and traditional collage in 6%. In terms of colors, we can observe that most posters are indeed in color (78% of the posters are, leaving only 23% in shades of grey). Warm tones are more present than cold ones. Red is dominant, being present in 29% of the colored posters, orange follows with 24% and yellow at 23%. Brown and green are both at 19%, blue at 18% and at last, pink (including purple) at 10,5%. As for the shades of grey, we can observe that whites are dominant, being present in 80% of non-colored posters. Black is only present in 58% and grey in 30,5%. We can also note that black is mostly used in non-colored posters. Another important question is the use of images directly taken from the films. It is surprising to observe that it only happens in 50% of cases. We can note that the photomontage used in the Criterion poster for Naked Lunch is the same than for the original theatrical release poster, which is a rare occurrence considering the rest of our pool. As for the presence of a character from the film, it only happens in 81% of cases, leaving 19% of posters without any character. When at least one is present, we can observe that it is mostly through photography (61%), but also in drawing or painting (49%) The framing of this character also plays a role in the meaning of the poster. In 42% of the posters featuring at least one character, they are framed in full. In 22% of cases, only half of their bodies can be seen (upper or lower), and in 36%, the framing is a close-up showing only the face.



In 85% of cases, the poster is contextualized which means a setting is created and shown, through photography or photomontage for example. Out of these 85%, 80% feature at least one character. 15% use photomontage to create this setting. However, out of all 85 Criterion posters, 15% are uncontextualized. This absence of context is often created by a flat colored background (42% of cases), a white one (21%), a grey one (16%) or a black one (21%). This lack setting in the background doesn’t mean a lack of meaning, as we will see later. Let us now put aside the illustration and address the linguistic and typographic elements of Criterion posters. We will first identify what these different elements are. The title of the film is the main element, as it is present in 100% of posters. The name of director is present in 96% of posters. In only 8% of posters, the name of one or several actors is present as well. Finally, in 5% of cases, quotes from the film can be found. These four kinds of textual messages, added to the film’s release date and the Criterion Collection name are the only linguistic elements found on these posters. We can now study the design of these linguistic elements, the typographical aspect, and more specifically, the design of the film’s title. It is first important to know if the design is a recreation of the one used for the theatrical release of the film. It is the case in only 10% of posters, leaving 90% with a new typographic title treatment. In this case, two main kinds of typography can be found : the use of a Sans Serif font in 43% of cases and a manuscript title design in 40%. Serif fonts are only present in 21% of cases and more “decorative” fonts in 19% of cases. In terms of placement, the title is mostly found at the bottom center (42%), at the top center (34%) or at the bottom right (30%). We can already note that typographically and visually, Criterion can make its intervention look important and noticeable as well as very minimal and subtle. We will see why these choices are significant.



Diagram of Criterion’s Interventions

Maximal intervention


Minimal intervention

Sans serif


Images from the film Next to no modification

Drawing/painting/other Images not directly taken from the film


To better understand Criterion’s choices, interventions and overall vision of cinema, we have decided to put the 85 original theatrical release posters through the same analytic filters. It is important to note that unlike the Criterion posters of our pool, all made between 2006 and 2018, these original posters have been made throughout a century of cinema. The oldest film in our pool being Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Master of the House, released in 1925.

Pool of Original Posters We can first see that some posters may not contain images from the film, but actors can be present in photographic form with the use of pictures taken during promotional shootings, for example. In 51% of cases, the poster uses an image taken from the film. This result is very close to our other pool of Criterion posters (50%). In terms of illustration techniques, these original posters differ by the main use of painting (33%). Photography follows closely, used in 30,5% of cases, and photomontage at 21%. The use of drawing (12%) and traditional collage (1%) can seem anecdotal. In 96,5% of cases, at least one character is present, which greatly differs from the Criterion posters. When a character is present, it is through photography in 55% of cases. The “half the body” framing prevails at 49%. Full body framing and face close-up both being used in 36% of cases. In most cases, the original posters feature a setting (72%). Out of these, 73% feature at least one character. Contextualization through photomontages is used in 18% of cases. As for the uncontextualized posters (28% of this pool, a result close to the Criterion pool), flat colored backgrounds are mostly used (77%), then follow the black backgrounds (14%) and the white backgrounds (9%). In terms of colors, warm tones seem to dominate (red, orange and yellow). Red is the most used color (65% of posters.). Yellow is present in 47% of cases, then follows orange (38%), blue (36%), brown (28%), green (23,5) and finally, rose (13%). As for the shades of grey, black dominates over white (95% and 88% respectively), and grey is used in 36% of cases. We can note that very few original posters from our pool are only using shades of grey (3,5%). When it comes to the linguistic elements, this pool of original posters shows way more variety. Not only the title of the film, names of the actors and of the director are present on every poster, but other elements are as well. We can sometimes see the name of the producer, the production company or the screenwriter. We can also find awards 14


that the film has received during its festival run before the actual release, a quote from a critic and its author’s name and finally, one or several taglines. Taglines are not as much a summary of the film as they are slogans, sentences written by the production company in charge of the advertisement for the release, to pique the general public’s curiosity. For example, a famous tagline would be “In space, no one can hear you scream” for Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror sci-fi flick Alien. Sometimes, the tagline is a commentary on the film, as it’s the case for the film Idi Amin Dada “the most controversial movie of the year about… the most controversial man in many years!”. However, despite the presence of many taglines, no poster features a quote from the film. As for the typography of the film’s title, there are no real dominant character style. The most used is the Sans Serif (28%), followed by the “decorative” (27%), closely followed by the manuscript (26%). Serif is used in 8% of cases. 20% of original posters have a title written using a brush which can be linked to the japanese films in this pool, as 9 out of the 12 are doing so (75%). It might be interesting to note that this pool, containing films from all over the world, has posters using many different languages. Criterion uses the titles that their film have been given when first distributed in the United States, though it doesn’t always mean it is translated. (La Belle et la Bête becomes Beauty and the Beast, for example, when Mon Oncle remains the same) >



