Key Art

Key art typically refers to a film or television project’s one arresting image, usually paired with the perfect title treatment that, together, express the genre and tone of the project, often with a tagline hinting at an ironic, thematic plot twist. It’s a first impression, a thumbnail sketch, a tease communicating the promise of the premise.

Key art is used everywhere from the traditional 27″ x 40″ posters hung outside cinemaplexes to ads in magazines and newspapers and on billboards, park benches and DVD cases to Internet menu guides to lure prospective viewers. But long before key art is used to market to consumers, producers use that same (or evolving) key art to market within the industry, sell to every business-to-business player that comes on board throughout the entire development and production process, from conception, through attaching talent and department heads to securing financing and distribution.

One of my favorite chapters in How to Work the Film and TV Markets: A Guide for Content Creators is the Key Art Chapter because it is so visual and I learned so much writing and researching it. In the black and white book, I promised to share the full color examples, so here they are…

Sharknado, the SyFy channel’s social media phenomenon, owed a great deal of its success simply to its mash-up title that so clearly revealed the conflict and stakes. Marketing is infinitely easier with high concept projects.

Key Art Misconceptions

Writer/actress Heidi Haddad Kozak explains a common key art misperception: “Everyone I asked, everywhere I read, always said: “Don’t include any artwork with your script.” But when I asked why, they said it was amateurish. But when I delved deeper, it was because the artwork was always done so poorly.”

Iconic Images

Heidi put up her own money to hire DOG & PONY (my favorite key art company) to develop key art for her feature spec script, Mary Jane GirlsHeidi explains: “My spec is about all the compromises we make to belong. It takes place in a small town in Texas in 1962 and revolves around these high school girls clubs that were taken very seriously. The script could be made into two very different movies: it could be a very commercial studio project, a cross between Mean Girls and The Help, or it could go in a very different, darker, edgier indie direction, more along the lines of The Virgin Suicides. Either way, I kept visualizing a white sorority sweater, much like a letterman’s jacket, it was this coveted symbol of belonging and status, it was so much a part of the world and theme.”

Low Budget Key Art Strategies Without Stars

So, without any attached actors’ faces to show, DOG & PONY worked up two different variations for Heidi to use, depending on who she was pitching to. The bright yellow for her studio prospects and an indie version in black and white.

“When I showed my key art to my friends – even those working at studios – they thought it was fabulous. It just comes down to: do it right or don’t to it.”

Low Budget Indie Challenges

Low Budget Independent Producers often find themselves raising money before any actors have been attached or marketing films without any stars. Developing marketing materials without any faces can be quite the creative challenge, forcing marketers to sell based on the project’s concept alone. This is all exacerbated by the fact that many indie producers don’t budget or plan past getting the project in the can, shortchanging their project’s marketing resources. The book goes into depth on several great case studies highlighted below:

Alexandra Boylan produced and starred in a low budget, home invasion horror movie entitled Home Sweet Home (2013). Since they didn’t do a marketing photo shoot prior, they had to rely on stock photography and screen grabs. So, without names or necessarily a high concept – and using after-the-fact resources – they relied on the genre and tone to speak to its clearly delineated audience and “sell” the sensibility of the film. The blood splattered floor mat made ironic use of their film’s title treatment (left) for their teaser poster while the payoff poster showed the home (from stock footage, not even in the film) off in the distance set against a desolate landscape with the lone, isolated gal (in The Little Red Riding Hood styled outfit, also not in the film) holding an ax. Is she the aggressor? Or the victim?  

Alexandra’s poster so clearly communicated the film’s genre that when sales agent, Ryan Keller of Instrum International, was flipping throughDOG & PONY’s portfolio at the AFM, considering their services for his own purposes, the poster they did for Home Sweet Home so jumped out at him that he asked Bridget Jurgens, Managing Director of DOG & PONY: “Do these people have sales agents yet?” Just based on the poster alone, he knew he could market their film. Their deal was launched just off their key art; it pitched itself, which is, ultimately, key art’s job.

Ryan explains: “They had their marketing materials ready to go. I didn’t have to worry about the cost adding up to them for new art work, a new trailer or supplemental materials. They had a package ready for the market. They were ready to go.”

