Naming Can Make or Break a Motion Picture

Naming Can Make or Break a Motion Picture

A recent article on motion picture naming called “What’s In a Name?” came from the Wall Street Journal’s Rachel Dodes. The article gives great examples on how naming affects a motion picture, which we found similar to how naming affects any brand. Below you’ll find various parts of the article that we found interesting to the process of naming. There are many factors that go into naming a movie, and quite often the name gets changed due to confusion, the inability to market such a name, the worry the movie is perceived as a completely different genre, and more.

Studio execs and writers find it more and more difficult to come up with an original title these days. “More and more of the good ones are taken,” says Rian Johnson, the writer-director of “Looper,” the recently released sci-fi film about time-traveling criminals. “Every time I come up with a title while I’m writing, I’m holding my breath all the way through postproduction.” He went with the offbeat “Looper” because it was hard to imagine another big action movie coming out with the same name.

More than half of the big studio movies released in 2012 were franchise films, book adaptations or remakes, all of which boast valuable “pre-awareness,” and therefore don’t need creative titles. For original films, the pressure is on.

Screenwriters and movie executives say that the best titles are usually short and memorable. Woody Allen came up with the name “Midnight in Paris” before he wrote the script, and has said that he agonized trying to come up with a screenplay that lived up to the film’s name.

Mr. Allen’s Oscar-winning “Annie Hall” was called “Anhedonia,” a psychiatric diagnosis that refers to the inability to feel pleasure, until late in postproduction. Executives at studio United Artists urged the director to change the name because few knew what it meant and it was too challenging to explain in a poster.

“Pretty Woman” was called “$3,000” – the dollar amount that Richard Gere’s character pays for a week of services from a prostitute played by Julia Roberts – but marketers worried that the title sounded too sci-fi-futuristic, and changed it to the name of the Roy Orbison song featured in the film.

“Casablanca” was based on an unpublished play titled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” Warner Bros. changed the name, along with a lot else, in short order.

Producers and screenwriters frequently invoke “The Shawshank Redemption” as one of the worst titles of all time, because audiences didn’t understand what it meant. The name, a truncated version of “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” – the Stephen King novella on which it was based – was a natural fit, owing to the author’s legions of fans. The thriller nevertheless flopped at the box office, generating only $28 million, despite critical acclaim. It only became a classic later on. Another story from the same collection by Mr. King, called “The Body,” took a name change and wound up as “Stand by Me,” Rob Reiner’s coming-of-age tale.

Today’s amped-up movie competiton demands more than ever that movies hit pay dirt the very first weekend. But marketing issues have long driven 11th-hour name changes, even if they confuse audiences. “About Last Night,” the 1986 film starring Rob Lowe and Demi Moore, was originally called “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” the name of the David Mamet play on which it was based. Television networks at the time balked at running ads with such a
provocative title.

The debut feature film from director Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”), about a drug-addicted pregnant woman, was initially entitled “Meet Ruth Stoops,” but Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein thought the title sounded like a horror film. Right before the Sundance Film festival in 1996, the title was changed to “Precious.” By the time the movie came out in December 1996, it was renamed “Citizen Ruth” to align with a poster showing its star, Laura Dern, holding a can of spray paint and wearing a Statue of Liberty crown. Any association with Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” didn’t help: It grossed $285,000.

In 2009, a film about the struggles of a pregnant teen named Precious was originally called “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire.” When a distribution company signed on, it worried the movie would be confused with an action film called “Push” that had come out earlier that year. But the filmmakers’ devotion to the book was such that they retained the second half of the original title: “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” It went on to receive six Academy Award nominations.

Titles aren’t protected by copyright law, except in specific cases where a name can be shown to have developed “secondary meaning” in the public consciousness, like “Star Wars.” To handle disputes over movie titles, the Motion Picture Association of America in 1925 created the Title Registration Bureau, where subscribers – both major studios and independent film producers – can stake a claim to various names. There are currently 150,000 titles in the registry, 85,000 of which are attached to movies that haven’t yet been produced, says Mitch Schwartz, vice president and director of the bureau. About 3,200 names are added to the registry every year.

The process of picking a good title is more art than science, but everybody who has ever named a movie seems to adhere to a specific set of arbitrary rules. Screenwriter John August (“Frankenweenie”) loathes punctuation. He still gets annoyed when he sees DVDs of his 1999 film “Go” that have an exclamation point – “Go!” – in certain markets outside of the U.S. (“It’s too much shouting,” he says.)

CBS Films Co-President Terry Press, a longtime marketing executive, generally hates numbers in titles but nevertheless approved the name of “Seven Psychopaths,” which opened Oct. 12, because she liked the alliteration. ” ‘Forty-two Psychopaths’ would not be a good title,” she says. One studio marketing chief opposes holiday names (e.g., “Valentine’s Day”), which he considers “limiting.”