Finally, titles are mostly found at the bottom center of the poster. In that regard, Criterion posters seem less standardized, as you can see on this diagram of frequency in title placement. LEFT



Original Posters


Criterion Posters






INTERPRETATION OF THE INVARIABLE ELEMENTS The Criterion Collection’s logo is interesting as it cannot be outrightly linked to the representation of a specific element of cinema. Its quasi-circular shape can signify a film roll on an old camera, or a reflection on a lens, but this logo is abstract enough that it could be used in a completely different field. In its animated version, the logo signifies more obviously a film roll, as the name “The Criterion Collection” seems to wrap itself around it. The logo also resembles a slightly tilted “C”, for Criterion. The typeface used in the brand identity is the Gotham which, in its “black” weight version, has a very similar capital “C”. This Sans Serif typeface helps the brand to be subtly present on posters. The Gotham typeface is very used on the web as well as in print or signage. It is interesting to note that it is used by the Motion Picture Association of America, in charge of defending the interests of hollywood’s biggest studios, for its rating cards. The logo also makes for a recognizable yet discreet seal, making the collection more coherent and elegant when looked at as a whole.

The Criterion logo



The animated version of the Criterion Collection logo

MPAA card preceeding film trailers, noting the rating the association gave the film.





A Cinema Of Its Own?



Before getting into the analysis of the aesthetic choices made by Criterion, it is important to reiterate that the company makes new posters for the films that it releases. Indeed, all of the films from our pool, and most in Criterion’s history, have been released and distributed in the past. Criterion’s art director Eric Skillman has commissioned many artists over the years, asking them to create their take on a new poster for a release. A lot of different artistic fields and practices are represented in our pool of posters, and it is rare for elements from the original posters to be reused in Criterion’s versions, at least without any intervention on them. The only occurrences we could find are the use of the original typographic treatment of a title, which occured in 10% of cases. With this very broad observation, it is made clear that Criterion aims to differentiate itself. The brand seem to not only want to avoid mainstream poster trends but by going back to the film itself, to also better understand its substance, why it is an important piece of cinema, all in the goal to present it to its audience in the most appropriate way. This audience differs from the general public, as it is mostly constituted by people who have a particular appreciation for cinema and a general knowledge of its history. Criterion knows to keep that in mind when addressing them. To illustrate this radical change in representation, let’s take a look at both posters, original and made by Criterion, for the film Kicking and Screaming.



Original Poster

As the original seem quite attached to the aesthetic trends of the film’s genre and release period, the Criterion version choose to concentrate on the film itself and more specificaly what it says. The treatment of textual elements is radically different. The characters vanish and the background isn’t the same. We will come back to each element later in this analysis but it is hard to deny Criterion’s will to impose its own vision, wiping the 22

slate clean of any pre-existing communication on the films they release. All of this is being amplified by the invariable elements used by the company. The logo serves as a seal, marking each poster. The brand signs its creations and sets up a very clear collection system by the standardization of the original release date of the film and the name of the collection making Criterion posters immediately recognizable. A CINEMA OF ITS OWN?

Criterion Poster by Leanne Shapton


23 Criterion Poster


An Enigmatic Cinema?



On our pool of Criterion posters, we can observe certain trends in the use of characters from the films. First of all, they aren’t always present. It seems to be Criterion’s will to obscure its subject, in a way. Maybe to oppose theirs to mainstream posters that make their mission to explain the film and its actors as much as possible to the general public. Therefore, on some posters, not only does no character is present, but the illustration can be almost abstract: It is the case for the film 45 Years. The image shows a crevasse in snow. Without having seen the film, it is hard to understand what is being shown, what it represents or why this particular image has been chosen. This choice can stir curiosity in some as much as it can cause disinterest in others. However, this new poster raises questions where the original one gave more answers. It is important to note, and we will come back to this detail later, that this poster is one of a few that show the names of the actors. It happens only 7 times in our pool of 85 posters. Could this be because the director is less known than others in the collection? Or maybe it is only a way to compensate for the use of such an enigmatic image. When there is human presence, though, we can notice that they are often cropped. There are three kinds of framing : the face close-up, the half-body framing and the full-body framing. Each kind can create a multitude of messages and meanings. Used in 36% of cases of character presence, the face close-up effect on the overall mood and meaning of the poster is important and can vastly shift from one to the other. On the poster for Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, the face occupies most of the frame. This framing feels very intimate, as we can see Cléo’s face, the female protagonist, from so close. Yet, as half of her face is cropped out, Cléo never reveals herself fully. She remains half-hidden. Moreover, the black and white treatment of the picture being quite soft, it adds a symbolic veil between her face and the colored reality.



