Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Title Fight

A good title for your screenplay will help your project on a number of different levels. From a script reader’s and exec’s point-of-view, they’re looking for a snappy and/or interesting title, something that will make them want to pick up the script and open page one. Execs have admitted (and some readers too) that they will flick through their script pile and pick out one that has the most interesting title as it provides them with a glimmer of hope that they might get an interesting read before they go to bed.

So, “A Postman’s Life” might find itself slipping to the bottom of the pile while the more enticing titles like “Murder Ridge” or “Sex Cocktail” will definitely catch the eye. An effective title states its intentions up front, giving the reader a good indication of the film’s tone and what it’s going to be about.

Here’s an alarming fact for you: most people who go to the cinema decide what they’re going to see while they’re queuing at the box office. They’re choosing their entertainment based on the title alone. This is probably a certain demographic (undemanding teens) but it’s a sobering thought nonetheless.

One word titles are punchy and efficient, usually good for horrors or thrillers. The most common film titles, especially for screenplays, is ‘The…”: The Last Time, The Main Man, The Film’s Title. Which is fine, nothing wrong with that at all. Titles to avoid are using a character’s name to indicate what you’re going to do with them. For example: Romancing Peter, A Coffee with John, Dancing with Sandra. Exceptions to the rules all round of course. Saving Private Ryan is an okay title but it becomes a good title when it’s a Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Hanks.

Long titles have come back into fashion but make sure they sound good at least. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a very intriguing name for a film while Pirates of the Caribbean tells you most of what you need to know and the added ‘Curse of the Black Pearl’ neatly fills in the blanks for you.

Instead of me harping on about other people’s titles, it seems only fair that I put my own titles up for scrutiny. I think it was either ‘Screamwriter’ or ‘Sanctum of a Scriptweaver’ (links in US blogs) that posted their script titles in a poll asking readers which they thought was best. A neat idea. In a similar fashion, here’s a personal appraisal of my portfolio:

Origin: my latest. A lean, evocative title for a horror. Very pleased.

Aliens FC: Feature animation. You get it from the title. We love it.

Run For Home: A bit more drab and downbeat but in-line with theme and content of story. Not bad.

The Devil’s Punchbowl: Intriguing title, automatically suggesting horror. A lot of title’s lead with The Devil’s Backbone or The Devil’s Breakfast or whatever but at least The Devil’s Punchbowl refers to a real place and it’s where the film’s set.

The Good Guys: Flimsy. My first script and I always promised myself to think of something else but the project’s been put to bed now so that’s fine.

Bloodline: Fairly humdrum title for a horror, quite obvious and common. Need to change.

Us Mere Mortals: I like it but unsure whether it’s distinctive and punchy enough to get its point across. Perhaps just ‘Mere Mortals’ better. Don’t know. Need to rewrite script first and worry about title later.

A lot of titles will be suggested and/or changed by the marketing men once the film is completed. James’s latest film Severance (coming to a cinema near you) went through various names before finalising on the swift, efficient, punchy and evocative title for the horror that it is.

This is a common occurrence. So, on the one hand, if you’re lucky to be in the position of having your film in production, you can afford not to worry too much about the title as it can all be worked out before it hits marketing but in the early stages of sending your script out, it’s best to try to be as attention grabbing and imaginative as you can be. As with all things in screenplay land of course, this is easier said than done.


Mystic Twiglet said...

For me the title is everything. The writing goes much better if the title is right. Plus it has to sum up script's central metaphor in a concise way too - don't you think? Was it Paul Schrader who said 'the metaphor is the structure..'

Optimistic_Reader said...

I can't really commit to a script until I've got a title I'm happy with. I prefer one word titles that don't tell too much about the story, but maybe imply the theme or the genre. I hate character names as titles, unless its a biography.

Sam Morrison said...

