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What’s in a movie name?

Alamo Drafthouse marquee with Shooter, 300 and Grindhouse movies named, among othersThe New York Times had an article yesterday that’s been getting a lot of reads. It’s about the forthcoming Steve Carell movie, Dinner for Schmucks, specifically its title:

Those familiar with Yiddish, polite and otherwise, will recognize a rude term that — in one of its several layers of meaning — denotes the penis.

It’s based on the French comedy whose English title was The Dinner Game, which I remember seeing when it came out in 1998. I believe an English-language version has been in the making since then, so it’s about schmucking time.

The Times article takes a while in figuring out Americans, even rabbis, don’t seem to be bothered by the word ‘schmuck’ – which in my experience with a large sample of English speaking has never been used to denote a penis, but often a rude, insensitive jerk.

The article mentions A Couple of Dicks, which was appropriately retitled Cop Out, and should’ve also noted the previous Kevin Smith film, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, whose title Smith blamed for lackluster BO. Cop Out had lackluster box office despite a less risky title – but this is too small a sample, with two different kinds of “offensive” titles, to draw a conclusion.

When it comes to edgy vs. Wal-Mart-friendly, there’s no way of knowing which title would do better, besides committing marketing suicide by experimenting with different names in different markets. Distributors often rename films, even if only subtly. Bunker Hill, for example, was renamed The Battle of Bunker Hill to give it more of an action frisson.

If I had to speculate, I’d say Zack and Miri suffered because it didn’t hint at the sweet love story in the movie, and Cop Out suffered because it wasn’t funny. (Full disclosure: I walked out after the first two scenes.)

Hinting at Genre

The first thing a title does is hint at the genre of the film. These things become formulaic very quickly. For example…

  • My Best Friend’s Wedding
  • My Big Fat Greek Wedding
  • The Wedding Planner
  • The Wedding Singer
  • Runaway Bride
  • Father of the Bride

As far as I can tell, one of the most reliable ways to get box office for your movie is to put “wedding” or “bride” in the title.

Hinting at Tone

I fretted about whether Natural Victims as a title conveyed that the genre was horror/comedy, but moreover, that it conveyed the ironic tone of the movie. If I told you Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole was about a journalist manipulating the story of a man trapped in a cave to further his own career, you’d probably believe me. If I told you it was a prison drama about fighter pilot named Ace who was wrongfully incarcerated, you probably wouldn’t believe me. Inspiring tales like prison dramas have tonally different approaches: In the Name of the Father, The Shawshank Redemption.

Hinting at a Previous Film

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl may have seemed like an odd title at the time, but it was very much in line with, say, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which in turn was an homage to the titles of 1930’s adventure serials, which in turn were adaptations of pulp fiction and dime novel titles. Now we don’t sneeze at Twilight: New Moon or Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. We expect tentpole titles to come in this sequel-ready format.

My final point is this: naming a movie is a form of alchemy. Snakes on Plane by the title alone became an internet meme. There’s a lot to consider, because certain words turn off a large swath of the public and certain words turn them on. And those fashions can change overnight. People who don’t understand language change complain about the ‘coarsening of the discourse.’ But it is natural and proper for one generation to eschew the taboos of the previous. Full schmuck ahead, say I.

Alamo Drafthouse marquee by Flickr user BruceTurner used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

1 Comment

  1. It makes me wonder how some movies with great names could have screwed it up with an overactive marketing department?

    Take all of your super hero movies. “Ironman 2” could have become “Men of Metal” or “Two Jerks and a Suit”. “Spiderman” could have been “Peter’s Web of Lies”. I shudder to think how movies are made or lost at the table of marketing decisions.

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