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BASIC Attraction: How Movie Titles Work (or don't)
By Gabrielle S. Prendergast

The other day I read in the paper how the group formerly known as: "The Nursing Mother's Association of Australia" had proudly unveiled their new name: "The Australian Breast Feeding Association". Apparently, in the 1950's when the Association was formed, the Post-Master General (What's HE got to do with it one wonders.) would not allow the word "breast" to appear in the telephone book. Now that we are more open minded about such things the former NMAA felt it worthy of the expense of replacing all their stationery and issuing a media release to finally adopt what they no doubt felt was their rightful name from the start, including this time, that previously offending word.

Names: the names of groups, organisations and products are monumentally important. Millions of dollars are spent developing them, testing them and refining them. There are no doubt university courses and professional seminars dedicated to the creation of names. Some of us as film-makers and writers know the agony of trying to come up with the right name, the right film title, or worse, discovering the perfect one only to learn that it's already taken.

So just how important are names of films? Will Shakespeare tells us that a "rose by any other name would smell as sweet", but does it follow that Rick's Place would have become the classic that Casablanca did? Or that Not Tonight Josephine would have made us laugh as much as Some Like it Hot, or The Greatest Gift made us cry as much as It's a Wonderful Life? Would Pansey have become a blockbuster like Gone with the Wind?

For some screenwriters the title is the first thing they think of and a major source of their inspiration. In fact the title may be the ONLY thing they know about their project, before they even know what it's about. I myself have worked this way. For others the title of their current piece might be Teen Comedy or Vampire Thriller until some production or publication executive comes up with American Pie or From Dusk Til Dawn. However a project is named, there is universal agreement that the title of a film or a book or even a TV show plays a critical role in its success.

Many film projects start out with working titles. The website "The Stinkers" (http://www.thestinkers.com/working.html) lists some famous and not so famous examples. When I was reading this list I asked myself two questions: ' Where do titles come from?' and What makes a good title?'

For example where did the title Pretty Woman come from, given that the working title was $3000? My suspicion is that it came from the Roy Orbison song, which ended up figuring prominently in the movie. There are a few examples of this "song titling" in films. Callie Khouri, the writer of Thelma & Louise expressed her disappointment that her second film, which she called Grace Under Pressure ended up being named after the song , Something to Talk About. Personally I think Something to Talk About is a better title, but I'll get to that. Can't Buy Me Love is another example, and in which the movie failed miserably to live up to the quality of the song for which it was named.

Two word titles seem to be particularly popular and this has led to the interesting phenomenon, which I call 'Meaningless two-word titles' or MTWTs. I'm not sure where this trend started, but Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct fixed MTWTs firmly in the realm of psychological thriller, although occasionally you get an action movie like Executive Decision or Absolute Aggression. What I like about these titles is how interchangeable they are. One can readily imagine a movie called Executive Instinct, for example, perhaps about a CEO who believes he's being stalked by a crazed lesbian killer. BASIC Attraction is more likely to be a romantic comedy about a couple of computer programmers. Absolute Decision sounds like a vodka ad while Fatal Aggression could work as a courtroom drama, as in "he attacked her with Fatal Aggression" etc., etc.

Apparently, production executives (a MTWT in itself) are rather enamoured of MTWTs and spend afternoons, no doubt boozily, dreaming them up. I'm tempted to design a computer program, which will automatically generate possible MTWTs for them based on the parameters they set. A film dealing with, say, the parameters: fear, aggression, desire, and subversion could be called Aggressive Fear (bland),Fearful Desire" (suggestive but clunky), Subversive Desire (not bad), Aggressive Desire (?!), Subversive Aggression (illogical)…you get the picture. I'm told there's software for pharmaceutical companies, which does just this, from whence we got the name of, amongst other things, Bufferin.

The popularity of MTWTs carries over into another popular form of film title and that's the "Full Name" phenomenon. Jerry Maguire, Barry Lyndon, and Simon Birch are all examples, not to mention the classic, Annie Hall. I like to think of the production exec who first heard about a sexy single mother, foul mouthed legal clerk who won a multi-million dollar case and then had the icing on top of discovering her name was the catchy: Erin Brockovich - it was solid gold before it was even written.

