Okay, pretend you’re going to see a movie that you know nothing about. Which of these films/shows would you rather go see?…
- “A Bad Summer for Amity Island” or “Jaws”?
- “Funeral Home Travails” or “Six Feet Under”?
- “Chili Palmer Sells his First Film” or “Get Shorty”?
- “Eight Arms to Hold You” or “Help!”
- “A New Hope” or “Star Wars”?
A good title is half the battle. It can help sells tickets… or even your screenplay!
Also, you may have noticed that the stronger title is usually the shorter title. “Stagecoach” “Halloween” “Chaplin” “Gladiator” “Armageddon” “Eeegah!” (OK, rotten film; great title.) Naturally, that’s not a hard and fast rule. Hit movies can have massive titles: “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” “How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying” “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?” (Um… let’s forget that one.)
The key is to make your title as tasty as possible.
CATCHY TITLES: The title should pull us in by:
- Creating a mystery. “I Know What You Did Last Summer” “The Old Dark House” “Who Slew Auntie Roo?”
- Promising something. Like action… “Fast and Furious” / Romance… “Shakespeare in Love“ / Comedy of misunderstanding: “Much Ado About Nothing” / Or a vengeful sequel… “The Empire Strikes Back”
- Appealing to our prurient interest. “Peeping Tom” “Girls Gone Wild” “The Bang Sisters“
- Stating what the film is about (Stating the obvious!). “Earthquake” “Apollo 13” “The Bridge at Remagen” “Frost/Nixon” “The Adventures of Robin Hood” “1776” “Dracula” “The Great Train Robbery“
- Amusing us. “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” “Dumb and Dumberer (the sequel)” “A Hard Day’s Night” “Meet the Fokkers” “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes”
- Or simply offering a poetic phrase that doesn’t particularly explain anything, but sounds good. “Far and Away” “Help!” “One From the Heart”
- It can even be a line of dialogue from the script/play: “The Subject was Roses” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
DIFFICULT TITLES: Naturally the posters, billboards, and endless TV ads will connect the title with an idea, but imagi
ne for a second that you don’t have a large advertising budget. The title now becomes all the more important in getting your point across. Some “uninformative,” non-tasty titles are:
- Hancock – What this film about? A signer of the Declaration of Independence? An insurance salesman?
- 300 – In this case, if you’re educated or you remember the earlier “300 Spartans,” you may figure this one out. Otherwise, your chances of deciphering what the title means are spartan.
SIDE NOTE: It’s great when you can “brand” your movie, so all you have to say is “Star Wars,” and the people come running. But think about “The Pink Panther” brand – the Pink Panther only appeared in one movie – the first. Remember, it was a flaw in a large diamond that looked like a pink panther. The diamond never showed up again in the series (to the best of my recollection). However, the pink cartoon character went on to symbolize the entire inspector Clouseau series, spilling over in its own successful cartoon series! It’s odd isn’t? That’s like naming the James Bond series after the first film, Dr. No. “Dr. No Attacks Fort Knox” “Doctors Are Forever” and “Thunder No.” Weird.
Okay, we’ve looked at standard movie titles up ’til now. But if you’re a cartoon writer or a sitcom writer or any kind of “amusing article” author, you’re going to have to come up with some mucho-ha-ha titles. So let’s look at some ways to concoct humorous monikers. Funny titles can be broken down into:
- PUNS: “I Only Have Ice for You” “Duck Tales” “Legally Blonde”
- PARODIES OF OTHER TITLES: “Kiwi’s Big Adventure” “Throw Mummy from the Train” “Close Encounters of the Weird Mime” “Shanghai Noon” “Nightmare Before Christmas” [Note: back to James Bond. Ian Fleming’s “The Man With the Golden Gun” is actually a parody title of “The Man with the Golden Arm”]
- AND, UM, OTHER STUFF: Nonsensical… “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” / Absurd… “My Brother Was an Only Child” / Crazy… “Mad” (and all its clones, “Insanity” “Crazy” “Riot” “From Here to Insanity“)
Comedy titles are fun to come up with, and I have several little tricks to help you.
1. Rhyme Time
The goal here is to take a familiar phrase or title, then start picking apart the key words and playing with them. As an example let’s use the song title, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”For simplicity, let’s start with the first word – “Take.” So start rhyming… Fake me… Bake me… Quake Me…. Flake me… Shake me…
OK, let’s move to “Me”: Take Lee… Take Dee… Take Tea… Take Bees…
Let’s try “Ball”: …Tall Game …. Crawl Game ….Stalled Game ….
And we’ll finish up with “Game”: Take Me Out of the Ball Game. …the Ball Dame …the Hall of Shame…
[NOTE: To make sure you don’t miss any rhymes, it’s helpful to run the consonant alphabet in your brain. B,BL,BR,C,CL,CR,D,DR,F,FL,FR…. etc. (You’ll find this becomes easier with practice.)]
As you’ve probably realized by now, there are umpteen other permutations.
- Assonance: Words that have similar vowel sounds, but don’t actually rhyme. (e.g. “fine” & “time”) So for a fortune-teller…. “Take me out to the ball GAZE.”
- Different spellings, new meaning: A loser day at the park… “Take me out to the BAWL game.”
- Opposite word, new meaning: Fed up… “Take me out OF the ball game.”
- Add a consonant, change the meaning: A hot dog seller…. “Take MEAT out to the ball game,” or a hair-growing contest… “Take me out to the BALD game.”
- Remove a consonant, change the meaning: Surgery recovery…. “ACHE me out to the ball game,” or a pitching contest… “Take me out to the ball AIM.”
- Change words or letters around: The after-football dance… “Take me out to the GAME BALL” or an Earl Gray fan… “MAKE TEA out at the ball game.”
As you can see, this simple song lyric (since it is well known… at least to baseball countries) can yield a plethora of funny titles for a wide array of topics. This trick of rhyming or twisting a popular phrase or movie title is especially handy when doing episodic work. Remember, a catchy title can be half the sale of an idea (because when you’re throwing premises at a story editor, you’re not getting paid! So make your ideas as tasty as possible.) From my own experience I’ve sold premises to the animated series Free Willy with “Live and Let Dive,” to ARCHIE’S WEIRD MYSTERIES with “The Extra-terror-estrial,” and to GOOF TROOP with “Have Yourself a Goofy Little Christmas.” In fact, just this week I wrote a premise about a large anthropomorphic bird who’s a film critic. So I borrowed from Jack Higgins war novel to create: “The Eagle Has Panned It.”
Some final random thoughts:
- If your show is based on previously existing material, you may want to find a way to accentuate or compress the title. For example, the book “Six Days of the Condor” was compressed to half the time when it became a movie, becoming “Three Days of the Condor.” [Note: this doesn’t always work. “Snow White and the Three-and-a-half Dwarves” just doesn’t cut it.]
- And if you’re ever totally stuck, an editor friend of mine gave me this all-purpose title: “Cookin’ With Gas.” (Yeah, I don’t know what it means either, but, hey – you’re totally stuck, right?)
Take care! Watch for “Titles – Part 2, The Sequel!”