He explains in more detail: “The filmmakers did a great job. I liked the female lead aspect to it. They gave her a weapon and made it look like a bad ass horror film when their film was really more thriller than horror. They made it look dark and gloomy when the film is actually brightly colored and a lot takes place in this vast open space in the desert but you would never get that from the poster. You wonder: is that girl about to wreak havoc? Is it a revenge story?”

Ryan knew he could find a domestic distributor for it and that it would work well in home video because its key art would “look good on a shelf. It set itself apart from other horror films. Normally, you have this damsel in distress. Usually, with a masked killer. But Home Sweet Home stood out as a strong female with a weapon. It promised suspense.”

Instrum was, indeed, able to secure a domestic distributor, Image Entertainment. And while the poster was eventually re-done, notice how the concept held (right).

Instrum was instrumental in helping Alexandra with her next film, Catching Faith (2015). They told her: “We’ll get the money if you make it happen.” “The process gets faster once you have sales reps in place,”Alexandra shares: “Home Sweet Home was three years from concept to selling the film. Catching Faith was one year from the first conversation to distribution.”

Learning a ton on her last project, Alexandra allowed the film’s key art to evolve as her next film was packaged. In their teasers, the actors’ faces were obscured in shadows but as soon as all the cast were secured, they could easily Photoshop their faces in to the final payoff poster, keeping the images unified to stay familiar to their sales prospects.

Indie Catch-22’s

Independent filmmaking (or content creating) can feel like a never-ending Escher-esque Catch-22 Square Dance-a-thon. Investors won’t fund equity capital ’til you have distribution. Distributors won’t commit until marque-value actors are attached. Actors won’t come on board ’til the money has been raised. And around and around the carousel goes. You need the art to market before you even have the actors or locations.

“If you’re having a hard time, especially in the early stages, getting your prospective buyers or financiers to visualize your concept,” Bridget explains, “effective key art can help them feel the movie. Don’t try to tell your whole story with the image, just focus on communicating one simple idea, the genre and tone.”

In the case of Billy Club (2013), Writer, Producer, Director, Drew Rosas’ killer antagonist – an umpire wielding a baseball bat with a retractable bayonet blade – was not something he was simply going to “go online and find in stock images.” Thus – as a placeholder ‘til they shot the film – they came up with a simple teaser image of items they could find stock footage of and tweak: a baseball, wrapped with human skin texture (ew), splattered with some blood, framed by its tagline and title treatment. You get the idea: it’s a creepy, baseball-themed horror flick.

Drew and his team studied the marketing materials of relevant boogie man slasher comps such as Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, among others and came up with conceptual drawings and instructions for the photographer (such as low angle, backlit, ominous, menacing, etc.) for a relatively inexpensive key art photo shoot.

With these photos from the shoot to work with, DOG & PONY were able to create several versions of the payoff posters based on the reference boards.


Billy Club successfully raised $15,000 on Kickstarter in 2011 but it was actually their poster that got them distribution. Back at the AFM, another sales agent (who was also a baseball fan) saw their poster in DOG & PONY’s catalog.



As promised in How to Work the Film & TV Markets: A Guide for Content CreatorsDog & Pony have generously shared with all of us a great gift: their five-page feature film key art Creative Brief. This same worksheet can be used for TV projects, books and even musicals and plays – just adjust the terminology.

A great resources is the IMP Awards’ list of award-winning movie and television poster designers broken down by global territory: http://impawards.com/designers/index.html. Not only is this a great resource to price and compare styles of vetted artists and design agencies in your area but it’s also a great brainstorming resource. You can sort and organize their catalog by director or actor, search taglines for ideas, etc. If your project overlaps with the sensibility of a particular director, for example, you can click a button and peruse all of her key art side-by-side to study the color palettes, layouts and other elements she’s used in the past to communicate concepts that resonated with you or are similar to your genre’s mandates.


If you’re looking to sell to (or at least market via) Amazon Video Direct, (or even just use their key art standards as a helpful industry guideline to prepare all your deliverables), here is Amazon Direct’s Graphic Assets Guide.