Name titles have a satisfying feel to them, whether they're just the name, or something a little extra like Bridget Jones's Diary or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or the extremely clever Being John Malkovich. At least they help the less sophisticated movie-goer (or script reader) know for whom the film is actually about, and given Saving Private Ryan, that's no mean feat.

There are other types of titles: place titles like Notting Hill or Jurassic Park; catchphrase titles like Say It Isn't So and just plain situation titles like Election. One of my favourite types of title is what I call the "brilliant title", which is a title so hot that just mentioning it causes frothing at the mouth, profuse sweating and a frenzy of faxing between production companies, agents and managers. Recently, the legend went round that the very title, murder.com, was bought for six figures, with no script, treatment or story attached at all. Given that titles aren't copyright material, I find this hard to believe but what the heck, it's a good yarn, especially since the tech stock crash has probably severely cooled the enthusiasm for this little gem.

A few years ago I knew of about a dozen writers and execs busily fighting the clock to green light projects called Y2K. One or two made it into production but neither of them were very memorable; kind of like the event they were named after. So beware of the "brilliant title"; it gets old rather quickly. Anyway, what you think is a brilliant title is just as likely to be considered banal or ridiculous by everyone else. I once met a kid in an internet chat room who proudly told me he had titled his forthcoming teen angst epic with the mind-numbingly hackneyed MTWT, Shattered Innocence. It was all I could do to conceal my hilarity as I offered some non-committal encouragement and hastily logged off to snigger in private.

But back to that list of working titles. Now that we know what kind of titles there are and presumably where they come from, let's look at the question: what makes a good title?

According to the list at The Stinkers.com, the original title of the aforementioned Annie Hall was Anhedonia. I've got to side with the committee on this one. To me, Anhedonia is just baffling, while Annie Hall, history has shown us, introduced us not only to an Academy Award winning character but also to menswear dressing, a style that still pops up in fashion magazines every now and then. Because the movie was about Annie, even though Woody Allen was the protagonist, the title created distance between them, between the subject and the object, if you will.

Another example is As Good as it Gets, the original title of which was Old Friends. The working title says nothing; it could be about a couple of dogs, whereas the release title implies tension, because we're not sure whether it means "So good it couldn't be better" or "As good as can be expected" and only when we see the film do we discover it's somewhere in the middle. As Good as it Gets also implies some distance between the original state of crumminess as measured against the current state, which is: "As Good as…".

Not all titles create tension, but if a title doesn't work that may be something to look at. Consider the working title: Harry, this is Sally. This title is complete, it's all there is. Harry is introduced to Sally and that's the end of the story, whereas the release title When Harry Met Sally has an implied "…", and a question remains that can only be answered by seeing the movie or reading the script.

One of the worst things a writer can do is to give up the whole story in the title. The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain is an example of this. Once you've seen the title you know what happens so why see the movie, or read the script? This is why Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls is better than its working title Ace Ventura Goes to Africa. I'm not one of those who believe a short title is best. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has to be one of the all time best titles in my opinion. It's just so darn stylish, although, having said that, I have neither read the book nor seen the movie so maybe it's not so great after all. Maybe the title is too satisfying, so much that I don't NEED to see the movie. I guess that's another mistake.

So a good title leaves something unanswered. Even the 'full-name" titles make us ask ourselves, 'Who is this Erin Brockovich anyway?' Many people have expressed interest in my soon to be a feature film script Hildegarde for this very reason; they just want to know who Hildegarde is.

And then there's the ultimate crime: some titles don't say anything at all. Elizabeth English, Founder & Executive Director of the Moondance International Film Festival writes of receiving amongst a thousand other entries to the script competition at the festival, a screenplay entitled The Tent. She couldn't be bothered reading it and kept putting it to the bottom of her pile. When she finally did read it she discovered what was to be one of the semi-finalists that year. Imagine if you wrote a winning script only to have it languish in the reject piles of producers from Bel Air to Brooklyn because the title didn't do it justice.

