Posted by Susan Doll on December 26, 2011
I have a difficult time remembering film titles that are clichés. It is one thing if a title encapsulates the theme or point of the film, such as Field of Dreams or Unforgiven, or if it is a pun or twist on a familiar phrase, such as Pillow Talk or Dolphin’s Tale. But, unimaginative titles with little tie-in to the movie’s theme or storyline go in one ear and out the other. Contemporary comedies are the worst offenders, particularly romantic comedies: Something’s Gotta Give, My One and Only, New in Town, No Strings Attached, Morning Glory, You Again, Just Go With It. I can’t remember the titles when I am trying to think of the films, and I don’t remember the films when I see the titles. As someone who writes about the movies, I always consider the connection between title and content, so perhaps I take them too seriously.
But, I do get a kick out of the stories behind the titles; that is, the journey from script to working title to the final version. Though it’s hard to believe that “Something’s Gotta Give” would go through endless meetings and discussions, especially considering it was the well-known name of Marilyn Monroe’s unfinished last film, a great deal of effort does go into each Hollywood title. I thought I would offer a few behind-the-scenes rumors and tales about the evolution of some very familiar titles.
It was not long into production before the studio behind the film version of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? decided to change the title. The execs at Warner Bros. felt the book’s title was too long and not commercial. So Dick’s futuristic story about a cop who pursues escaped androids was retitled Android, Mechanismo, and Dangerous Days before the studio finally settled on Blade Runner.
Speaking of Unforgiven, the script for Clint Eastwood’s definitive western had been circulating around Hollywood for two decades as The Cut Whore Killings before Eastwood’s production company, Malpaso, picked it up. The film’s working title was The William Munny Killings, after Eastwood’s character. But, eventually, he opted for the more iconic Unforgiven.
Despite starring in a slew of romantic comedies—the genre that suffers the most from poor titling—Sandra Bullock is fortunate to have appeared in films with fairly distinct names. Whether you like her romantic comedies, or not, titles such as Miss Congeniality, Hope Floats, and The Proposal are more memorable than most. Even clichéd titles such as Forces of Nature and Two Weeks Notice describe the plots of those comedies fairly well so they make sense. In the film that made her a major star, While You Were Sleeping, she plays a Chicago subway employee who has a crush on a man who has fallen off a subway platform. While he is unconscious in the hospital, his family believes her to be his fiancée, and she goes along with the ruse. Like all good romantic comedies, this one has a fairy tale quality, which is emphasized by the title While You Were Sleeping. None of that fairy tale quality was suggested by the working title, Coma Guy.
G.I. Jane is a memorable and iconic title, which fits the content and theme of this film about a female Navy SEAL recruit who is discriminated against by her fellow recruits, her sergeant, and others because she is a woman. The original title was In Pursuit of Honor and later Navy Cross, which are not nearly as distinct. Disney Studio wanted G.I. Jane so badly that they finally paid the toy company Hasbro, which makes G.I. Joe and G.I. Jane dolls, hundreds of thousands of the dollars for the rights to use the name.
Field of Dreams was based on a popular book by W.P. Kinsella titled Shoeless Joe, after Shoeless Joe Jackson, the disgraced baseball player who is a character in the story. The film’s producers wanted to retain the title, until the studio’s marketing department decided to test it. According to the marketing experts, many people did not recognize the nickname of one of baseball’s most legendary players. They thought the film was going to be about a homeless person who did not have shoes. Those that did recognize the name “Shoeless Joe” assumed star Kevin Costner would be playing him in a biopic. The producers were persuaded to change the name and opted for Field of Dreams, which was not only emblematic of the story but has since become an oft-used phrase denoting heartfelt inspiration.
In 1999, Universal couldn’t decide whether to call their new teen sex comedy Comfort Food or American Pie. Too bad they didn’t stick with the original script title, Teenage Sex Comedy that Can Be Made for Under $10 Million that Your Reader Will Love, But the Executive Will Hate, because that is the only part of the film that I found clever, or even funny.
Film titles follow trends and styles just like any part of popular culture. According to David Placek, founder and president of Lexicon Branding, which creates brand names, one-word movie titles have been in vogue for a while. Apparently, they not only have “snap” but they stimulate the imagination. In the last year or so, using a dominant word preceded by the article “The” has become common for titling movies, particularly after The Fighter was such a success and won so many accolades. This year at the American Film Market (AFM), where new indie films are introduced and peddled to distributors, The Iron Lady, The Awakening, The Bleeder, The Double, and The Flowers of War vied for attention. There were also those who preferred the dramatic-sounding, article-less, one-word titles, including Rampart, Parker, Filth, Evidence, Mud, Playback, Livid, Hell, and Tormented.
Some genres rely on key words in the titles to attract an audience. The horror genre depends on variations of three words: dead, blood, and kill. At the AFM this year, there were over 50 titles that featured the words dead or death.
According to marketing gurus like Placek as well as distributors who attend the AFM, the power of a good title cannot be underestimated. They claim that some viewers will attend or stay away from a film based on the title. While I am intrigued by certain titles and I appreciate a good turn of phrase, I don’t remember ever going to a movie or staying away simply because of the title. If anyone has done either, I would be interested in hearing about it.
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