Criterion Poster by Anthony Gerace



Criterion Poster by Neil Kellerhouse











trad i


In terms of meaning, despite a face-only framing and the use of black and white, we can note that the poster for Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal differs radically. The film has been originally shot in black and white (like Varda’s). We can therefore understand the choice of keeping this treatment for aesthetic cohesion but it is in fact way more substantial. In Bergman’s film, the main protagonist (whose face figures on the poster) plays chess with Death. He plays with the white chess pieces, and Death with the black ones. The very dramatic chiaroscuro used on the poster can signify this struggle to not disappear into darkness/ death. It can then more broadly represent the great quasi-manicheist dichotomy presented in the film, where life and light challenge death and darkness. By using these oppositions white/good/ life versus black/evil/death, let’s analyse this poster with Algirdas Greimas’ Semiotic Square. This technique, by opposing concepts, can render links between semiotic signs more visible and help emerge more concepts, relations and 28



consequences to deepen the analysis of a subject. As our poster is in shades of grey, we can use the semiotic square this way: Non-Death + Non-life = the beyond The grey zones of the poster = the beach on which the main protagonist plays chess with death. He is playing his life and therefore, as long as the game isn’t over, he is neither alive nor dead. This analysis only fully makes sense for someone who has seen the film, or knows the outline of its story but the contrasted use of black and white invokes a universe of manicheist oppositions. By comparing this poster to the original one, we can see that Criterion doesn’t hesitate to get very minimal in order to focus its audience’s attention towards the kinds of elements we’ve just discussed. Though the black background keeps us from seeing the environment surrounding the character, the poster doesn’t lack in symbols and messages.


Criterion Poster by Neil Kellerhouse



Let us explore this question of environment and context. In 85% of our posters, elements are present to introduce a scene, a setting. Out of these 85%, 80% are featuring at least one character. 15% use photomontage for the introduction of a setting, which makes little difference. Posters for Do The Right Thing & Grey Gardens offer perfect examples of contextualized characters. They are surrounded by an environment and a lot of signifiers are visible, giving the audience various indications on the story told. In 15% of cases, however, the poster is not contextualized, and the surroundings are replaced by a flat color. We can categorize four configurations, as this diagram illustrates :

CONTEXTUALIZED Characters / Setting

NON-UNCONTEXTUALIZED No Character / Setting 30

UNCONTEXTUALIZED Characters / No Setting


Original Poster

The absence of context, of setting, has many effects. It can disorient, intrigue, give an unsettling impression of emptiness. But it always spotlights the subject, whether it be one or several of the film’s protagonists or typographic elements like the film’s title. The poster for Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist offers a good example of uncontextualization and framing. In both the original poster and Criterion’s, we can see a half-body framing. The original poster differs, simply because it shows the upper bodies of the two main protagonists, recognizable, and putting them in a forest setting. The Criterion posters frames the lower part of a body, only showing legs on a black background. Vegetation is present in both posters, but it is through the environment on the original one and through the use of sticks and leaves as typography for the Criterion version. AN ENIGMATIC CINEMA?

Criterion Poster by Neil Kellerhouse

The close framing and the use of a black background make the poster feel quite intimate. The original poster doesnt give the same impression as it focuses more on the practical situation that the two characters find themselves in. However, though the Criterion poster might feel more intimate, the character eludes us and the background disorients us. A similar effect can be found on the poster for 81/2. Three characters are present, but are trying to escape the audience’s gaze. We recognize Marcello Mastroianni, in the foreground, but his posture and framing leaves him half off-frame. His attitude makes him look like he is trying to avoid the camera. In the background, we can distinguish two blurry silhouettes. Their identities, motivations and actions are unknown to the audience.


Criterion Poster by Lucien S. Y. Yang



Original Poster

Criterion Poster by Greg Ruth

Original Poster

Criterion Poster by Robert Hunt



Sometimes, elements from the original posters come back on the Criterion version, but the result is quite different. We saw it earlier on the poster for Antichrist, but it is also the case for Notorious. In both the original poster and Criterion’s version, the two main characters are present, in a very intimate posture. Their faces are touching and the shape of a key is visible. However, the use of bright colors and Ingrid Bergman’s smile give the original poster a certain lightness of tone. Criterion’s version is in black and white and shows us Cary Grant’s back as Ingrid Bergman holds him. Her smile has vanished. She is distracted by what she is doing behind his back, in our foreground. In her hands, she holds a key. This posture evokes a secret. Something is literally happening behind a character’s back and we, as the audience, are witnessing it. By these staging choices, a world of intrigue and conspiracy related imagery is being signified. A similar shift of tone happens on the poster for All That Heaven Allows. The original posters shows us a couple holding eachother, a man -Rock Hudson- kissing the cheek of a smiling woman -Jane Wyman- whose hand is going through his hair. Whereas, on Criterion’s version, the couple seem completely disconnected. Rock Hudson wearing a faint smile, has his hand on Jane Wyman’s shoulder but she seems to be walking away from him, looking in the other direction, her face seem sad and indifferent.

In the cases of Notorious and All That Heaven Allows, we can imagine that the goal of the original studios was to put an emphasis on the romance present in these films though their core might reside in the dysfunctions found in the relationships represented and in the intrigues and mysteries that they hide. The cinema that veils itself, becoming inaccessible, happens sometimes in a very literal way. Indeed, we can observe that on several posters, graphic elements overlap the photography in a way that obscures it. On the poster for The Long Day Closes, it is the very elegant and large manuscript typography that veils the face of a child protagonist. This sensation is accentuated by the blur effect applied on the photographic background. It is interesting to note that typography on a photographic close-up of a face is also present on the poster for Cléo from 5 to 7, but as we saw it earlier, it has a very different effect. A comparable effect is applied on the poster for SALO, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom by Pasolini. There, the typography is accompanied by lines overlapping the blurry photographic background. The groups of line seem to be counting the titular 120 days. The photograph shows an almost naked woman, on her knees, crying and hidding part of her face. The poster raises questions but is shocking above all. Criterion uses its privilege as a niche film distributor to produce such a violent representation.

