Here's the cynical view: At one point the movie business was a wide-open field, a culturally relevant popular art form that drew the most creative individuals of society, who challenged themselves to achieve ever-higher levels of expertise, always pushing the boundaries of the medium, pursuing excellence with artistic integrity and creating a new golden age of cinema. That all ended around 1985. Now what we have is a mature industry, codified, operating within narrow creative limitations, leaning heavily on formula, cynically focused on churning out cynical product, everyone's gaze firmly focused on the bottom line. It's an industry that continues forward on sheer momentum, trading on the audience's ever-dimming memory of past glories, and their hope to have such experiences again... but the business can only distract and dazzle, leaving audiences with a gnawing sense that things aren't as good as they once were but not really understanding why. For example: movie titles. Perhaps you think you can just come up with a title you think is great, and be done with it. It's not quite that easy. Consider the following: For that Mel Gibson film about kidnapping, Disney Studios' Joe Roth paid $600,000 to Columbia Pictures for the title RANSOM. (If you're keeping score at home, that's over half a million for one word! I wonder if the script cost that much?) For the Demi Moore Navy Seals picture, Disney paid Hasbro several hundred thousand dollars to use the title, G.I. JANE. (This despite the fact that the film is clearly about the Navy, not the Army!) In order for Pixar to use the title A BUG'S LIFE, Disney had to trade the rights to two titles it 'owned' to Warner Bros. -- FATHER'S DAY and CONSPIRACY THEORY. It's a war out there... even with something as simple and basic as a film title. Let's keep going on the business-end stuff, get that out of the way first, before we go on to talk 'creative.'
BUSINESS CONSIDERATIONS First off, don't believe a word I write, I'm not an entertainment lawyer. But, as I understand it, you can't copyright a title. But when a title is in the marketplace, it can acquire a secondary meaning -- for example, the public has an expectation that all STAR WARS films are likely to be produced by George Lucas. The title STAR WARS can then be trademarked, and thus protected. You can, in some cases, register a title as a trademark before it even enters the marketplace to acquire its secondary meaning. Again -- consult your lawyer for details. (While we're on STAR WARS... studio research at the time deemed it a terrible title. 'Star' was considered bad, because nobody went to see science fiction movies. And 'Wars' was terrible, because war pictures were box office death. Somehow the film managed to overcome the terrible hindrance of such an awful title.) A second way to protect a title is by registering the title with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). There's a $300 per year fee to subscribe to the service. And a $200 charge to register 10 titles. The first party to register a title has the right to use it. But this only protects you against other members signatory to the MPAA, not to all producers everywhere. Each MPAA member is allowed 250 titles under permanent registration -- but the big studios, using corporate umbrella entities, retain thousands of registered titles. Squabbles are resolved by arbitration. And on the subject of squabbles, we've run into title problems on several of the movies we worked on:
#1. Robert A. Heinlein's THE PUPPET MASTERS There was an existing series of direct-to-video films called PUPPETMASTER, produced by Charles Band, about killer marionettes. Apparently our two-word, pluralized version of the title with the word 'The' didn't distinguish THE PUPPET MASTERS enough in the marketplace. Other titles were toyed with -- I think DOMINION was the best of the various suggestions -- but it was hard to feel satisfied with anything but the title of the original, classic novel. And there was marketplace value, it was felt, to using a title that would be familiar with fans of Robert Heinlein. Finally the somewhat cumbersome "Robert A. Heinlein's THE PUPPET MASTERS" was chosen as the best way to navigate all the competing concerns. (This is the same tack chosen in the case of "Bram Stoker's DRACULA" and "Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN"; they needed to distinguish their films from the originals).
#2. THE ROAD TO EL DORADO An upcoming animated film, EL DORADO had some licensing concerns in other countries, where the phrase is already quite popular. THE ROAD TO EL DORADO was chosen as more 'copyrightable.'
#3. THE MASK OF ZORRO ZORRO couldn't be used due to legal concerns, so the title became THE MASK OF ZORRO... a title I'm particularly proud of, as I campaigned for it. My idea was that it would make a great bookend for the original MARK OF ZORRO; I figured the two films would show up in review books side by side. But then someone pointed out Jim Carrey's MASK is going to land smack dab between them. Drat!
