This week I saw a poster for the new Emily Blunt film, Sicario. It was attached to a passing bus and had what you might expect from such a poster: the film’s title, the names of the stars, and a photo featuring several of them with the main star filling the foreground – Emily Blunt wearing body armour and wielding a pistol and a seductive pout. It seemed pretty clear: this is a film about some kind of law enforcement kerfuffle (“FBI” was written on the bulletproof vests). So, I was a little surprised when I saw the tagline at the bottom of the poster, a seemingly helpful explanation of the film’s title that informed me the word means “hitman” in Mexico. On the surface this might not seem quite so bad but when you put the title and tagline together, and then compare it with a Hollywood classic you get this:
Alien: In Space No One Can Hear You Scream
Sicario: In Mexico, Sicario Means Hitman
The tagline from Alien adds to the title: we know right there that the film’s likely to be scary. The Sicario one, however, fails to add anything (in fairness there are, I believe other posters with the much better “The Border is just Another Line to Cross” tagline). While there are differences between designing a book cover and a movie poster, both will have a title and often some tagline or subtitle that adds a little extra – a hint of what the book/film is about and/or some kind of hook to get your interest. So why, I wonder, add an explanation of what the word means to Sicario’s poster? The pictures tell us enough – Emily Blunt is an FBI agent (it says so on her bulletproof vest) and will probably shoot some people – and knowing that the particular flavour of antagonist is a hitman doesn’t seem to add much. And if knowing there’s a hitman is so important, if it could make a difference as to whether anyone watches the film, then shouldn’t the title somehow reflect this?
Hollywood, of course, can afford to miss the mark with things like this. Big-budget trailers and star power are probably much bigger deciding factors in a film’s initial success at the cinema, and many people will see a film based solely on genre or which stars it features.
For authors though, particulary those starting out or self-publishing, the book cover can play a large role in sales; often it is our poster. And the words we display on the cover are important, an opportunity to tantalise and tease potential readers, to snag their interest. If there’s a subtitle/tagline it needs to be good. We are, after all, writers. Our choice of words matters.