Could Criterion’s vision of cinema be more dramatic ? There is, in any case, a desire to show a film differently. Not having to sell the film to an audience that doesn’t know it already makes it easier for Criterion to showcase more facets of it.



Criterion Poster by Jessica Hische (lettering) & Eric Skillman (design)

Criterion Poster by Rodrigo Corral




An Elitist Cinema?



Before we can talk about elitism, it is important to prove that the Criterion Collection adresses film lovers. We can, for example, observe the original release dates and nationality of the films chosen to be part of the collection. In our pool of 85 films, 76% have been originally released between 1930 and 1979, and 57% before 1970. Regarding their provenance, even though the American cinema is the most represented in our pool, with 31% of films, it is closely followed by countries from all over the world. Japan and France are both represented at 14%, England at 9%, Italy at 7%, Sweden at 6%. Russia and Germany are both at 5%. In our pool, 69% of films aren’t from the U.S.A., 45% being from Europe. These observations prove a real interest from Criterion and its audience of, not only the history of American cinema, but of cinemas from all over the world. As we’ve seen already, however, when Criterion present a film to its audience, the company does it in its own unique way. When mainstream distributors address a large audience, they have to be convincing to sell the film by explaining it visually, by presenting its themes and showing the actors. Criterion’s stakes are different. As the company addresses mainly film lovers, it uses a certain understood language, some kind of cinephile secret code. To achieve that, Criterion can highlight specific elements from their films in their posters, elements only recognizable by people who already know and love the films in question. By doing that, Criterion gains the trust and respect of its audience. In return, it validates its audience’s desire to be a member of a niche, perhaps even some kind of elite.



To illustrate this idea, let’s take a look at two different examples : The posters for Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic M and Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 horror cult film House. M is regarded as one of the best films ever made (ranked 33rd by Empire magazine in their ‘greatest films ever made’ list, in 2010). An iconic shot is used here, and its use is a choice clearly made to address a public of film lovers, though it does give clues on the tone of the film too. A man is looking at himself in the reflection of a shop’s window. On his back, the letter M has been written with white chalk. As this M is also the title of the film, it replaces any added title. On each side of this M are found the only two typographic additions : “a film by” and “Fritz Lang”, giving us the name of the director. The expression on the face of the protagonist seem to show that he is panicked by this discovered marking. It is amusing to note that in the previous scene, a character marks an M on his hand, in order to affix it like a stamp on our protagonist’s back. The original poster represents this “stamp-hand”, the before, and the Criterion poster represents the result of the marking, the after.


Original Poster


Criterion Poster by Sarah Habibi



In the case of House, Criterion uses another specific element of its film, but way more niche. Let’s see how the company tries to address both fans of the film and people who aren’t familiar with it. Filling up most of the poster’s space is a drawn face. We can see two eyes with thin pupils, a muzzle and a large laughing mouth with sharp teeth. Furr and ears help us discern the shape of this seemingly feline creature. It also evokes these japanese laughing demon masks. This representation, associated with the color choices, warm and bright, orange, almost bloody, is eccentric and nightmarish. Underneath, we can see the film’s title, hand-drawn with ink, on which is also drawn a small house. On each side of this house is the first and last name of the director, in manuscript and expressive type. The title’s undulating typography evokes old horror films. Without having seen the film, we can already tell it will be an eccentric horror film. For a fan, though, this representation is familiar. It is some kind of demonic cat featured in this film that, for a fraction of a second, takes this shape. In some cases, Criterion uses linguistic elements for a similar communication thanks to actual quotes from the film. Thus, an understanding is created between the sender and the receiver of the message based on this language made out of references. Criterion celebrates a very specific element of a film, visual or linguistic, and the audience is rewarded by recognizing it. It is the case in the poster for Louis Malle’s My Dinner With André which we will discuss later, where dialogs from the film are incorporated into a photomontage. As we have noted before, original posters sometimes start a dialogue with their audience by featuring the name of awards their film have received or by quotes from reviews. Criterion choses to avoid these kinds of linguistic elements. Talking to film fans, we can understand how it would seem unnecessary to mention these kinds of informations to convince its audience.



Criterion Poster by Sam Smith




An Auteur Cinema?



During the observation of our linguistic strata, we noticed that the presence of any actor’s name was a very rare occurrence in our pool. It can only be found in 8% of posters. This could be for several reasons. First of all, this relegates the actors in the background, putting the director in the foreground. Visually, the actors are way more present than linguistically. In 81% of posters, at least one protagonist is featured. The disparition isn’t complete, but there is a clear separation between the actor and his character on screen. Even though the actor is recognizable, his role is to inhabit his character, to be a tool of the story and of the director. The director has its name present in 96% of posters. Exceptions being The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore and Princess Bride. This choice seem to have been made by the illustrators in charge of the posters. The first two are both directed by Wes Anderson. A little research out of our pool of posters shows that Criterion has released 7 films by this director. Only 4 feature his name. The other 3 that don’t (including The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore from our pool) have been designed by the director’s brother Eric Chase Anderson. As for the Princess Bride poster, it is the only poster made by illustrator Angela Rizza. These are the only explanations that we can offer concerning the absence of the director’s name on the Criterion posters from our pool. These 3 posters are then expections to the rule.



