Film Titles: The Game Is in the Name

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.

I DON'T THINK 'DO ANDROIDS DREAM,' ETC., ETC., ETC., WOULD FIT VERY WELL ON A POSTER.

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.

'COMA BOY'?

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.

WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT THAT THE WORD 'THE' WOULD BE SO IMPORTANT.

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.

34 Responses Film Titles: The Game Is in the Name
Posted By Carol : December 26, 2011 2:08 pm

My husband, teenaged son, and I went to see Snakes on a Plane, although I think the reason was a combination of the title and the fact that it starred Samuel L. Jackson.

“Snakes on a Plane almost got saddled with a new, blander title. The studio had planned to change it to something more normal, something ‘less cheesy,’ as one of the producers told Friedman. They finally settled on Pacific Air Flight 121. But the title change provoked outrage online [...] Even Jackson, the star, demanded that the title be restored to its original snaky glory: ‘We’re totally changing that back. That’s the only reason I took the job: I read the title.’”

– Weinman, J. J. (2006, Apr 10). I wonder what snakes on a plane is about. Macleans, 119(15), 70-70. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.qa.proquest.com/docview/218518982?accountid=14771

Posted By Carol : December 26, 2011 2:08 pm

My husband, teenaged son, and I went to see Snakes on a Plane, although I think the reason was a combination of the title and the fact that it starred Samuel L. Jackson.

“Snakes on a Plane almost got saddled with a new, blander title. The studio had planned to change it to something more normal, something ‘less cheesy,’ as one of the producers told Friedman. They finally settled on Pacific Air Flight 121. But the title change provoked outrage online [...] Even Jackson, the star, demanded that the title be restored to its original snaky glory: ‘We’re totally changing that back. That’s the only reason I took the job: I read the title.’”

– Weinman, J. J. (2006, Apr 10). I wonder what snakes on a plane is about. Macleans, 119(15), 70-70. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.qa.proquest.com/docview/218518982?accountid=14771

Posted By John Maddox Roberts : December 26, 2011 7:26 pm

There’s an odd story behind Blade Runner. Hampton Fancher, who wrote the script, was a huge fan of William Burroughs and among his collection of Burroughs’ works was an obscure one called “The Blade Runner: a screenplay.” This was based on a 1974 novel entitled “The Bladerunner” (one word in the original) by Veteran Science fiction author and physician Alan E. Nourse. The Nourse novel is about guerilla medics who secretly treat people who can’t afford treatment (a subject that deserves a movie now.) Fancher thought “Bladerunner” sounded so evocative that it would make a great title for the movie, Dick’s own title being too unweildy and odd-sounding.Nourse died in 1992, and I don’t know what he thought of all this.

Posted By John Maddox Roberts : December 26, 2011 7:26 pm

There’s an odd story behind Blade Runner. Hampton Fancher, who wrote the script, was a huge fan of William Burroughs and among his collection of Burroughs’ works was an obscure one called “The Blade Runner: a screenplay.” This was based on a 1974 novel entitled “The Bladerunner” (one word in the original) by Veteran Science fiction author and physician Alan E. Nourse. The Nourse novel is about guerilla medics who secretly treat people who can’t afford treatment (a subject that deserves a movie now.) Fancher thought “Bladerunner” sounded so evocative that it would make a great title for the movie, Dick’s own title being too unweildy and odd-sounding.Nourse died in 1992, and I don’t know what he thought of all this.

Posted By Suzi : December 26, 2011 8:53 pm

Carol: The title ‘Snakes on a Plane’ is definitely the high point of that movie, and somehow the movie is funnier because of it.

John Maddox Roberts: Interesting about the Burroughs connection and ‘Blade Runner.’ Thanks for the additional info.

Posted By Suzi : December 26, 2011 8:53 pm

Carol: The title ‘Snakes on a Plane’ is definitely the high point of that movie, and somehow the movie is funnier because of it.

John Maddox Roberts: Interesting about the Burroughs connection and ‘Blade Runner.’ Thanks for the additional info.

Posted By Lisa : December 26, 2011 9:18 pm

I have very limited time to watch movies so if the title doesn’t catch my attention or if someone does not recommend it to me, I generally do not watch it. There is nothing better than a good movie but the title is just as important as the movie. Would Jaws have been such a success if it had been named “Shark”? We will never know.

Posted By Lisa : December 26, 2011 9:18 pm

I have very limited time to watch movies so if the title doesn’t catch my attention or if someone does not recommend it to me, I generally do not watch it. There is nothing better than a good movie but the title is just as important as the movie. Would Jaws have been such a success if it had been named “Shark”? We will never know.

Posted By Debbie A-H : December 26, 2011 10:17 pm

Interesting article, Suzi. I love the story behind the story.

