Name game carries high stakes

Picmakers rifle cards in search of a winner

Whether audiences love or hate the movie, they have to agree that “Bad Santa” is a good title.

A film’s title should be like a coming attraction: It lets the audience know what they’re getting. Dimension’s pic — about a boozing, oversexed safe-cracker in a Santa suit — tells folks that the pic is Yule-themed, but not “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

This past year has offered many reminders that a good title is hard to find.

And a few of this year’s films point up the hazards of naming a pic, thanks to decisions by committee involving dozens of studio execs and filmmakers. Compounding the problem: After a century of film, and in a 500-channel cable universe, it’s hard to find a title that hasn’t been taken.

“You either have one from the beginning, like we did with ‘Air Force One,’ or you go through hell trying to come up with one,” admits Marc Abraham, head of Strike Entertainment.

Abraham’s most recent project was the Rock-Seann William Scott pic, “The Rundown.” The project started life as “Helldorado,” but the film itself changed significantly between conception and delivery.

“The title ‘Helldorado’ sounds much harder-edged than what we delivered, which was much more of a romp,” he notes. “Women responded more strongly to ‘The Rundown,’ though it is a little generic.”

But “generic” is a key word for titles these days. Marketing committees and research groups come up with a bevy of possible titles for a film, and the result is often a moniker so non-descriptive you can’t remember which film you’re talking about. “Something’s Gotta Give,” for example, was soon being marketed as “Jack and Diane” in ads to highlight leads Nicholson and Keaton, and “Stuck on You” is “the Farrelly brothers conjoined-twins comedy.”

Other such generic titles of 2003 include “Radio,” “Love Don’t Cost a Thing,” “The Statement,” “Uptown Girls” and a very basic title, “Basic.”

Some of last year’s titles were really good, including “The Missing,” “Honey,” “Sylvia” — in fact, they’re so good that each has been used many times previously.

Nearly every sequel has had its first and second titles, such as “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life,” “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” and, of course, “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

But even non-sequels are getting in the act, with “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” Filmgoers recently have been staring at more colons than a proctologist.

A few of 2003’s titles were simply dreadful (“Gigli,” “Tears of the Sun,” “The Life of David Gale”) or confusing. Are “Monster” and “Party Monster” related to “Monsters Inc.” or “Monster’s Ball”? And it’s difficult to separate horror pics from women-on-the-edge films: “Thirteen” has nothing to do with “13 Ghosts,” and Brit zombie pic “28 Days Later” is hardly a sequel to Sandra Bullock’s “28 Days.”But a few titles manage to briefly convey the film: “Elf,” “School of Rock,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and, of course, “Bad Santa.”

Fox Searchlight’s “In America” and Sony’s “Something’s Gotta Give” went through an endless process looking for a title. In the latter film, it was only a few months before the pic’s release, when the studio marketing department had to launch its campaign, that “The Untitled Nancy Meyers Project” magically became “Something’s Gotta Give.” And director Meyers has stated openly she doesn’t like the title.

The Internet Movie Data Base lists 585 films using the word “Love,” so it’s a tribute that “Love Actually” can make an impression. It’s hard to come up with a good title that hasn’t been used before. If the project is strong enough, maybe that doesn’t matter. TV’s “Friends,” for example, was hardly the first to use that title.

So writers, execs and marketing mavens try to come up with something original.

When it works well, the title enters the lexicon. “Gone With the Wind,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” are all immediately recognizable titles, because the films were so good.

Other films that have aimed for this respectability have fallen short, including “Reindeer Games,” “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale,” “Freddy Got Fingered,” “Serving Sara,” “What’s the Worst that Could Happen?” and the newest addition to the pantheon, “Gigli.”

Upcoming in 2004 are eyebrow raisers such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Dogville,” “Welcome to Mooseport” and “Broken Lizard’s Club Dread.” The quality of the films will determine whether these names will become jokes or classics.

What was once called “The Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy Which Can Be Made for Under $10 Which Studio Readers Will Most Likely Hate but I Think You Will Love,” then became “East Great Falls High” before turning into a money machine for Universal as “American Pie.”

“I remember a meeting where we must have gone through 100 titles when I was a junior exec at Universal,” says producer Jon Berg, co-chief of Guy Walks Into a Bar. “The thinking about choosing ‘American Pie’ was to make the film seem less about high school and more about teenage life.”

Berg was producer of “Elf,” one of the few films that gets high marks from the marketing mavens at various studios.

Other catchy titles that rivals frequently cited were “Gladiator,” “Tootsie,” “Armageddon,” “Independence Day,” “Ghostbusters,” “Con Air,” “Miss Congeniality,” “Old School,” “School of Rock,” “Dude, Where’s My Car” and “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo.”

“We didn’t have to think twice about ‘Elf,’ ” Berg says. “We wanted something in the vein of ‘Big’ that was easy to remember, and we had it from day one.”

Some films can be saddled with awkward titles if they’re based on well-known or prestigious novels.

Miramax’s “The Human Stain,” based on the Philip Roth novel, is probably not being helped by its title as it struggles past $5 million despite the presence of Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins.

And switching may not help.

Fox decided “Animal Husbandry,” adapted from Laura Zigman’s novel, would work better if it were called “Someone Like You,” but it didn’t seem to make much difference — domestic gross hit a middling $27 million.

“The process of selecting titles can be just awful,” admits Paramount vice chairman Rob Friedman. “You need something that conveys the story; you have to get clearances, and it has to be marketable. Reasonable, logical people know this, but they get emotionally invested in a particular name.”

The debate covers all types of films. For example, Miramax pondered long and hard over whether it should actually use “Shakespeare in Love,” reasoning that “Shakespeare” in the title might lead to audience resistance.

Sometimes, the process lends itself to coming up with a better title along the way.

“The original title for ‘Bring It On’ was ‘Cheer Fever,’ which I knew we would never use because you were not going to get more than just girls to see it,” Abraham remembers. “With ‘Bring It On,’ we had a much wider appeal and we actually wound up entering the vernacular.”

Producer-director Brian Robbins is already facing that challenge on “Coach Carter,” a project about a coach who forfeited games when the basketball team failed to study. It’s also been called “Back in the Day” and “All Day Long,” though neither has stuck.

“We’re still not sure, and we’re making lists right now,” he muses. “It’s really intangible what you should title a film. ‘Coach Carter’ is tough because we didn’t start off with a specific premise; we simply acquired the life rights after reading an article about him.”

And sometimes, first instincts are best. “Cop Tips Waitress $2 Million” was a working title that described the Andrew Bergman film to a T. Instead, the pic was released as “It Could Happen to You” — a feature title used three times previously and that is easily forgettable. The result? Audiences forgot about it.

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