The low linguistic presence on Criterion posters makes the director’s name even more important. With the disappearance of the actors’ names, the collection presents films as visual stories that only originate from their directors’ mind. We can see a link with literature and book covers on which only figures the title and the name of the author in most cases. Here, the auteur produces a vision out of which result the protagonists and their physical appearances, their actions, motivations, but also their setting, framing, themes of their stories etc. The director’s style is sometimes put in the forefront with typographic choices. On the original poster for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast, the typographic treatment of the title is baroque, richly orned and grandiose, to stimulate the audience’s imagination and to make it clear that the film is a fantastic tale told on screen. On the Criterion version, the typography is radically different, but quotes a specific scene from the film. Indeed, during the introduction sequence, the credits and the title are being written with chalk on a black board by Cocteau himself. The director’s own hand-drawn typography isn’t reused as the title here is in english and not french. What is cited here, is the scene itself in order to reproduce a certain unique Cocteau aesthetic.

Stills from the opening credit sequence of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast

In the following section, we will see how Criterion posters feature cinema’s inherent aesthetic elements.

Original poster for Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast



Criterion Poster by Sarah Habibi




An Art Above All?



We discussed earlier the use of specific elements as references, in order to engage an audience of fans of a particular film. Criterion also knows to use a specific shot from a film and hold back its intervention on it, to let it express itself. In these cases, the only added element are the linguistic ones (name of film and director). The poster for Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko is a good example of a beautiful shot from the film on which was added the title and director’s name at the bottom of the picture, leaving as much space as possible to the shot. The goal is to celebrate this specific film’s aesthetics by showcasing it as it is. By making its intervention minimal, Criterion declares its love for cinema and celebrates the pure beauty the artform can create. As noted before, Criterion posters tend to use shades of grey more than their original versions (23% for Criterion, 3,5% for original posters.) We can see in this result a desire from the studios in charge of the original releases to compensate for the fact that their films are in black and white with colorful posters. Or in some cases, the goal might have been highlighting the fact that the film is in color, in an era when this fact was a selling point. Criterion differs from this approach. The company celebrates this absence of colors, considering it not as a flaw but rather as a part of cinema’s history that became an aesthetic statement that persists today. The use of black and white also allows Criterion to highlight a contrast between light and shadows. Cinema being a photographic art, it is based on the captation of light. Other elements, inherent to cinema, are used. In the case of the Picnic At Hanging Rock poster, we can notice a certain softness and warmth in the shot featured, due to its colors and therefore lightning choices and lens used by the cinematographer. Film grain is also particularly visible on the blurry background. For technical reasons, film lovers will recognize with these elements a particular era in cinema history : the 70s. But these signifying elements are strong enough to invoke specific imageries. The almost sepia tones of this seemingly old image or its dreamlike softness can visually evoke concepts such as «memories» or «the past».



Criterion Poster by Sam Smith and Eric Skillman



Criterion Poster by Eric Skillman



As we have seen through these last examples, by minimizing its intervention on specific film shots used for its posters, Criterion celebrates the inherent technical, aesthetical and accidental elements that make cinema’s artistic substance. We can notice that the company tends to mainly use photography and photomontage for its posters, when the technique most used on the original posters is painting. This could be explained by the fact that dominant techniques in film posters have changed over the years, following trends. Painting was dominant since Cinema’s earlier age, during Hollywood’s golden age and up to the new hollywood of the 70s. It was then gradually replaced by photographs and photomontages helped by the arrival of Computer Assisted Manufacturing and the democratization of graphic design softwares.

These rubbles surrounding the title are signifier of ruins and destruction, whereas the white space in the middle seems to represent a cleaning of sort. These elements, added to the title “Germany, Year Zero” give us a good idea of the context in which the story takes place : Post-war germany, when after the destruction, the country makes a new start. Thus, Criterion takes the liberty to interpret the themes of the film, its substance, with elements it has completely created.

Let us now examine the case in which no images directly taken from the film are present on the poster, which happens through one technique or another in 50% of posters. The poster for Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero is a good example. Through painting, the original poster features the main protagonists and their setting, a street in ruins. Criterion takes a very different approach and only uses a black and white photograph of a pile of rubble. In the middle is a clear space showing white fabric over which is laid the title and name of the director in a sans serif font.

Original Poster



Criterion Poster by Jason Hardy



Criterion Poster by Cliff Wright



This is also the case in the poster for Visconti’s Death in Venice. We can see a bronze bust of a long-haired teenager. The sculpture seems damaged by time and weather. It is declining. Added to this picture is the title of the film in a serif font inspired by antique Roman capitals. The name of the director is using a sans serif font. The background is a flat dark grey. The sculpture isn’t an element of the film. It has been commissioned by Criterion to the sculptor Cliff Wright. The choice of sculpture as a medium and the typography are signifiers of a certain antique Roman period and the beauty standards of this time. This not only gives us an indication on where the story takes places but of its themes too. A young woman, such as the one portrayed by the bust, is also a representation of beauty and youth. This contrasts with the state of damage that the statue is in. The combination of these elements result in an impression of a wasted youth, a soiled beauty. The use of sculpture is interesting and brings us to the next point. Though photography dominates, other techniques are used on Criterion posters : Photomontages, painting, drawing and traditional collages. We will now try and understand how these techniques are used and for what purposes.