Occasionally, the name is the best thing a movie has going for it. When David R. Ellis was asked to take over the directing job for a movie that had run into some creative problems, all he had to hear was “Snakes on a Plane” before accepting: “I said, ‘You’re kidding me.’ ” Later, when New Line briefly considered changing the name to “Pacific Flight 121,” star Samuel L. Jackson threw a fit, arguing that the name of the movie was what got his attention. They kept the name, which became a cultural meme, showing up on “Two and a Half Men” and in an interpretive dance number at the Oscars. The title helped power a movie that few took seriously to modest success, grossing $62 million world-wide.

A few Los Angeles-based businesses have cropped up with movie-naming specialties. But the idea of naming a movie in the same way that a consumer-products manufacturer names soap hasn’t really caught on. “Movie makers have been the slowest to adopt modern branding techniques, because there’s a real sense that they’re artists,” says Brent Scarcliff, president of Scarcliff Salvador, a branding agency. “There are a lot of egos involved.

Renowned pollster George Gallup pioneered the development of “title testing” in the 1940s at the Audience Research Institute, which he created to help studios maximize profits of their movies, according to the 2006 book “George Gallup in Hollywood,” by Susan Ohmer. Mr. Gallup exhorted studios to keep titles brief and to the point. Surveys would ask people to look at groups of titles and try to divine what a film would be about based on them. The British film “The Rake’s Progress,” about a serial seducer, was released in the U.S. under the name “Notorious Gentleman” in 1946 after ARI’s polling revealed that American audiences expected the film to be about the evolution of gardening tools.

In the case of “The Surrogate,” a name that refers to a type of sex therapist, there was a bit of confusion about the title’s meaning. “When we would mention ‘The Surrogate’ to colleagues, what would come to mind immediately was the surrogate for pregnancy,” says Nancy Utley, president of Fox Searchlight, the film’s distributor. There was initially no inclination to change the title, though, because it had won so much attention at the Sundance Film Festival. (The name was derived from a 1990 essay written by the film’s subject, poet Mark O’Brien, entitled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.”)

It wasn’t exactly the most original title. There were already six movies listed on IMDb.com called “The Surrogate” including an obscure 1984 thriller and a 1995 made-for-TV movie starring Alyssa Milano. Most problematic for Searchlight, however, was “Surrogates,” a big-budget sci-fi action movie from 2009 that featured Bruce Willis as a robot-fighting FBI agent.

According to MPAA rules, titles of movies that have been theatrically released get four years of automatic protection from a competitor registering a similar title. So Disney exercised its rights and refused to release the title “to avoid confusion between the two films,” says director Ben Lewin. (Disney confirmed the account but wouldn’t elaborate.)

As marketing deadlines approached, Searchlight’s people enlisted its marketing team and a couple of copywriters to come up with a list of new titles. One of the main objectives was to avoid anything too downbeat, since the film concerns a man who must spend most of his life confined to an iron lung. “There’s a hump people have to get over,” says Mr. Lewin. “The initial reaction is: Guy in an iron lung. What other film can we go and see?”

A common theme suggested by marketers was the idea of therapy sessions, Ms. Utley says. In the film, Ms. Hunt’s character tells her client that “there’s a limit to the number of sessions we can have‹the limit is six,” leading the studio to agree upon the name “Six Sessions.”

It didn’t go over well with everybody. Ms. Hunt found she had difficulty saying it aloud “without taking a breath in the middle.” Her co-star, John Hawkes, raised the point that there are only four sessions depicted in the movie, not six. Mr. Lewin was keen on changing the name to “Love Poem for No One in Particular,” after one of Mr. O’Brien’s poems, but Searchlight’s marketing department said that it would be a disaster for males under 25, an important demographic. “You might as well call it ‘This Film Is Poison,'” Mr. Lewin recalls one executive telling him.

Right before the first trailer was going to be released, Ms. Hunt, Mr. Lewin and Mr. Hawkes spent the weekend ginning up their own lists of alternatives to “Six Sessions.” They were pleased to discover that they each had written “The Sessions” as one of their top choices. Searchlight went with it.

Ms. Hunt was happy with this outcome but admits “I’m not the expert.” Indeed, the working title of James L. Brooks’s 1997 movie “As Good As It Gets” was originally “Old Friends,” but the director decided to change it before production began. Ms. Hunt says she remembers hearing the new title and thinking, “What does that even mean?” The movie wound up grossing nearly $150 million domestically, and earning two Oscars – one for her co-star Jack Nicholson, and one for her.

*Note: This article is from the following source: Wall Street Journal, Rachel Dodes, ‘What’s In a Name?’, Published October 19, 2012, Arena Section on page D1. You can read the entire original article online here: What’s In a Name? .

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