MSN Movies Blog

How much do movie titles matter at the box office?

Choosing a name is impossible to quantify in terms of ticket sales

By MSN Movies Oct 16, 2013 2:26PM


By Todd Cunningham



As a movie title, "Gravity" doesn't seem like anything special, but the space epic has shattered box-office records for October.


"Machete Kills," on the other hand, was catchy, memorable and told you immediately what the movie was about -- all the boxes the experts say should be checked when naming a movie. It bombed.


That fits right in with the words of the late movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, who famously explained that "what makes a good movie title is a hit."


Also at TheWrap: Behind 'Gravity's' Historic Box Office Hold: 3D, Word-of-Mouth and Sandra Bullock


What makes a good movie title is also totally subjective. All involved agree that a bad title can hurt a film and most believe a good one can help, but determining which is which is extremely tricky, and quantifying the impact that a film's name has on its box-office performance is all but impossible.


None of that keeps Hollywood film executives from staying up late worrying about them, however. Lionsgate's Sylvester Stallone-Arnold Schwarzenegger prison break movie "Escape Plan," for example, is on its third title.


Many movies are based on material from another medium, like a novel, a comic book or a play. They come with their own titles, but those are frequently switched for the big screen, usually for the better. "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" was a fine title for Philip K. Dick's novel, for example, but "Blade Runner" made a much better movie title.

The titling process on original films, which begins with the script and continues through development, consultants' reviews and market-testing with focus groups can take years -- and leaves plenty of room for leeway. The movies can represent investments of millions, so there's plenty of motivation to get it right. And several recent films have undergone title tweaks.


Sometimes a change is a no-brainer, as with Relativity Media's animated family film "Free Birds," which is opening on Nov. 1. Holiday tie-in or not, there was no way the studio wanted to see its box-office results associated with the film's original title, "Turkeys."

Film titles often evolve, and studios frequently register two or three titles for the same movie with the Motion Picture Assn. of America's Title Registration Bureau early in the process. "Escape Plan," opening Friday, was called "The Tomb" and "Exit Plan" during its development.


Bing: More about 'Gravity' | More on 'Free Birds'


Marketing concerns are almost always behind the changes.


When Universal recently dated its Seth Rogen-Zac Efron comedy for May of 2014, it changed the name from "Townies" to "Neighbors." The studio didn't provide its rationale, but the original title was provincial and East Coast-centric, which would have made it a tougher sell nationally.


Short, sticky, informative and intriguing are all qualities that a good movie title has, according to the experts, but even that varies from film to film and genre to genre.


Family movie titles don't have to be intriguing or even informative. But if a title is simple and memorable -- think "Turbo," "Planes" and "Cars" -- kids will bug their parents to take them to the movie.


The bar changes with movies that target adults, particularly independent movies, which need to pique interest as well as be memorable. "Reservoir Dogs," "She's Gotta Have It" and "Blood Simple" may not tell much about the movies, but were catchy enough that the movies found their niche.


Last month's R-rated Joseph Gordon-Levitt sex comedy "Don Jon" was called "Don Jon's Addiction" when Relativity picked it up at Sundance earlier this year.


"Addiction is a loaded word and has negative connotations," explained Relativity's President of Theatrical Marketing Russell Schwartz. "But 'Don Jon' was not only tighter, it conveyed a feeling that was much more in line with the movie's character and that made it easier to market."


A unique title -- like James Cameron's 2009 "Avatar" -- is often the goal, but how much that title mattered to the all-time box office topper is a matter of debate. It works the other way, too. When last year's "Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure" became one of the biggest bombs of all time, how much did that title have to do with it?


It's important to remember that the process doesn't take place in a vacuum.


The Weinstein Co. and Warner Bros. got into a high-profile spat earlier this year over "Lee Daniels' The Butler," which TWC wanted to call "The Butler." That was the name of a 1916 silent comedy short from Warner Bros., and the studio refused to budge, so TWC was forced to change it -- choosing to add the name of its director.


Disputes like that are rare, however. The MPAA says between 3,000 and 4,000 movie titles are submitted per year. The organization then sends out notifications to its members and gives them 10 days to respond. That brings somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 objections, the organization says, the vast majority of which are settled via negotiations between the companies or, as is more rare, via arbitration.


Some of the best movie titles never see the light of day.


Months ago, Relativity was preparing for its September release of "Malavita" -- literally "The Bad Life" in Italian -- in the U.S. It was looking for a title that would click with American audiences for the Robert De Niro-Michelle Pfeiffer comedy about a mob family planted in France as part of the witness protection program.


They considered going with "We're the Blakes" -- the family's fake name in the film -- but that was before Warner Bros. came out with its Jennifer Aniston-Jason Sudeikis comedy "We're the Millers."


After polling viewers following several test screenings, they decided to go with "The Family," playing on the double entendre around the mob.


But the title audiences most sparked to -- and the studio would have loved to have used -- was "Badfellas," a take off on Warner Bros.' 1990 gangster hit "GoodFellas," which also starred De Niro.