Not long ago I had a student write a "parallel universe" script (a la Sliding Doors or The Family Man) and he called it, you guessed it, Parallel Universe. I had to hit the buzzer on that one. That's kind of like calling a movie Romantic Comedy or Buddy Road Movie. A title needs to say something and it needs to be unique. Recently, a movie came out called The Quest. I giggled all the way into a cinema that was showing something with a better title.

And why do I prefer Something to Talk About to Grace Under Pressure? Mostly because Grace Under Pressure is a cliché and because it's about a character called Grace that makes it a pun. And there's nothing worse than clichés and puns; they're like a crap on a hot tin roof: smelly!

Which brings us to you, the screenwriter, and how titles can help you. It's obvious how a title can help you market your script but what's not so clear is how a title can help you write it. I always encourage my students to come up with a title early in the piece, even before characters and plot sometimes. I try to name all my projects very early on for the most basic reason that they're easier to talk about, think about and write notes about. If I write myself a note reading "put a dead dog into the sci-fi teen comedy thing" I might not have any idea what it means in two or three beers, I mean, days, but if the note reads: "Prom Queens from Space needs a dead dog" then this little inspiration will not be lost. This also helps in discipline. You can schedule time for Prom Queens in Space and time for BASIC Attraction and clearly know what you're working on and when by the neat little chart you draw on your office white board. In less mundane terms, titles can help you to crystallize what your script is about. One of the few times I wrote a script without first having a title when I got to the end left me at quite a loss. I ended up using an almost "Zen" method where I meditated on my story until seemingly from space the title Breathe emerged. Before I knew it, my script was imbued with all manner of breathing, swimming, drowning, and air metaphors, improving it immeasurably. It went on to win awards so I must have done something right.

Titles can also serve as inspiration from the start. One of the suggestions I make to my students, when they are struggling to find inspiration, is to go to the fantasy section of their local bookstore and steal titles. It's amazing the images that a title like The Obsidian Oracle or Crown of Swords can conjure up, especially if one determines to NOT write a fantasy story. The Obsidian Oracle for example, sounds like a political thriller to me, I'm not sure why, while Crown of Swords sounds like some kind of choking plant that only grew on the shores of the Mississippi during the depression when your character was the child of poor white share croppers.

Title wordplay can be a rich source of inspiration, like the MTWTs game I played earlier. BASIC Attraction I feel would have been a great title if it had arrived in the time when BASIC computer language was de rigueur. Unfortunately, that was years ago; it's an idea after its time. Clichés and puns, contrary to the above, CAN be inspiring, but I would tend then to name the project something else, just to not annoy people like me. There's a film out at the moment called Along Came a Spider. It's a cute title I suppose, but it irritates me. I know it's not about Little Miss Muffett, but I still can't take it seriously. Then again I think the title Legally Blonde is brilliant.

No matter how you look at it, titles are critical and not to be treated lightly. They're a source of inspiration, a focussing tool for revision, a marketing tool and even a subtle hint for unsophisticated audiences. Respect the title, make it your friend, your ally, your partner in crime. Never underestimate its power to make your project sink or swim.

Finally, spare a thought for the writer who dreams up the perfect title and sells it to the production executive only to have it massacred by foreign translators. Some brilliant examples: As Good as it Gets in Hong Kong? Mister Cat Poop. Annie Hall in Germany? The Urban Neurotic. Sometimes, however, these translations might turn out to be improvements. Which movie title sounds more interesting to you: the MTWT Deep Impact or the "whole story in the title" translation from Taiwan A Planet Will Hit the Earth? It's clear, it's unique, it certainly implies tension, and it's kind of catchy in its own little way. What a pity the movie was so bad.

Gabrielle Prendergast is the screenwriter of the 2002 feature film HILDEGARDE starring Richard E Grant. She has optioned a number of other screenplays in Australia and the USA. A short film-maker and published novelist, Gabrielle has taught at the University of Sydney and TropNest, Fox Studios Screenplay Development Center. She is currently doing an MFA at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where she lives with her husband and daughter.


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