We have already seen how Criterion uses film related flaws on their posters, to evoke a certain aesthetic. Something similar happens on the poster for John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach. We can observe that a printing flaw is being recreated, when layers of colors are being superimposed on the black and white image taken from the film. This flaw can evoke film colorization, a practice from the early decades of cinema, before the existence of actual color film. The film was then manually painted over. We can also see this flaw as a reference to hazards linked to older printing techniques such as screenprinting. By this detail on the poster, the history of both cinema and graphic design are being linked and celebrated. On the illustration for Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room, a mosaic is being evoked. It is interesting to note that not only no image from the film are present but

Criterion Poster by Eric Skillman


also that the illustrator Marian Bantjes uses one discipline (drawing) to signify another (mosaic) in order to talk about a third one (cinema). The choice of representing a mosaic gives the audience some idea of where the story might be taking place. Born in Mesopotamia, the art of mosaics then spread to mediterranean and oriental countries where it bloomed before reaching the occident. Here, the mosaic represents a chandelier, an object present in the film, but not the only signifier here. The poster for Robert M. Young’s The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez offers a similar example. A sombrero-wearing rider is represented, followed by four other riders. This illustration has been made by the spanish artist Juan R. Fuentes using linocut. This choice of technique is as important as what it represents. It evokes an imagery of artisanal craftsmanship and tradition.

Criterion Poster by Marian Bantjes


Criterion Poster by Juan R. Fuentes



Let us now talk about the use of drawing and painting on Criterion posters. First of all, the use of these two techniques signify simultaneously a certain craftsmanship but also a willingness to represent the films through a completely different, non-photographic medium. The style of representation varies greatly in our pool of Criterion posters, but is always a signifier in itself, not only by how it represents its subject but for the parallels it draws with the history of arts and artistic movements. The three posters for Jacques Tati’s Playtime, Mon Oncle and Mr Hulot’s Holidays, drawn by David Merveilles, all have a very light tone. The flat background and the presentations of the setting that contextualize the action are very minimalist. The character of Mr Hulot, played by Tati himself, is present in the three posters. This soft and amusing simplicity gives a good idea of the tone present in Tati’s cinematography. The posters evoke the drawings of french artist Sempé, or New Yorker cartoons. Through references and comparisons, Criterion is introducing the audience to the cinematic style of Jacques Tati, and placing him in a specific comedic family.


The two Wes Anderson posters we’ve discussed earlier, drawn by his brother, have a style that can be compared to one found in children’s books. What is interesting to observe, is that this approach captures the tone of a film without being a total retranscription of the director’s style. Anderson tends to give a lot of attention to costumes and set-designs in an almost fetichist manner. His sets often resembles models, doll-houses. This aesthetic isn’t being represented on the posters and yet, the light and pretty tone of the films, as well as the childhood themes are present.


Criterion Posters by David Merveille

La Bibliothèque, Jean Jacques Sempé

2 New Yorker covers

Criterion Posters by Eric Chase Anderson



Some representations are way more violent. For example, on the poster for Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique, drawn by David Plunkert, we can see the hand of an out of frame character trying to drown another. The red hand, the only colored element on the poster, is drawn in a very geometric and minimalist fashion, Saul Bass-esque. The background, with its accentuated and tilted perspective is vertigo inducing. The goal here isn’t necessarily to translate the style of the director but in a very expressive way, to make the audience feel uncomfortable, as the thrilling film will too. Another very expressive example is the poster for Volker Schlöndorff’s film Baal. It was painted by the avant-garde painter Rainer Fetting. It is the very rough portrait of a protagonist that appears here almost deformed, monstrous. The use of these techniques can also allow the artist to capture time and space through different point of vues -which could be considered as the particularity of cinema- in one single image. It is the case with the poster for Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, painted by Kent Williams. A man, bare-chested, a sabre at his belt is standing at the center of the poster. However, he is split into five pieces. His head is represented twice. We can understand that what is being represented, is a plurality in time and points of view. The background is rich in brushstrokes, but doesn’t evoke something specific right away. If we happen to be familiar with the film itself and its story, a series of testimonies on one specific crime, we then understand the multiplicity of points of view represented here as well as the confused background, a representation of memory.

Criterion Poster by David Plunkert

Criterion Poster by Kent Williams



The exclusion of photography can sometimes be used to evoke other kinds of posters or covers, like book covers. Indeed, while some books adapted onto the screen come to use the film adaptation poster as a new cover, Criterion does the opposite, in a way. By avoiding the use of images taken from the film, the company tries to find other ways to represent its story and themes. Here are a few examples of this strategy. The poster for Louis Malle’s My Dinner With AndrÊ choses to put aside the representation of the actors, and uses both photomontage and typography. This big linguistic presence reinforce the comparison to a book cover. We can see the title, the name of the director but also fragments of quotes from the film. Everything arranged on and around plate with cutlery on it. Criterion Poster by by Rainer Fetting

The poster for Kicking And Screaming that we mentionned earlier, does something similar, without the presence of a photomontage. Here, the linguistic elements make for most of the poster as we can read the title of the film, its director’s name and many quotes from it.

Criterion Poster by Neil Kellerhouse



Covers for some of Penguin Books’ Fiction best sellers. Penguin Books is a british publishing house that is very popular in the U.S.A. as well as worldwide.



