The Official Typeface of Hollywood

Recently Sumner Stone sent me a link to an amusing video that attempts to explain the continuing popularity of Trajan in Hollywood movie posters. It spurred me to search through my files to find this short item which I wrote in 2000 and Print published in the F.O.B. section of their January/February 2001 issue (Print LV:1, p. 16).


The summer and fall of 2000 saw continued evidence that Trajan, the typeface designed by Carol Twombly and based on the inscription at the base of the Trajan Column in Rome, has become the official typeface of Hollywood. A Perfect Storm, Gladiator, Croupier, Space Cowboys, Remember the Titans, Lost Souls and Whispers all used it in their titles or advertising.

The Trajan trend began slowly. In 1991, two years after the release of Trajan, it was used for only one film title, the now-vanished Vanishing. But hints of Trajan’s ascendancy appeared in December of that year when a strangely diverse group of films—Leave It to Beaver, The Addams Family, At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Let Him Have It—all used it for text in their advertisements. Then, the big break for Trajan occurred the following December when it was used for the titles of The Crying Game, The Bodyguard and Passion Fish, three major films. In the years since a wide range of popular films (as well as several forgettable ones) have selected Trajan for their titles: 1993 The Pelican Brief (the first of several John Grisham films to do so); 1994 Wolf, Heavenly Creatures, Queen Margot, Interview with the Vampire and Stargate; 1995 Leaving Las Vegas and The American President; 1997 The Evening Star (the sequel to Terms of Endearment), Marvin’s Room, La Ceremonie, My Fellow Americans, Temptress Moon, The Fifth Element, Mimic and Annihilation (a Mortal Kombat film); 1998 Dangerous Beauty, Wilde, City of Angels, A Perfect Murder, Emperor’s Shadow; and 1999 Mummy, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Episode I (Star Wars), and Three Seasons. (What happened in 1996?) Its use as a text face in movie advertising also increased throughout the 1990s. Among the films using it this way were The Lion King, the re-release of Gone with the Wind and Titanic (but only after it won the Academy Award).

So, why did Trajan become the official typeface of Hollywood? Trajan, with its inscriptional roots, projects an aura of dignified authority. It suggests seriousness and importance. Thus, you would expect to see it used for so-called “big” films. Before1991 such films employed a wide variety of typefaces to achieve a sense of grandeur: Times Roman, Perpetua, Goudy Oldstyle, Caslon, Schneidler Text, even Palatino. But Trajan has overshadowed all of these typefaces. Its popularity, which cuts across all genres, cannot be tied to any single smash film (though I suspect its post-Academy Award use by Titanic gave it a boost). Perhaps the use of Trajan has been written into actors’ and directors’ contracts along with guidelines on the type size and placement of individual credits. Or maybe it is just another case of conservative clients and copycat designers. In any case, its a new millennium and time for a changing of the guard. Anyone for Thesans?

At the time I hoped—obviously in vain—that my little piece might inspire Hollywood movie poster designers to search out other typefaces, though I was kidding about TheSans. For all I know, I created a self-fulfilling prophecy by calling Trajan “the official typeface of Hollywood”. Mea culpa.