I've been working on a 15min animation for the past year that was called Invasion! (note the punctuation) until Channel 4 started broadcasting a not-too-dissimilarly titled programme. Now I don't know what to call it. On the original script it was called The Amazing Invasion of the Terrifying Energy Sucking Aliens From Outer Space (or possibly from Mars, I can't remember) in homage to a certain genre in the 50's (War of the Colossal Beast etc). But I'm not wholly convinced. If anyone has any ideas what to call a homage to B-Movies crossed with a satire of the current American administration I'd be most grateful. Thanks. (I love The Out-of-Towners but it's a Neil Simon play...)

Dan said...

Is that The Devil's Punchbowl at Hindhead on the A3?

Been stuck there in a traffic jam many a time - staring down into that pit of hell, wondering what evil lurks within. I'd like to see that film.

Aliens FC is the one that stands out for me. Great title, sounds like fun. Good luck with it.

Danny Stack said...

The Devil's PB is indeed that impressive but creepy hollow in Hindhead.

And Sam, how about:
Space Attack!
The Nowhere Files
Rock Hard Place and Somewhere in Between
Small Town, Big Invasion
Alien Terror Attack!

Not much help am I?

Anonymous said...

sam what about: i!

it seems i has overtaken e as the futuristic alpha (sic) letter. Thank pod

steve c said...

I really like the idea of nicking a dylan song for the title of a script I'm working on - Stuck Inside of Merthyr With The Memphis Blues Again. Probably a bad idea, but I like it! Actually, when I tried to add it to the cover page the title was too long to fit...

Optimistic_Reader said...

How about a shorter Dylan song title Steve - Tangled up in Blue maybe? I've always loved that one. I tend to "borrow" from song titles and lyrics a lot.

Frank Z. White said...

At the risk of harping on about other filmmakers' titles, here are a few of my favorites.

Taxi Driver
Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead
Reservoir Dogs
Man Bites Dog
Being John Malkovich
My Own Private Idaho

And many more that I can't recall at the moment.

Anonymous said...

For Sam,

How 'bout "Beating the Bush"?

Yeah, titles have to feel right, I don't like to write until I have a title that fits...

steve c said...

Yeah, a few of the scripts I've written have had their names purloined from song - Driving Sideways, Hello Cruel World - if a domestic drama in the style of Nil By Mouth called Shaddap You Face hits the schedules, you'll know I've made it...

sam morrison said...

Thanks for the suggestions, people, I dunno if any are 'the one' but they are food for thought and may lead on to somewhere. I take it no-one is moved by the lengthy version! Steve C, one of our episode ideas (Invasion! was originally a pilot) was built around Subterreaneon Homesick Blues, and Rob Zimmerman was going to be a bum hitching his way through town... the water pump doesn't work, johnny sells heroin from the basement etc...

Paul Campbell said...

The title's got to feel right before I can feel right about the concept.

My "catalogue" of completed scripts and/or treatments is pretty varied. I've never thought to analyse the list before. But it's an interesting exercise. None of them have more than three words and, despite Optimistic's objections, I seem to quite like names as titles, particularly for TV stuff.


Musclebound Hero
Glen Haggis
Small Brown Bird
Shades of Grey
The Eighth Day
Sweetness & Light
Third Time Lucky
Good Publicity
Time Out


Glass Ceiling
The Night Shift
The Lock In
Apollo Hicks
Citius Altius Whatever
Full Twisting Somis
Havelock Ivarssen
Obadiah Morgan

Optimistic_Reader said...

Damn you Paul! Years ago I toyed with the idea of writing a kind of modern film noir script, and I was going to call it Shade of Grey. I abandoned the idea but liked the title and always thought I'd come back to it. Now I can't, cause I'll look like a big copycat!

Also, just want to point out that my objections to naming scripts after a character is purely a personal one, and certainly doesn't have any bearing on how I view the scripts I read professionally. And I can see why character names for TV seies can be a good selling point - Jonathan Creek, Sharpe, etc.