Directed By..: Anticipatory Nostalgia in 'What If' Posters

Curator's Note

What if Alien starred Pam Grier? What if Kirk Douglas, rather than his son Michael Douglas, starred in The Game? What if Jean Luc Godard directed Trainspotting? Peter Stults' 'What If...' posters are artifacts of transitory filmic worlds. The posters provide us with a brief window into not only what these films would look like, but also how they would be promoted. Stults creates an imaginary cast, director, look, genre and feel to existing feature film (or an absurd sequel). In these posters, cinema is a never-ending circuit; films can be recast, rescored, remade and repositioned temporally. But what is the appeal in momentarily picturing an imagined film that will never exist, which is temporally implausible? 

The success of the 'What If...' relies on individual memories of specific films, as well as a collective and networked knowledge of broader film history. While film posters - in their ideal mode - invite viewers to look forward in anticipation, fan-made posters demand that the anticipatory appeal of posters be read against the past, leaving the viewer with an imagined film that is denied a future. 'What If…' posters then function as simultaneously anticipatory and nostalgic, looping between the denied future of a film, and our memories of the films they evoke.

Fan-made posters draw open the types of connections viewers make when viewing official film posters. Film posters only offer a brief aesthetic introduction to the narrative and genre of a film, relying on our existing knowledge of both, as well as the previous body of work of the starring cast in order to form a picture of what that film might be. The aesthetic and temporal limits of film posters are called into question here: what we imagine outside of the formal borders of a promotional text in part becomes the film itself. These posters are a playful inverse of the seemingly endless talk about controversial casting choices of this season’s new reboot. Instead, this summer (in another time and place) James Dean is resurrected to settle the score in Drive.


Great post, Kathleen. I like your description of these posters as turning cinema into ‘a never-ending circuit’. The idea that the films in these posters have ‘denied futures’ is also interesting: there seems to be a certain pathos to ‘What If’ posters, in that they create new desires in audiences which (due to the ageing and mortality of performers/filmmakers) can never be fulfilled. I think ‘What If’ posters probably have more in common with fan fiction than other kinds of fan-made posters; including the catharsis of spending mental time and energy in an alternative, potentially superior, fictional world.

Thanks, Jennifer. I think you're spot on with how these posters could be considered to have more in common with fan fiction. There's also a connection to trailers such as Titanic Super 3D (, which changes the director to parody the anticipatory appeals of film promotion. But whereas that trailer revels in the terrible outcome of its what ifs..., the What If posters instead promote a kind of joyful, brief parallel world.

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