Criterion Poster by F. Ron Miller

At last, it is important to note that 10 out of our pool of 85 posters have a frame. It can be a simple white border (Cléo from 5 to 7, House) or a frame integrated into the illustration through photography or photomontage (The Last Picture Show, Fox and His Friends).

Watching a film isn’t only watching the “what” but also the “how”, the choices in narration, directing, editing, photography, everything that make up the representation. Criterion seem to know and apply this vision to its way of thinking its film posters.

This visual choice is an important signifier. Similarly to a pedestal, the frame makes an art piece out of the Criterion poster. It is not just a communication tool, but a piece that can be looked at and appreciated for itself. Subsequently, it also celebrates the film that it represents in the same way, and in a broader sense, the art of cinema.

As we have seen it in this last part, pictural techniques of representation are signifiers and are charged in imageries of all kinds. This shows that Criterion’s will is to celebrate Cinema as an artform with its own technical and aesthetical characteristics, but in a way that also breaks the barriers between cinema and other artforms like litterature, painting or sculpture.

Roger Ebert, the famous film critic, used to say about cinema : “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” AN ART ABOVE ALL?

A story is a story, and it can be told through many mediums. 61


Through this analysis, we have explored communication workings that say a lot about Criterion, its vision of cinema, its way of addressing the audience, but also on the relationship between the two parties. It is clear that Criterion’s will is to set itself apart, but the company does it in many ways : Sometimes by limiting its intervention, preserving an image of the film, as natural as possible, or sometimes creating a piece from a to z. The collection celebrates its films, but also their auteurs, and the techniques and aesthetical particularities that make cinema an art in its own right.

Nonetheless, the difficulty resides in the necessity to sublimate these cinematographic pieces by grasping their substances and presenting them to a public of film lovers. In order to do this, Criterion highlights the particularities of cinema as an artform but also invokes other disciplines such as paintings, sculptures and other cultural fields like litterature. In that way, Criterion’s communication can appear both very opaque and open to other artforms. In a synthesis part, we will compare this analysis to the Cinemathèque Française’s demand, and see how the institution differs from Criterion.

Pictural techniques used by Criterion are numerous but their goal is always to talk about a film in a specific way, showcasing what makes it special enough to be part of the collection. Criterion works inside a comfortable bubble, where most of its audience already knows the films that the company releases. It can then reference the films without having to explain itself too much, which is a luxury in the world of communication. 62


Synthesis & Creative propositions First of all, let us explore our client’s history to try and better understand it and its current branding. The Cinemathèque Française is an institution dedicated to preserving, restoring and screening films and film related documents and objects. Situated in a Frank Gehry designed building in the Bercy district of Paris, it contains a few screening rooms, a cinema museum, a gallery dedicated to temporary exhibitions, a library, a shop and a café. The institution was created in 1936 by Henri Langlois in order to preserve sets and costumes from films, otherwise destined for destruction. 80 years later, it has become an unmissable site for film lovers from all over the world, with its exhibitions, collection of objects, screenings, retrospectives, and other event. The Cinemathèque has been through a few relocations. It was inaugurated in the 8th district in Paris in the 30s and remained there until the 50s where it moved in the 5th. In 1972, Henri Langlois creates a Museum of Cinema at the Palais de Chaillot. SYNTHESIS & CREATIVE PROPOSITIONS

Since 2005, everything is gathered at the same place in the Bercy district. In 2017, it gathered 371 797 visitors: 228 383 for the screenings, 77 150 for the temporary exhibitions, 39 370 for the museum, 17 259 for the library and 9 635 for workshops and other special events. The same year, the cinémathèque presented 2 exhibitions, 80 meetings and lectures, and 30 retrospectives. (source : 2007 annual repord : Through all these events, our client maintains a very lively and ever-changing community. Indeed, the film lovers will find what they’re looking for by going to the screening and lectures, when a broader, less expert audience will come to discover the art of cinema through the exhibitions and retrospectives of directors from all over the world.


What are the Cinemathèque’s goals ?

•H elping introduce french and international cinema to an audience of any age or generation.

•B eing a place of reference for film lovers looking for screenings, meetings, workshops but also to buy books and films or consult historical documents.

• Maintaining a community. What is the role of the Cinemathèque’s communication ?

• Solidifying the Cinemathèque’s image throughs programs.

• Extending the visibility of its exhibitions and events through several kinds of campaigns : Seasonal campaigns of posters showcase the year’s biggest events and are accompanied by programs. Quaterly campaigns present a more detail schedule of the events happening at the Cinémathèque.

• These campaigns, just like the exhibitions they communicate about, are the results of partnerships with television channels like Arte, TMC Cinéma or publications like Télérama, A Nous Paris, Les Inrockuptibles, Les Cahiers du Cinéma or even institutions like the RATP/SNCF (railroads companies), the Ile-de-France region, La FNAC, the 12th district Town Hall, or even Paris Airports.

• The Cinemathèque’s presence in the press is an important part of its communication, as every new event is an occasion for the media partners to talk about it.

• The website is also a very important platform as it contains every necessary information about the Cinemathèque like : A calendar, with a focus on the curren week, a description of every event, opening schedules and other practical informations.

•T he social media presence is also a main way for the Cinémathèque to communicate to its audience about upcoming events or announcements. In 2019, the Cinémathèque had 135 000 followers on twitter and 242 952 likes on Facebook.