"That would have been a good one," Schwartz said. "But we didn't want to deal with the legal headaches."


More at TheWrap:
15 Books That Scored Better Big Screen Titles -- 'Cruel Intentions,' 'Die Hard,' 'Goodfellas'
Woody Allen Reveals New Colin Firth-Emma Stone Movie Title, First Images
12 Years a Slave' vs. 'Gravity' -- Who Filled the Seats at the Academy?




Oct 29, 2013 3:36PM

The movie title was absolutely essential in the case of "Gravity". For a film set in space why not call it "Zero Gravity" or "Space" after all? Because gravity is THE universal force of Nature that attracts. Everything. Not just people to the Earth; but all bodies to each other. People to each other. People to a Higher Power. From that perspective, there is no center of the Universe. We are all connected. No matter how apart and disconnected we feel.


All you had to do was consider the very title to be intrigued enough to see this amazing movie. But Hollywood's experts don't give movie going audiences enough credit for thinking these days...

Oct 29, 2013 4:26PM
" 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' was a fine title for Philip K. Dick's novel, for example, but 'Blade Runner' made a much better movie title."
Oh, yes.  And just ignore the fact that "Blade Runner" is also the title of another science fiction novel.
Oct 29, 2013 5:09PM
I hope not, because movie titles these days can be about as dumb as they get.
Oct 29, 2013 9:22PM
In 1979 when "Alien" was released the title pretty much said it all, and the marketing of it was pretty simple. The commercial didn't show you anything at all, just a green egg cracking open with the tag line "In space no one can hear you scream".
Oct 29, 2013 6:56PM
A bad title won't hold a good movie back.  An EXCELLENTLY FANTABULOUS AWESOMELY CONCEIVED GREAT NAME....will NEVER save a POS.
Oct 30, 2013 1:56AM

When I saw the trailer for John Cater then saw it was an alien space syfi, it annoyed me somehow. Dumb name they should have named it something else. I believe it bombed when it shouldn't have because of the name.

Oct 29, 2013 9:58PM
Whatever they paid Clooney to appear in this flick ... in  my opinion, he was OVERPAID.
Oct 29, 2013 9:53PM
Movies and Books hold something in common when it comes to their perceived entertainment value. Titles can encourage of discourage viewers and readers from checking them out but a die-hard group will always give it a go just to see what they're about. Those people are the most powerful in the entertainment industry though they don't know it. So, I'm letting the secret out now just in case you're one of them. Hold your chin high when you pick up a book no one else seems to be talking about or you enter the theatre with your popcorn in hand on opening night. Your opinions matter most. If you say it's worth the money spent the rest of us dole out the money just to see if you're right. So the long and short of it is great title or not so great - initial word of mouth makes them or breaks them. Sam Goldwyn was right!
Oct 29, 2013 11:03PM
Gravity was originally titled Gravity: A Space Adventure in 3D, which probably would have done a lot worse than just Gravity.
Oct 29, 2013 8:45PM
4 great movie titles are:

Silence of the lambs
Shawshank redemption
To kill a mocking bird
The green mile

You had no idea what the movie was about by its title.  Each title drew you in to find out what the movie was about.

Oct 29, 2013 4:30PM
Movie titles are pored over like casts and directors.  The name matters.  People show up based on what they think a movie title means to them.  It's not rocket science, but marketing in Hollywood has become very BIG business!!!
Oct 29, 2013 8:41PM
Oct 29, 2013 7:59PM

I think the content, the story and how it told

matters more than just the title.

Oct 29, 2013 11:28PM
I watched a movie on Netflix called "Boy Wonder", it was definately a darker movie than the title suggests.  I liked the movie and had never heard of it.  Was it because of the title?
Oct 29, 2013 9:57PM
As for Gravity ... Overall this film is over-rated. Don't spend more than $8 bucks to see it. Implausible ending ... a regular person would have torn the arms out of their socket(s) trying to grab a handrail or open a hatch as depicted in the film.
Oct 29, 2013 4:47PM
"The Abyss" out several years ago did not fare well at the box office with Ed Harris.  Many movie goers had no idea what the word meant.  A "bottomless pit"? I thought "Jaws" was an apt title for a horror movie with a great white shark as the enemy.  But I thought Robert Shaw as "Quint" stole the show.  I thought "Papillon" 40 yrs. ago with McQueen and Hoffman should've been titled "Devil's Island".  Oh, I almost forgot "Psycho", 1960, with Perkins and Leigh.    
Oct 29, 2013 9:52PM

If Clooney did not waste fuel screwing around in his rocket pack. The movie would have had a different ending.


They should had Bullock strip down to a G-string in the Russian space capsule. The underwear she had on really did not do anything for red blooded American men.


Oct 29, 2013 9:53PM

The Obama Bio-Pic




How I lied to the American People for so long and kept a straight black face with big ears.

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