#4. DUNN'S CONUNDRUM Ted and I worked on an adaptation of this novel for Chevy Chase, of all people. Chase's role was a secret agent whose specialty was analyzing garbage -- the Sherlock Holmes of garbage. He could tell the difference between 800 shades of lipstick on a Styrofoam cup, that sort of thing. A great set-up, we thought, to lampoon Washington politics. There was a fear no one knew what CONUNDRUM meant. THE GARBAGEMAN was an obvious choice for the title. But then you consider the critics and the headline writers and you realize no, you don't want to star Chevy Chase in a film called THE GARBAGEMAN. And that's the segue to --
CREATIVE STUFF Your film needs to have an awesome title. Re-read the above sentence a few times. Really. I'm serious. You need to come up with an excellent title -- and not only for the eventual moviegoing audience. Your title is the first chance you have to demonstrate your artistic and commercial sensibilities. It's the first impression you'll make, and you've got to make it good. You've got to convince people you know what you're doing. That you can judge words, that you can select words with a refined sense of how they work. If you send out a script with a sucky title, you're all but telling people, "Don't hire me yet." A film title, by nature, is a bold claim. People think, "So this is what you think should go onto all the posters, the billboards, the marquees. This is what you think people are going to line up to see. This is what you think is going to lodge firmly into the public consciousness, ascend to an honored place alongside the great pictures in the history of cinema." All right. It'd better be good. Ted and I were listening to a pitch once from a friend of ours, Ron, an aspiring filmmaker. He had an idea that was pretty good. Really good, in fact -- we could tell because we were both getting that slightly jealous "I wish I'd thought of that" feeling. Where you start coming up with your own cool ways to execute the idea, as if it were yours. "So, what's the title?" I asked. "I really, really like the title," Ron said. He took a breath and proclaimed with great relish, "It's called SILLY GOOSE." Ted and I looked at each other. Imagine the high-pitched cartoon sound of something plummeting earthward from a great height. We'd felt we'd been standing on solid creative ground, but then looked down and saw there was nothing beneath us. We knew his promising concept would be dead in the water as long as it was saddled with that title. And that, perhaps, is the most important thing about titles -- It has to sound like a title! Most scripts that hit my desk -- say eighty percent -- are saddled with titles you could never imagine seeing on a poster or marquee. The first thought you have is, "Oh, that obviously needs a different title." I admit, I'm a bit of a title fanatic (as a cruise around the Wordplay site will reveal). To me a project isn't even real, somehow, until it has found a workable title. It's almost a superstitious belief: if, after weeks of effort and working with the story and concept, if a title doesn't suggest itself, then maybe there's something amiss with the basic concept. A central situation that's truly compelling and cool and rich with thematic possibilities ought to, over a period of time, suggest a number of good titles. Because the best titles imply the central situation of the film. BACK TO THE FUTURE is a perfect example. Not only is there a clever bit of wordplay (you'd expect to go BACK TO THE PAST) but it perfectly summarizes Marty McFly's plight. GHOSTBUSTERS, RISKY BUSINESS, FLATLINERS are other great titles that suggest each film's central situation. Some other collected bits of title lore:
DIRTY DANCING The whole film DIRTY DANCING originated with the title. As the story goes, one of the producers was talking about her experiences, about this place where they did 'dirty dancing' when she was a teen. The other producer jumped on it. "That title alone is worth $10 million in box office," he said. He was right.
SNEAK PREVIEW The very first spec project Ted and I worked on together had a neat title. The story was set at a small town movie theatre, and the title was SNEAK PREVIEW. We just loved the idea of someday seeing that title on marquees all over town, and people coming into theaters asking, "So, what's the sneak preview?" "It's called SNEAK PREVIEW." "Yeah, but what's the movie?" The Who's On First possibilities abound. Similarly, high on director Joe Dante's list of alternate titles is always, "FREE POPCORN."
