Attraction: How Movie Titles Work (or don't)
Gabrielle S. Prendergast
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.
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
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?
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.
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?'
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
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"
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.