Posted By Debbie A-H : December 26, 2011 10:17 pm

Interesting article, Suzi. I love the story behind the story.

Posted By thesquonk : December 27, 2011 2:30 am

There are some movies that often show up in lists of “worst titles ever” that I think are somewhat more memorable because of their supposedly bad titles. Stuff like “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” or “The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini.”

A recent trend that I can’t stand is the ones that seem like they can’t decide on the title, so they use several: “The Goods: Live Hard Sell Hard,” or “Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever.”

But for me the worst is “Precious based on the Novel Push by Saphire.” Really?!?! That’s the actual title?

http://forgottenfilmcast.wordpress.com/

Posted By thesquonk : December 27, 2011 2:30 am

There are some movies that often show up in lists of “worst titles ever” that I think are somewhat more memorable because of their supposedly bad titles. Stuff like “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” or “The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini.”

A recent trend that I can’t stand is the ones that seem like they can’t decide on the title, so they use several: “The Goods: Live Hard Sell Hard,” or “Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever.”

But for me the worst is “Precious based on the Novel Push by Saphire.” Really?!?! That’s the actual title?

http://forgottenfilmcast.wordpress.com/

Posted By swac : December 27, 2011 9:15 am

So John Huston was way ahead of the curve with THE UNFORGIVEN?

Posted By swac : December 27, 2011 9:15 am

So John Huston was way ahead of the curve with THE UNFORGIVEN?

Posted By Juana Maria : December 27, 2011 12:39 pm

Hola! Swac, I was just thinking of that! “The Unforgiven” with Audie Murphy, Burt Lancster, Audrey Hepburn, John Saxon, Albert Salmi, Lillian Gish and Charles Bickford. Very confusing title with Clint Eastwood’s film:”Unforgiven”(no the in the title). Also, there is “The Appaloosa” with John Saxon and then years later there is the movie:”Appaloosa”(no the in the title). Similiar titles but completely different films not re-makes. I would like to read more about your interview with my favor actor, L.Q. Jones. My sister calls him “my boyfriend” when he comes on screen! She’s silly, my family always likes to pick on me for liking certain guys.

Posted By Juana Maria : December 27, 2011 12:39 pm

Hola! Swac, I was just thinking of that! “The Unforgiven” with Audie Murphy, Burt Lancster, Audrey Hepburn, John Saxon, Albert Salmi, Lillian Gish and Charles Bickford. Very confusing title with Clint Eastwood’s film:”Unforgiven”(no the in the title). Also, there is “The Appaloosa” with John Saxon and then years later there is the movie:”Appaloosa”(no the in the title). Similiar titles but completely different films not re-makes. I would like to read more about your interview with my favor actor, L.Q. Jones. My sister calls him “my boyfriend” when he comes on screen! She’s silly, my family always likes to pick on me for liking certain guys.

Posted By Kingrat : December 27, 2011 2:57 pm

How about the so elegant title The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1? I might go see the darn thing if it were THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN, PART 1, BASED ON THE NOVEL “PUSH” BY SAPPHIRE.

I also find it easy to confuse the titles of so-so noirs, which are often very similar. The generation of Hemingway, Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and Tennessee Williams always looked for memorable titles, sometimes from poems or the Bible.

Posted By Kingrat : December 27, 2011 2:57 pm

How about the so elegant title The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1? I might go see the darn thing if it were THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN, PART 1, BASED ON THE NOVEL “PUSH” BY SAPPHIRE.

I also find it easy to confuse the titles of so-so noirs, which are often very similar. The generation of Hemingway, Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and Tennessee Williams always looked for memorable titles, sometimes from poems or the Bible.

Posted By Jenni : December 29, 2011 1:37 am

“The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Tom Ford”, has to win the award for longest title. I saw this movie a year or 2 ago, and it was a well done film, showing the viewer the life of Jesse James after he was tired of robbing banks and trains, and how a hanger-on of his outlaw band decided to kill him one day, to do the then governor of Missouri a favor. The film’s title says it all, and yet, I wonder if the movie going public shied away from it due to it’s long title.I don’t recall it doing a lot of business at the box office. Strong cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck,Sam Shepherd,Mary Louise Parker,Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, and Zooey Deschanel.

Posted By Jenni : December 29, 2011 1:37 am

“The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Tom Ford”, has to win the award for longest title. I saw this movie a year or 2 ago, and it was a well done film, showing the viewer the life of Jesse James after he was tired of robbing banks and trains, and how a hanger-on of his outlaw band decided to kill him one day, to do the then governor of Missouri a favor. The film’s title says it all, and yet, I wonder if the movie going public shied away from it due to it’s long title.I don’t recall it doing a lot of business at the box office. Strong cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck,Sam Shepherd,Mary Louise Parker,Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, and Zooey Deschanel.

