Ever notice in movies, when characters travel to Mexico everything gets unexplainably yellow? The sky in Mexico doesn’t really look that way. It just does in Hollywood films because we associate yellow tint with bygone eras, lawless westerns, hard lives, dusty towns, lack of modern technology. This meme arose thanks to the use of sepia to preserve old photographs, and because human skin tones are easier to work with in the yellow end of the color spectrum, so that was the default when color correction was painstaking manual work.
When film digitized and filmmakers could manipulate colors more easily all at once, they jumped across to the color blue. It’s literally at the opposite end of the color spectrum to orange/yellow – a complementary color that makes the scene ‘pop’. Most flesh tones (those featured in Hollywood anyway) are in the orange/yellow range, so blue makes a good default. Now we associate blue with progress, modern technology, cleanliness, science, and space travel. Almost every futuristic film has a blue background (“Star Wars”, “Tron”, “Transformers”), with some orange tint for the actors and any random explosions. When the characters have a flashback or visit somewhere less technologically advanced like a desert planet, watch the sky turn yellow. Tatooine is the Mexico of space.
Hollywood uses color in other ways to tell you what to expect. In real life you rarely see a red dress, but if the script calls for seduction, there’s only one color for the job (“Pretty Woman”, “La Parisienne”, “The Matrix”). Women have worn red lipstick since at least 10,000 BC, perhaps to signify higher blood oxygenation, a sign of fertility. Red isn’t always a seduction play, it also can symbolize aggression and power. For example a study by eBay shows more aggressive bidding behavior against a red background, and sports teams that wear red are more likely to win. Most of us find the color red overwhelming in high doses, so if you’re making a high-concept movie about loss of power and confusion, make the background of the movie poster red, with black or white text and an iconic symbol (“12 Monkeys”, “Vertigo”, “28 days later”).
Making an indie film? The poster should be yellow, ("Little Miss Sunshine", "Garden State", "The King's Speech”), so moviegoers expect Sundance Festival, not big explosions or car chases. If movie goers do want action, it’s a safe bet to go for black, white and orange (”Die Hard”, “Fast and Furious”, “Transporter”). Some movie studios adopt the same color pallette across all of their movies, in order to subconsiously communicate their brand. For example every Warner Brothers movie poster is black, blue, and fiery (”Harry Potter”, “The Dark Knight”, “The Hobbit”).
All of this serves to reduce uncertainty for consumers and studios. It costs hundreds of millions of dollars to make a modern movie, and they need to convince millions of people to spend 2+ hours of their lives and $10+ (with popcorn) to see it. "Risk aversion has really paid off, and studios and production companies have noticed this" says Walt Hickey, a pop culture expert at FiveThirtyEight. With so many movies and such little free time, making the wrong choice of movie has a relatively high opportunity cost. Studies show that in conditions of uncertainty with a high cost of being wrong, consumers act to minimize regret, rather than optimize for maximum utility (enjoyment). So don’t blame Hollywood for being unoriginal, it’s what most people want.
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