Don’t Make your Header an Own Goal

The Art of the Title ☛

You’re sending your independent feature to film festivals in hope of glory, but you’ve not yet got any reviews and let’s imagine that Focus aren’t backing you with a massive marketing campaign. All you have is what you can put in the festival programme: a short synopsis / the names of your cast / a still from the film / the title. Of these four things the cheapest and simplest to get working on your side, and the one over which you have complete control at all stages of the process, is the title. I must have worked in the cutting room of at least half a dozen features where the title was being discussed right up to the last minute.

Even if you do have studio backing and a great distributor, the title still needs to be memorable. Movies rely on word of mouth and if the audience loved your film, it does you no good if they tell their friends the next day “you must see whatsit, you know, thingamyjig”. But what makes a title memorable? Well, it helps if the title connects to the film. Some titles, particularly for genre films, can be so generic that the name would be equally relevant to a hundred different movies. Even worse, the title can sometimes feel as if it applies to a film of a different genre. I worked on a fun comedy called ‘Wild Target’, the title a direct translation of the title of the French original. Some of us felt that, in English, the title sounded too much like the name of a Van Damme movie. For whatever reason the original title stuck and did, I felt, poor service to the film.

Inland... what did you say?

But memorable isn’t enough – a title needs to have allure. It can attract an audience in a number of ways: it can mystify, offer excitement, drama, comedy or whatever it is that your film’s trying to sell. I can’t tell you how to come up with a good title any more than I can tell you how to come up with a good basic idea for a story, but when you’ve dreamt up some possibilities, there are a couple of good tests you can apply. Look at the key words separately from the whole and free associate with them. If the associated words seem apt to your movie and appealingly cinematic, there’s a good chance you’re on to something. This would have flagged up a problem with the title of David Lynch’s ‘Inland Empire’. In the UK at least, the word ‘inland’ has but one association:  Inland Revenue, the tax office. Absolute words, positive or negative, tend to work well: ‘best’, ‘last’, ‘top’, ‘light’, ‘darkness’, whereas words of moderation and the middle suggest little drama. This rule tends to work even for comedies, whatever the genre. The big screen loves a touch of grandeur.

Missed poster

My short film "Missed" - good title... in theory

Beyond the rational associations of the words, there’s a musical aspect to a title. It has to trip off the tongue, rather than fall leaden from the lips. This is one reason why lines from songs are so often used as movie titles – if it’s easy to sing, it’s easy to say. It’s also good to check that your title contains no possibility for misunderstandings, when either read or spoken. I named one of my short films ‘Missed’, a title I grew to regret. Whenever I told anybody about it I had to spell M-I-S-S-E-D to stop people searching the festival programme for a film called ‘Mist’.

If the associations you have with the individual words all work for you, try testing it out on other people. Find someone who knows nothing about your film, tell them the title you have in mind and ask them what sort of film they think it might be, and whether they’d want to see that movie. Remember, from time to time your film will be represented by its title alone and if you can come up with a handle that draws in the crowds without any help from the stars or the story, you’re on to a winner. If your title suggests a genre fractionally different from your actual film that might be okay: marketing doesn’t have to be 100% accurate. As long as it doesn’t set up expectations you can’t fulfil – you don’t want your audience filing out feeling misled.

As for the strategies you can take with titles, there are hundreds, and new ones are invented every now and then. Here are a few to be going on with:

Peter Greenaway's shopping list of a title

  • Recipe titles – a trend started by Peter Greenaway with ‘The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover’, soon followed by ‘sex, lies and videotape’ and ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. These titles invite the audience to imagine the connecting factors between the elements of the title and build their own story, causing them to engage with your world before they’ve even bought a ticket.
  • Imperative titles – like ‘Meet me in St Louis’, ‘Never Let Me Go’ and ‘Tell No One’. These seem to address the audience directly and make a demand of them. The  assertiveness of these titles not only grabs your attention, it suggests confident storytelling.
  • Name checks – titles that reference a famous person ‘I Shot Andy Warhol’, ‘Being John Malkovich’ or ‘Shakespeare in Love’ can piggy-back off that’s person’s fame, particularly in these day of Google searches. The same can be done with place names, although it helps if the place has extreme or definite associations like New York, Paris, Las Vegas or even Sarajevo. There’s a reason why Milton Keynes has not yet found its way into a movie title.
  • Poetic titles – these are often taken from the original novel, poem or play and, even if they aren’t, they suggest that the film might be of that type. Examples would be ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, ‘Lovers of the Arctic Circle’ and ‘Echoes from a Sombre Empire’. Such titles can be very appealing for the independent and art house film audience, capturing the imagination and suggesting a thoughtful and imaginative tale; possibly less appealing to a mainstream audience.
  • Mystery titles – one common strategy for these is taking a familiar or slightly unfamiliar noun and suggesting the singular importance of one such object by sticking ‘the’ on the front. Think of ‘The Matrix’, ‘The Fly’, ‘The Cell’. What’s special about that particular fly?
  • Concept titles– titles that paint an idea or mood can work for anything from art house films to thrillers. Some good examples would be ‘Ridicule’, ‘Inception’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘Suddenly’, ‘Frantic’. Such names assure us that the film will either be about something or will evoke a strong atmosphere.

