The Mystique Of Mondo And How It's Changing The Face Of Movie Posters

For the most part, movie posters suck. At the studio level, images with disembodied heads, horribly photoshopped character collections or a man and a woman, back to back, with aw-shucks grins on their face have pretty much become the norm. Gone are the days of Drew Struzan or Saul Bass where a real artist used their talents to give a striking visual portrait of what a movie is about on a massive scale. Movie studios today think, "Put the star's face on the poster and people will come."

Then there's Mondo. An offshoot of the Alamo Drafthouse, and best known for selling highly collectible, limited-edition movie posters, the company recently relocated to a brand new gallery gallery space in Austin, Texas. There Mitch Putnam, Justin Ishmael and Rob Jones (above) will continue curate and sell more posters. The company has gained an almost elitist reputation because supply and demand dictates the company is regularly is forced to alienate thousands of fans who are rabid for their work but unable to purchase it. And whether they like it or not, that hype is creating a groundswell for something new in the world of movie posters.

Mondo began as a T-shirt company, became primarily a poster company and, in recent months, has now expanded into VHS and vinyl. Just this month they officially entered the legitimate art scene by opening their own gallery. That gallery and a new documentary film on the subject of poster art, called Just Like Being There, simultaneously hit SXSW and gave just a hint at the next step in movie posters: the return of the art.

The Mondo guys are well aware people hate them. But they also know people hate them because those people love what they do so much. Justin Ishmael, Rob Jones and Mitch Putnam work tirelessly to come up with new and exciting ways to expand their brand because they've helped facilitate a trend not just in the collecting world, but in the poster world as well. "Everyone else is GoBots," said Jones. "We're fighting Sharkticons." Ishmael added "We're the Lady Gaga of posters," joking about the company's ever-changing identity.

To avoid being pigeonholed as the guys who only do cult movie posters, Mondo has continually changed their way of doing things. The plan to keep thing fresh includes doing posters for smaller movies, bigger movies, working with different artists and expanding into new non-poster territory. The gallery is the most recent example but, according to Putnam, the craziest thing is how legitimate it's all become. "The very thing that's become crazy is working directly with studios on marketing campaigns," Putnam said. "That was always the thing that seemed really far away. Now it's happening every day, pretty much."

So, for example, Mondo teamed with Paramount to create posters for Captain America: The First Avenger as well as Disney to for John Carter. Both of those were handed out at special advance screenings. Other studios, such as Back to the Future and Jurassic Park owner Universal, have given Mondo permission to play with some of their most treasured properties.

That's where things get tricky. Pretty much anyone would covet a Mondo Jurassic Park or Back to the Future poster, yet only a few hundred of each are made. "I hate to horribly misuse Thomas Paine's words by applying them to collecting movie posters, but the sentiment seem appropriate here," Jones said. "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. It is dearness only that gives every thing its value." What keeps Mondo relevant is the thing that keeps them controversial: the limited nature of their work. According to Ishmael, though, if that changes, it's all for naught.

At SXSW, he spoke on a panel called Art and Advertising: Two Sides of the One Sheet moderated by Reelizer's Roger Erik Tinch. On the panel, Ishmael pretty much put all the cards on the table. It's a long quote, but explains everything Mondo is about:

'We've been compared to baseball cards and comic books and shit like that and it is something to think about. We try to be very responsible. The thing that killed comic books was they took advantage. We have people saying "FU Mondo" because we don't print more and that's probably what happened to Marvel, Image and DC in the 1990s. We've seen this happen before and we're conscious of it. We could probably sell 10,000 posters or something crazy like that but what happens when that's all gone? It's irresponsible to the people who like it now to go for the quick buck.

This is something special and I feel that we're partly responsible for making this thing keep going and, if we cash in now, it's just going to fuck everything up. I think it's more than just this cool thing. I think it could really make posters interesting again. People think we're millionaires or some shit and it's just not true. We just don't want to ruin this thing. By doing that, over saturating, we could do that right now but we won't do it. It's something we're very passionate about, keeping it pure.'

Some studios don't have that same forward thinking vision, though. Jones explained that, for their recent gallery show, one studio fought hard to not have their name placed on a poster. "Mondo might bring [studios] artwork which does not immediately fit with the aesthetics, message, or general mood of their marketing for a film," he said, "However, that's generally the point.  Sometimes it's just too hard for a studio to make that leap and try something different. The studios that understand what we do, or better yet don't understand but take the plunge anyway, wind up happy with the results we bring."

So as more and more people start realizing that advertising a movie can be art, hopefully more and more companies come on board. Smaller studios, like IFC, FilmDistrict and others, are already working not only with Mondo, but other artists to do their posters. And, in turn, some of those poster artists are enterting the art world, whether it be through the Mondo Gallery or somewhere else.

Poster art is not a new thing, though. In the past, smaller theaters made their own posters because it was a way to captivate a willing audience. Today, so few people go to a theater, let alone look at posters, it's become something of an after-thought. A single click on a website such as this one. But if cool, limited posters are released that people desire, and that supply and demand keep the right balance, Hollywood is going to take notice and realize a poster can be more than just an advertisement, it can be a promise a movie must live up to. Then maybe, just maybe, names like Tyler Stout, Olly Moss or Kevin Tong will be mentioned along side Struzan, Bass and Frank Frazetta.

"I think that's giving us more strategic credit than we are due," Jones retorts. " I'd say our limited print runs are just a natural continuance of the tradition of screenprinted gigposters, the head of Zeus from which Mondo sprang. Mitch and I come from the gigposter realm, and this is how it's done.  To do otherwise seems nearly blasphemous."

True or false, coincidental or planned, a change is happening.  By keeping their product in such high demand and at such a high level of quality, Mondo's work is getting people not only to notice, but excited about movie poster art again. It's a slow, evolving thing but it's happening. Demand and passion – both positive and negative – is growing everyday and, eventually, that could register on a bigger level. Hell, there's even a movie about it now. It's not a guarantee but Mondo's practices, which have influenced a league of other artists, galleries, etc., are creating a ground swell that eventually will not be ignored.

"Don't worry about it, it's gonna be good," Ishmael said. "Everything's gonna be fine. I promise it's gonna be cool."