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How to Title a Movie

7 July 1998 by Chad One Comment

HOW TO TITLE A MOVIE
by Chad Shonk

Many may consider the name of a film unimportant and trivial, but I disagree. I think that a good title can make or break a movie financially and artistically. Here’s the break down:

PART ONE: WHAT NOT TO CALL YOUR MOVIE

There are four basic categories of bad movie titles: Oversimplified no-brainers, generic buzzword fallacies, puns, and unpoetic mouthfuls.

1. Oversimplified no-brainers: A title that is too long can be a problem. Just ask Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes how many people saw their little cross-dressing adventure or see how many people care what Andy Garcia and Christopher Walken did in Denver, alive or dead. But now there’s a problem with one-word titles that explain the film without any wit at all. Starting with EARTHQUAKE in 1974, let’s do the list: TWISTER, VOLCANO, CRASH, TORNADO, COP, FLED, TANK, and BOYS. SPEED was okay because if you think about it it could have been called BUS. By this rationale, SLING BLADE could have been called RETARD, JERRY MAGUIRE would have been called AGENT, and THE LAST TIME I COMMITTED SUICIDE would have been called BEAT.

2. Generic Buzzword fallacies: I hate titles that don’t mean anything. Action movies are the most guilty of this, but it’s not only them to blame. These are titles that don’t really relate to the film in any way but rather string together a few buzzwords that sound good in unison: DANGEROUS GROUND, ON DANGEROUS GROUND, NOWHERE TO HIDE, NOTHING TO LOSE, ONE FALSE MOVE, FIRST STRIKE, NEVER TALK TO STRANGERS, ABSOLUTE POWER, CHAIN REACTION, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, EXTREME MEASURES, LOST HIGHWAY, TRIGGER HAPPY, MAXIMUN RISK, HARD TO KILL, MAD LOVE, STRIKING DISTANCE, DANGEROUS GAME, DESPERATE MEASURES. I will forgive the erotic thriller genre from this, although they are the most guilty: NIGHT EYES, ANIMAL INSTINCTS, SECRET GAMES, COLD SWEAT. But the purpose of an erotic thriller is not to be creative, it’s to help you jerk off. A subset of this category is the movie named after a song. This is a big problem in the romantic comedy genre: SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT, ONE FINE DAY, ONLY YOU, CAN’T BUY ME LOVE, BOOK OF LOVE. The noteable exception is BLUE VELVET, which is a good title, although I can’t tell you why. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Maybe it’s because Isabella Rosellini’s singing of “Blue Velvet” is a central theme to the film.)

3. Puns. Puns, in general, suck. Movies whose titles are puns suck even worse. THE BEAUTICIAN AND THE BBEAST is a lame title no matter how hot Fran Drescher is. DR. JECKYL AND MRS. HYDE can suck my dick so long as SPY HARD and MR. WRONG watch. I know these movies are goofy comedies, but it’s no excuse. THE NAKED GUN and TOP SECRET! may not be the most clever titles, but they do the trick without resorting to punning.

4. Unpoetic mouthfuls: The title of a film should be a pleasure to say. It should roll off the tongue. People don’t want to see a movie where the title is longer than the cast list. Long titles can be okay, as long as they’re fun to pronounce, like THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD and DON’T BE A MENACE TO SOUTH CENTRAL WHILE DRINKING YOUR JUICE IN THE HOOD. (although the latter of the two is a pun so therefore it breaks rule #3.) Woody Allen’s EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU is a pleasant movie but the title sucks rooster. THE LAST TIME I COMMITTED SUICIDE and ROMY AND MICHELE’S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION are pretty bad titles, and don’t even let me get in to that stupid Patrick Swayze drag-fest.

