Movie titles | The challenge of getting a film’s name right

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The name of a film is a pivotal part of its promotional jigsaw – but coming up with the perfect movie title is a lot easier said than done.

For a little while during the development of the 2023 it’s sort of based on a true story but have a word action horror comedy Cocaine Bear, there was a conversation being had about whether the name would actually stick. A great holding title, sure: but would a major Hollywood studio, Universal in this case, release a film with such a moniker?

The film thus went into development with the underlying expectation it might be called something else, yet when Elizabeth Banks came aboard to direct the picture, one of her conditions was that it didn’t change. As such, Cocaine Bear became, well, Cocaine Bear, and it’s hard to think of it now being called anything else.

Yet the search for the right title for a movie is one of the dark arts that Hollywood continues to wrestle with. It’s a notable story that upon release, 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption hit box office problems, and part of the diagnosis as to why was the name: just what is Shawshank, and why is it being redeemed? For a casual moviegoer browsing the listings, many went straight past it. Only over time has the film found its audience and modern classic status, but the title for a long while was considered something of a millstone for the movie.

The bottom line appears to be: get the title right, you’re not guaranteeing yourself a hit. Get it wrong, you’re significantly hampering your chances of one.

Cocaine Bear
Cocaine Bear

This, on a studio level, most notably played out in a relatively public arena with 2014’s Edge Of Tomorrow. The film, headlined by Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise, with Doug Liman directing, is based on the Japanese text All You Need Is Kill, by Hiroshi Sazurazaka. That was the title the film seemed to head towards production with too, although few of us reporting on movie news at the time believed it’d survive the Hollywood testing system. Coming to that shortly.

By the time All You Need Is Kill was a movie ready for release, the name had become the remarkably bland Edge Of Tomorrow, the kind of non-event compromise that leaves people walking out of the room feeling they’d not quite got what they wanted, but it’d do.

Edge Of Tomorrow remains a terrific film, but both at the time and in subsequent interviews, it became clear that its director was not a fan of its given title. He lobbied hard for the name Live Die Repeat, but as he wasn’t paying the bill, it was Warner Bros that made the eventual decision, ceding to using Liman’s suggestion as the tagline for the picture instead. As Liman told Film Stories contributing editor Ryan Lambie, “I fought vehemently and lost”.

Liman argued his case with such vigour that he admitted “I committed the cardinal sin of telling somebody in Hollywood when they’re wrong, like, literally – I ended up having to call the person and apologise for pointing out that they were wrong”.

And therein lies the ending of that story: that Warner Bros in the end began to think Liman had a point. When the film’s box office fell below what was expected, particularly following stellar reviews, the movie quietly got repackaged as Live Die Repeat for its home format releases, and to this day it’s listed as Live Die Repeat: Edge Of Tomorrow. Should the planned, and unlikely, sequel ever get made, Liman says that it’ll be called Live Die Repeat Repeat. I’ll leave it to you to work out where it should go if it ever becomes a trilogy.

Edge Of Tomorrow
Edge Of Tomorrow

What’s unusual about the Edge Of Tom…. sorry, Live Die Repeat example is that it’s a case of title conflict that made it out from behind Hollywood movie studio walls. Most of the time, the genesis of a title is a closely guarded process, that can involve laborious amounts of testing, and several headaches.

After all, what’s a title supposed to do? Well, at heart, it has to register, and thus the potential audience for the film can retain it. Cocaine Bear is memorable for that, a pair of words that rarely get mashed together, but now have been for all time.

Bonus points are given if the title gives a flavour of the movie as well, but at heart, the name has to convey something, and be the kind of thing some people can remember. 2010’s acclaimed Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives conveys quite a lot, but doesn’t necessarily stick around the brain cells of the casual movie fan. Conversely, you pretty much know where you stand with something like Batman Begins.

Hollywood is littered with stories of films that changed their name fairly late in the process too, often to strong effect. 3000 became Pretty Woman, Harry This Is Sally was released as When Harry Met Sally, and Honey, I Blew Up The Baby was calmed down to Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.

On the flipside, Disney’s decision to drop any kind of sci-fi flavour to the name of 2012 blockbuster John Carter went the other way. Originally named John Carter Of Mars, after the source text, the loss of the ‘Of Mars’ come release is easy to judge in hindsight, but in truth was pretty easy to judge at the time as well. Who, after all, is John Carter? Sounds like someone some of us went to school with, not someone off on another planet.

Birds Of Prey
Birds Of Prey poster

As time goes on, it’s obviously getting harder and harder to come up with something distinct. Many movie titles have already been used more than once (we got two high profile Crash films in the 1990s and 2000s, that couldn’t have been more different), and simple matters such as registering internet domain names for films hasn’t helped.

Furthermore, the way most of us now choose to watch a film – scrolling through some form of menu system on a streaming service – limits the number of characters in a name we tend to be able to see. Whereas in days of old the character limits were determined by space on a cinema marquee or room in a newspaper advert, now there’s trying to come up with something that stands out while people are scrolling a long list. Longer names are a no-no: look at 2020’s Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn) for instance.

Conversely, there’s the possibility of being too on the nose: Snakes On A Plane is one of the most beautifully descriptive titles for a film but it’s also, well, pretty much the entire film.

Where, then, is the sweet spot? Well, Paramount’s 2022 horror Smile is a perfect example: short, to the point, works well with the poster, and a better bet than the original name of the picture, Something’s Wrong With Rose. That’s not a bad title, sure, but Smile proved a lot more effective. Still, it’s notable that the film got to the test screening stage before Paramount leaned towards a title change. As Paramount’s global marketing boss Marc Weinstocktold told Variety, on the way out of that test screening, they simply said “we need a simpler title”. They got one, and a sequel is now on the way.

Coming up with the perfect name for a film is a closely guarded process, that seems to go wrong far more than it goes right. In the UK alone, over 600 films are released every year, and how many names can you remember? Sure, not all of them are marketed very well, so you may not have even heard the name of them once. But try something: pull up a list of releases for the next month, read them, and then try and remember the names. It’s surprising just how few manage to stick. Even some of those that do – Everything Everywhere All At Once – only get through because they’re fought for by their filmmakers, against significant pushback from marketing teams.

Not for nothing is coming up with the name of a film now considered the most important part in a film’s marketing mix, and even when the feature in question is released, it seems the job can still be undone. What works in a cinema listing might not work in a catalogue listing, for instance. 2016’s Ghostbusters, thus, is now known as Ghostbusters: Answer The Call, a change designed to give the film a slight distinction.

And to go back to where we started, the battle over the name Cocaine Bear throws up one more problem: a name has to work around the world. One of the pushbacks against Cocaine Bear as a name was that it would limit release potential globally. Not everyone’s as tolerant of cocaine as Americans.

And finally…

One last example to end on, though, and this is a personal favourite. 1995’s No Escape, starring the late Ray Liotta, is a very welcome futuristic prison movie, that only had a title change when people began saying the original title out loud. That planned title? Penal Colony.

It looks fine written. Say it at the box office counter of your local cinema, and you might just have got a few funny looks…

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