•T he institution also published online exhibitions and events, like “Martin Scorsese, Histoires de New York” in 2015.



Why enter the cinephile Blu-ray market?

• To offer quality and comprehensive releases, cheap yet elegant.

• To answer an existing demand, as french film lovers and collectors sometimes have to buy foreign releases, though small independent companies exists : Carlotta Films, Potemkine...

•T o reinforce the Cinémathèque’s image as a reference in cinema history, but also as an institution that understand and anticipates the needs of its audience.

•T o showcase the restoration work that the Cinemathèque carries out on the film that it screens.

•T o showcase the library and exposition contents. To include as additional content, the recording of the various lectures and meetings happening through the Cinémathèque various events.

•T he lucrative aspect of creating a collection of reference that film lovers can collect.



Our goal here is to find a way to translate the Cinémathèque’s identity and to serve these objectives through a visual formula that could be applied on this new Blu-ray collection. Let us now examine the institution’s current branding.

New logo since 2016, designed by BETC

In 2016, the BETC agency created a new branding for the Cinémathèque, in order to make it more accessible to the general public. Until then, the logo was composed of a superposition of trapezoids evoking screens combined with a rounded sans serif font. Now, the logo simply the name Cinémathèque in a typeface using the shape of the Hollywood sign. On the various communication materials, though, the rounded sans serif typeface is used, usually in two versions : thin and bold. The treatment of the image and the colors seem to vary from one material to the other, also depending on the event. However, in the case of posters for exhibitions, the format and lay-out is standardised : The logo is rotated at 90° to be used verticaly against the left boarder. The image uses the three upper quarters of the poster, and the last bottom one is dedicated to the title of the exhibitions as well as other practical informations. This text is used on a black background, separated from the image with a dotted line, evoking a film roll. The slogan, however, can be found on the upper part of the poster, where the image is. We can understand here a great effort to be legible and accessible at the expense of some of the previous visual identity’s subtlety and elegance. The challenge we are facing is trying to use as much of this new visual identity as possible while still presenting something new.



Previous logo by Ruedi Baur

It is time for use to draw meaningful conclusions from our analysis of the Criterion Collection, and to ask us what semiotic workings could serve the Cinémathèque’s own identity. Let us list these workings and confront them to our client’s demand.

• The collection system highlighted by elegant invariable elements, minimalist and subtle, could help the Cinémathèque to remain present while still letting the film express itself visually, with its own aesthetics and references.

• Criterion’s will to distance itself from the original posters and the mainstream poster trends shows cinema in a different way. This could be a double edged sword in the Cinemathèque’s case. Our client might want to present Cinema in an intriguing and enticing way, but its DVDs still needs to appeal to non-experts.

• Highlighting specific technical and aesthetical elements of cinema could also be a good way to showcase the Cinemathèque’s expertise and knowledge in the fact that films aren’t just a story, but a visual medium.

•T he same applies to the transcription of a film’s aesthetics or a director’s style through visual elements taken directly (or not) from the film itself.

•T he Cinémathèque could also use a variety of other artforms, of illustration techniques like drawing, painting, photo montage or collage and contrary to Criterion, use artworks made by its community during workshops.

The Cinémathèque’s main difference with Criterion is that its audience members aren’t necessarily film experts. Some are film lovers and enthusiasts, some are just curious. That is why our client has to educate its audience and therefore cannot rely on a shared language. After all, it is the role of an history museum, to teach. We will now conclude this thesis with several design propositions for our client.



Main Proposition :













By showcasing three shots from the film on its cover, and only adding basic informations in a standardized way, the Cinémathèque can celebrate the film that it releases. The film speaks for itself and through its visuals, defends its place in the collection. The title of the film, the names of the main actors and of the director are present in a standardized system that evokes clapperboards. The typography used for the film’s title is taken directly from its title sequence or original poster if the film doesn’t have a title sequence. The typeface used for the rest of the textual informations is the same as the one used in the Cinémathèque’s visual identity : Quicksand. 68












Alternative Proposition:


Based on the color spectrum, this concept attributes one color to each film. One specific element from the film is then isolated on a flat background using this color. The color could either be attributed to the genre of the film or the year of original release. The spectrum appears once the collection is fully collected.





Alternative Proposition:


Re-using this concept of picking one single element from each film, this proposition isolates it on a white background.





Bibliography & Sources Books :

• Eric Skillman - 2014 - Criterion Designs - Criterion Collection

•J ean-Marie Floch - 1990 - Sémiotique, Marketing et CommunicationPresses Universitaires

• Roland Barthes - 1957 - Mythologies (Recueil) - Seuil

• Spencer Drate - 2008 - Art of the Modern Movie Poster - Edition Olms

• Roger Ebert - 2006 - Awake in the dark - University of Chicago Press

Websites :





• Films :

• Sophie Fiennes - 2006 - A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema

Videos :

• Film Appreciation - 2015 - Lecture 19: The Semiotics of Cinema

• Yale Courses - 2008 - Semiotics and Structuralism

•U NSW Arts & Social Sciences - 2015 - Professor Alain Badiou: Cinema and Philosophy

• The Criterion Collection: A History



Thanks Many thanks to OphÊlie Hetzel for her guidance, as well as Brandon Shaefer, Sam Smith and Adrian Curry for their help. Thanks to Brandon and Sam’s amazing Poster Boys Podcast.

partie THANKS




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