PART TWO: A GREY AREA

There is one category of title that I cannot classify as altogether good or bad. That is the trend of naming a movie after the main character. Usually, the filmmakers know when the name is good enough to be the title. JERRY MAGUIRE is a good title, far better than SHOW ME THE MONEY (although the best title of that film would be SHOPLIFTING THE POOTIE.) DONNIE BRASCO, BARTON FINK, NIXON, AUSTIN POWERS, MARY REILLY, MICHAEL COLLINS, ROB ROY. Those are good titles using the characters’ names. I really can’t think of any bad ones, but it seems like a cheap way out. “I can’t think of a title for my movie, and the main character’s name is Jerry Maguire; let’s call the movie JERRY MAGUIRE!” But some names are better than others. Nobody would have gone to see a movie titled KARL CHILDERS or MARGE GUNDERSON. This category is a toss-up.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Methinks you’re a little too categorial in this. I can think of at least one great title from each of your above “bad title” categories. Some short ones are pretty good, like SPEED. Some buzzword fallacies are good, such as THE WALKING DEAD or ARMY OF DARKNESS. GROSSE POINTE BLANK and RAISING ARIZONA are good titles, and they’re both puns. And for that matter, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY might not roll off your tongue, but it’s still a great title. Sorry, just had to nitpick.)

PART THREE: HOW TO NAME A PICTURE

I know what you’re thinking. so, mister big shot film student guy, since you know all about what NOT to call your film, what should you call it?

I’m glad you asked.

The best titles grab a hold of a word, phrase, line, image, or scene in a movie and exploit it. In HARD EIGHT, the title is simply a reference to a bet the main character likes to make and slowly becomes a metaphor for the choices he has to make in life. The words “sling blade” are only said twice in that film, within the first ten minutes, yet their significance and their use in the title resound during the course of the entire picture. Literary titles tend to work as well. THE GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI, DANTE’S PEAK, and THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS are good titles to mediocre movies. They have a certain poetry to the language. A TIME TO KILL. APOCALYPSE NOW. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. REMAINS OF THE DAY. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. WHEN WE WERE KINGS. All of these titles have something to them. And not all simple titles are bad. SCREAM is a good title. CRUMB is the subject of the film as well as a word that reflects the creepy nature of the film. SEVEN (or SE7EN) is a great title, no matter how simple it is.

Let’s talk about SEVEN for a minute. David Fincher’s masterpiece would be an accomplishment of cinematic achievement no matter what. I’m not suggesting that a bad title would destroy a movie. But a good title can enhance a film’s experience. Let’s say that SEVEN was called, let’s give it a good generic title here, SIN KILLER. It is an accurate name, but there is so much missing. There is so much more to the film that involves the number seven other than the sin stuff. The film takes place in seven days, the number of days that book says it took God to create the world. On the seventh day, the big guy upstairs rested. On the seventh day of the film, the rain lifts and the sun comes out. On the day that God rests, the bad guy wins. Beautiful, huh? A great goddamned movie. Without a title like SEVEN to unify all of these elements, many of them would be lost on the viewer. Seven is a magic number.

I also like titles that are metaphors. Sure, THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS AND DOGS is about cats and dogs, but it’s also about men and women, who are about as different as (and at odds as) cats and dogs. CHASING AMY is a metaphor that mekes sense even before Kevin Smith’s alter ego Silent Bob explains it. You don’t need to know who Amy is. The title just feels right.

Yeah, I know this sounds like bullshit. But a really poorly titled film bugs the shit out of me. I sat through an hour of MIMIC before they let you on to what the title meant, and it wasn’t all that cool once you found out. Lazy or stupid titles bother me much like self-titled albums bother me. They’re a chance to be clever, a chance to make a statement, a chance to grab an audience. How many people have picked up THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD just because of the obscure title? How many people DIDN’T see THE REF because of it’s stupid title?

A rose is a rose is a rose? Bullshit.

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One Comment »

  • Jack said:

    A good example of “Long titles can be okay, as long as they’re fun to pronounce” is “The Man With the Smallest Penis in the World and the Electron Microscope Technician That Loved Him” it was a real film actually.

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