TITLES TO AVOID There are some titles to avoid just because, well, they seem cursed. The logical choice for ZORRO was to call the film THE LEGEND OF ZORRO. But nobody wants to pick that, because 'The Legend of' movies all suck. Similarly, avoid movies with JOHNNY in the title. With JOHNNY HANDSOME, JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY, and JOHNNY MNEMONIC, we can pretty much put Johnny-titles to bed. We've also had enough of 'The Last' and 'The Final' series of movies (THE LAST BOY SCOUT, THE LAST ACTION HERO, FINAL ANALYSIS, FINAL CONFLICT). Ted says we should allow just one more, a film about successfully graduating from college, call it THE LAST GOOD FINAL and then call it done. It is nice, though, that TOY STORY broke the run of mediocre 'Toy' pictures. (Think Robin Williams in TOYS, Richard Pryor in THE TOY.) So these title curses can be overcome.
REVIEW FODDER Avoid giving an easy target to the critics with your title. Maybe back away from calling your film DEAD IN THE WATER, for example. And what were they thinking with BILLY BATHGATE? And DYING YOUNG? How about THE ABYSS? At least producers had the sense to change COMA GUY to WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, a modest improvement. It works in the other direction as well -- if you title your film PERFECT, you're begging for the review headline, "PERFECT Isn't Even Close." Come to think of it, with THE PERFECT BRIDE, PERFECT PEOPLE, THE PERFECT MATCH, THE PERFECT WEAPON, A PERFECT WORLD and PERFECTLY NORMAL, better keep your film title away from the p-word altogether. It is possible for the quality of the film to overcome a questionable title. The producers of ROBOCOP reportedly went crazy trying to come up with a better title, something more appropriate to the more adult tone and style of the movie. They were convinced that a gimmicky, the comic-bookish sounding title would preclude the film from finding its audience. But the film was so good, it managed to elevate the title from silly to cool.
LITERARY TITLES One trend that seems to have passed is the requirement of having to actually say the title at some point in the movie. Remember that? Perhaps it came to an end with Jane Fonda's speech in THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? Ah, they don't title films like that any more. Or at least not all that often. There used to be a time when titles like ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS or THE WIND AND THE LION were perfectly acceptable; now you'd have to fight for them. It's rare that something like ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST or SILENCE OF THE LAMBS makes it through -- but the films would be less, I think, if they lacked those distinctive titles. The title is a significant clue to the audience as to what the film is about -- it sits in the back of the mind, and the events of the film play against it. You've got to applaud titles like TO WONG FU, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING, JULIE NEWMAR; THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU'RE DEAD; and THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT just because they're willing to take a chance. But it probably was a good idea to change MY POSSE DON'T DO HOMEWORK to DANGEROUS MINDS.
PHRASES & SONGS Sadly, the trend these days is against the literary title, and toward phrases and song tiles. The phrase title is probably the most common 'title' type in movies. HIGH NOON, BODY HEAT, CONTINENTAL DIVIDE, FRENCH KISS, and the recent WORST CASE SCENARIO are all examples of films adopting an existing phrase, or finding a phrase that applies to the movie in some way. And if you can't locate a phrase these days, you go for a song title. And it's not an entirely bad idea. With films like BLUE VELVET, or WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?, where the music is important to the story, it can be a good choice. Where the song title method goes awry is when it becomes generic. COP TIPS WAITRESS TWO MILLION DOLLARS -- a cool, distinctive title -- was changed to the less-descriptive, harder-to-remember IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU.
NAME TITLES Single-name titles fascinate me -- why do some work, but others don't? BILLY BATHGATE is obviously bad, as FORREST GUMP is obviously interesting... but what made JERRY MAGUIRE so memorable, before the film was even released? In the end, a screenwriter should be prepared to spend as much time as it takes to get the one-to-five words of the title exactly right. If there ever was a time to not quit, to keep searching, to not be satisfied, to keep your standards high, it's in choosing your film title. A good title could get your script moved up from the bottom of the stack of to-read scripts to the top -- and change your life. As a final illustration of the power of a title, do the following exercise: Imagine you've been given an assignment and have to write a screenplay, based solely on an assigned title. Forget the actual films the following titles represent. Actually try to imagine the sort of film you'd write if you sat down and worked from the following: BACK TO THE FUTURE, GHOSTBUSTERS, FLATLINERS, BODY HEAT, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, RISKY BUSINESS, POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE, TRUE LIES, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING. Man, if you had any of these titles, you'd have no choice. You'd be forced to write a classic film!