    "M" - a poster artist's dream

  • Long / short titles – all the films above have one-word titles, a favourite for Hitchcock and the two top-grossing films of all time also follow this rule. Really short titles work particularly well, as witnessed by ‘Moon’, ‘Jaws’ and ‘Kes’, even down to ‘π’, ‘W.’ and ‘M’ – these titles are punchy and offer strong graphic possibilities for poster designers. Perversely long film titles can also work well, like ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’, ‘Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead’ or ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’. Apart from calling attention to themselves by taking up a lot of real estate on the cinema hoarding, these title work by challenging us to remember them. Once we’ve done that, we’ve engaged with the film.
  • Punning titles – these can be titles that refer back to existing titles, like ‘Shaun of the Dead’ or ‘Faintheart’, almost exclusively a trick used by comedies to poke fun at a grand classic, while slyly riding on its back. ‘Faintheart’ is also a title that works two ways, referring not only to ‘Braveheart’ but evoking the phrase ‘faint heart never won fair maiden’, a good association for a rom-com. Serious film titles often pun too: ‘United 93’ refers to the flight ident of the doomed plane, but also suggests the unity of the passengers.

I’m sure you can think of other strategies; please feel free to post them as comments. Whatever strategy you do choose, remember that a good title can bring an audience to your film, just as surely as a bad title can drive them away. Once you’ve picked a killer title, all that remains is for you to make a good movie to go with it.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

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8 Responses to “Don’t Make your Header an Own Goal”
  1. Good piece and nice pic of Ms Mirren LOL

  2. Gavin Boyter says:

    Another good one is the verb-noun thematic statement. Usually it’s an activity carried out to or with the protagonist, or the subject/Maguffin/quest object. Sometimes it’s an active verb and then a noun that doesn’t seem to fit the verb, begging the question of how the two are related (hopefully the film answers that question). Examples of both variants would include Raising Arizona, Saving Private Ryan, Finding Nemo and Leaving Las Vegas.

    Also, pairings of objects / concepts works well, a stratagem used frequently by Bergman and Woody Allen (and Jane Austen!) Cries and Whispers, Secrets and Lies, Crimes and Misdemeanours and my own (shameless plug) forthcoming Sparks and Embers. This is the simplest variant of the “list” format you describe above.

    • guyducker says:

      Both good ones.

      I’d argue that the Bergman/Allen/Boyter pairing strategy is often different from the recipe title. The recipe title works by inviting us to imagine a scenario that connects those disparate elements. Some pairing titles work by offering to draw a fine distinction: what’s the difference between a crime and a misdemeanour? These titles promise moral insight. Your title however is more like ‘Crime and Punishment’ – the two elements are dramatically opposed, suggesting two conflicting or contradictory ideas. Arguably the more dynamic strategy, but it’s courses for horses.

  3. Excellent. I see so many scripts that are sabotaged by limp titles.

    IMHO there are three kinds of titles. Awful titles. Wonderful poetic titles. And titles that just do their job – most titles fall into the third category, and often grow to match their movie.

    In all honesty titles like “Psycho” and “The Birds” are not wonderful titles, but they do their job, and now we associate them with greatness because of the film.

    However, you still have to have a title that works – bad titles stay bad, no matter what.

    A few extra suggestions for titles – look for words with universal resonance. You mention absolutes, like “Last…” – I’d add colours, places, times (seasons, days of the week, times of day, or even dates) and anything that has a big presence in our lives or dreams (geographical features, planets, plants, abstracts such as “Music” or “Life” itself of course).

    Best way to research: look at the titles out there now. Good and bad!

    • guyducker says:

      I’d agree that there are many awful titles out there, and I do share your weakness for a poetic title. However I would disagree with your assertion that a title that is neither poetic nor awful is merely serviceable.

      ‘Psycho’ can’t be too bad a title – it pretty much brought that word to universal use! And it isn’t as if the word is uttered in the film itself. Admittedly it’s now difficult for us to judge how that title came across to the audiences of 1960, we can’t unlearn the word.

      Like any form of marketing, a title doesn’t have to be pretty – if it’s memorable and compelling it will do it’s bit to help fill up the cinema seats. A good example that springs to mind is ‘No Way Out’. It may not have the poetry of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ but it’s punchy as hell – three solid hits. It promises through it’s brevity and desperate certainty, a taut and claustrophobic thriller. Which is exactly what the film is. In fact ‘No Way Out’ is one of those titles that would draw me to the film even if I knew nothing else about it. And that’s the holy grail of titles.

      • Absolutely – we agree. What you call servicable is what I mean by a title that does its job well, but doesn’t have to be pretty or poetic.

        No Way Out is great, because it makes a big promise to the audience. As does Breaking Bad, Django Unchained, and most recently Prisoners.

        By the way, rhyme and repetition are worth adding to the list, especially alliteration and assonance: Pride and Prejudice, Dumb and Dumber…

  4. Mahmut Akay says:

    Fantastic article – you’ve really got me thinking about the importance of film titles now.

  5. Jonathan Victory says:

    There’s a great example of this from Ireland. There was a movie from around 2001 starring Cillian Murphy and Stephen Rea. It was a black comedy/drama about Murphy’s character spending time in a mental hospital. Apparently the movie was going to be called something like “The Happy-Smile Suicide Club”, which I think would have been a great title cuz it really stands out and grabs your attention, whilst suggesting the dark comic tone of the film. It sounds like the title a cult film would have, or like something Chuck Palahniuk would write. Even if one never saw the film, with a title like that, you would have heard of it at some stage because it’s such an unusual title.

    But it ended up not getting that title, perhaps cuz it sounded *too* edgy or potentially controversial, or something, I don’t know. What they ended up calling this film was….. “On The Edge”. For me, this title sucks because it’s so generic. It just sounds bland, which is paradoxical since it does describe the state of mind of the main character. But now nobody has heard of this film. At least the director went on to have some success with the Oscar-winning “Once”, a film whose title manages to evoke so much about love, storytelling and what-not with just one word.

    So yes, film titles are hugely important to get right. Stanley Kubrick had stressed this, as it is the first thing anyone hears about your movie.

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