Posted By JackFavell : December 29, 2011 6:51 pm

The ones I always have trouble remembering are the two word thrillers – Fatal Attraction, Extreme Measures, Absolute Power, Primal Fear….

I could go on, but maybe I will just change the words around – Primal Attraction, Fatal Measures, Extreme Fear….

Posted By JackFavell : December 29, 2011 6:51 pm

The ones I always have trouble remembering are the two word thrillers – Fatal Attraction, Extreme Measures, Absolute Power, Primal Fear….

I could go on, but maybe I will just change the words around – Primal Attraction, Fatal Measures, Extreme Fear….

Posted By Suzi : December 30, 2011 12:19 am

I love my readers. You guys are knowledgeable AND funny.

Posted By Suzi : December 30, 2011 12:19 am

I love my readers. You guys are knowledgeable AND funny.

Posted By Juana Maria : December 30, 2011 9:53 pm

It was Bob Ford(the dirty coward) who shot Mr. Howard, and layed poor Jesse in his grave. There was a poem about it, I read it in school. I always liked Frank James much better than Jesse anyway. We started on movie titles and some how we get around to talking about Westerns, thankfully.

Posted By Juana Maria : December 30, 2011 9:53 pm

It was Bob Ford(the dirty coward) who shot Mr. Howard, and layed poor Jesse in his grave. There was a poem about it, I read it in school. I always liked Frank James much better than Jesse anyway. We started on movie titles and some how we get around to talking about Westerns, thankfully.

Posted By H Lynnea Johnson : January 1, 2012 10:33 pm

Being an avowed Anglophile, one thing I’ve noticed is that the titles of British films don’t always translate well. Because despite speaking the same language, British English uses so mny terms that we in America don’t that it can get confusing to people who aren’t familiar with the British dialect. For example, I tried to explain the plot of the movie “Waking Ned Divine” to a friend, and she kept wondering if they were trying to wake up a dead man. Also, I just recently saw “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” with a couple of friends who afterwards confessed that they couldn’t understand the source of the title (because they didn’t know it is a children’s counting/nursery rhyme in England).
So, while I find those titles memorable, others may not have the same reaction.

Posted By H Lynnea Johnson : January 1, 2012 10:33 pm

Being an avowed Anglophile, one thing I’ve noticed is that the titles of British films don’t always translate well. Because despite speaking the same language, British English uses so mny terms that we in America don’t that it can get confusing to people who aren’t familiar with the British dialect. For example, I tried to explain the plot of the movie “Waking Ned Divine” to a friend, and she kept wondering if they were trying to wake up a dead man. Also, I just recently saw “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” with a couple of friends who afterwards confessed that they couldn’t understand the source of the title (because they didn’t know it is a children’s counting/nursery rhyme in England).
So, while I find those titles memorable, others may not have the same reaction.

Posted By debbe : January 2, 2012 2:32 pm

as a writer, it is challenging to come up with the right title to sell the story, and tell the story… even though holly wood loves the formula, the movies that make it go against the formula for the title. good article

Posted By debbe : January 2, 2012 2:32 pm

as a writer, it is challenging to come up with the right title to sell the story, and tell the story… even though holly wood loves the formula, the movies that make it go against the formula for the title. good article

Posted By jbryant : January 2, 2012 3:54 pm

I would gladly see a movie titled “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Time-Traveling Fashion Designer Tom Ford.” :)

One of my favorite titles is “The Half-Naked Truth,” a hilarious Gregory La Cava film that doesn’t play on TCM nearly often enough.

Posted By jbryant : January 2, 2012 3:54 pm

I would gladly see a movie titled “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Time-Traveling Fashion Designer Tom Ford.” :)

One of my favorite titles is “The Half-Naked Truth,” a hilarious Gregory La Cava film that doesn’t play on TCM nearly often enough.

Posted By Juana Maria : January 3, 2012 9:05 pm

I too avidly read British books and watch shows on the “telly”. I have for yrs. watched BritComs on PBS on Sat. I love the language and humour. I even try to spell some of my words with more of a British spelling. I know a lot of the nursery rhymes because I was told/sung them when I ws a little girl. It’s funny when I was little I didn’t realize that the U.S.A. and U.K. where two differnt countries. I would hear about New England and England, I guess I put them together in my childish mind.(sigh) Nostalgia.

Posted By Juana Maria : January 3, 2012 9:05 pm

I too avidly read British books and watch shows on the “telly”. I have for yrs. watched BritComs on PBS on Sat. I love the language and humour. I even try to spell some of my words with more of a British spelling. I know a lot of the nursery rhymes because I was told/sung them when I ws a little girl. It’s funny when I was little I didn’t realize that the U.S.A. and U.K. where two differnt countries. I would hear about New England and England, I guess I put them together in my childish mind.(sigh) Nostalgia.

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