Title, Title, Who’s Got the Title?
What’s the most important single feature of a great screenplay?
All of it!
No part of a script is any more important than any other, nor will a single “silver bullet” save the day.
My favorite saying of late is that a winning story isn’t just one great idea, but a thousand.
Concept. Logline. The transformation of the hero. The Midpoint crunch. The “lightbulb” above the head of the hero that makes him resist the horrible truth in the Bad Guys Close In section. The All Is Lost when that horrible truth is revealed! The Finale in which we learn if the hero can pass “The Final Exam” — or not.
All of it: vital.
But dudes, and dudettes, I give you: Title.
Because a good one is gold and a bad one is not.
A good title must “say what it is!” and yet give us a fresh, intriguing invitation to your party that gives us a hint of the type and tone of the festivities we’re about to attend. And that’s some tight writing right there.
Indeed, evidence abounds in the cutthroat world of moviedom, that if we don’t win the audience’s interest in our story from that first set of words onward, often success slips from our grasp.
Some cautionary title tales of late: State of Play starring Russelll Crowe. I saw the movie. Enjoyed it. Lots of fun. But even after seeing the film I still don’t know what the title refers to, and that had a lot to do with its poor showing. This follows another Russell Crowe film, co-starring Leonardo diCaprio and directed by my favorite director of all time, Ridley Scott, and an even greater story, and yet here too, no one went. Why? In my opinion it’s because for all the lure of its star power and importance of the topic, I didn’t know what it was about, and its title, Body of Lies, is one of those generic ones, like the infamous For Love or Money.
It told me nothing.
I hate to say it, but if your story is special, it should have a special name, and deferring to placeholder titles (even if they’re based on a book or series of the same name) is a hint to an audience that it may not be special. And I’ll tell you something else: The lack of a good title may be indicative of confusion on your part about “what it is.” If you can’t name it, if your headline doesn’t flow right into the story, there may be trouble with it.
If this sounds like your story: Take note.
All of the above is proof of the power of the writer. Big stars will not necessarily open a movie. Millions of dollars thrown at an advertising campaign will not either. We in the audience must be drawn in by a great story idea that’s fresh, and primal, and a title that not only “says what it is” but does so in a way that grabs us.
Before you settle for those titles that are “less than,” if your story is about redemption and so you call it… Redemption, take a breath. Try something new. Find a title that “says what it is” but with a twist.
And we will run to your movie, not walk.
P.S. This site will be undergoing some technical adjustments over the weekend and will be shut down for several hours. Fear not, we will be back up and running Monday. Thank you for your patience!
anyone brave enough to post some of their title/tagline ideas to see if title/tagline alone gets our collective juices flowing for your idea?
ok… I’ll go first…
GRINDING STARDUST: The Game of Life, Played with Heart… (for Diamonds, at Clubs, in Spades…)
WICCAN GAMES: What a tangled web we weave…
LORD OF LONG ISLAND: His ship sailed without him, 200 years ago… Now, he’s sunk!
UNHOLY TRINITY: Vengeance of Three, Sins of Two… Unleashed by One
KILL_OR_DIE.NET: Log-In… Upload… Drop Dead
that’s all I gots!
- Rich Figel
Here’s my latest action spec…
STUNT GUYS: THE SULTANS OF S.W.A.T.
Rival stuntmen, hired to perform in a cheesy Dubai theme park show, must defeat real villains who take VIPs and guests hostage for ransom on opening day.
Been getting requests from producers/managers who said the title made them think of that old Dire Straits song (“The Sultans of Swing”)… and they couldn’t get the song out of their heads!
- Jaci Stephen
The Beginner’s Guide to Sobriety . . .
She said it was just one for the road . . . till she knew where it was heading
- Jaci Stephen
I mean “one more for the road”
- Robin Russin
So true! Four words: “Snakes On A Plane”
I beg my students to avoid these words in their titles: Fatal, Body, Vision, Human, character’s name (usually), or vague sentences: Let It Be Me, You Gotta Know, They’re Looking for More….
- Carl Thoren
There’s a rule of thumb in advertising, marketing, and publishing that you only have 2 seconds or less to grab a reader’s attention. And since most people won’t even read the ad, brochure, article, or whatever, you have to communicate a take-away message in that time — something people will remember and might act on in the future. Studies have even shown that certain words get noticed, recalled, and acted upon more often (i.e., new, free, sale, puppies).
I think it’s easy to see how this would apply to movie titles and loglines. Everything Blake says here really rings true with my day-to-day work in those fields. A movie title is basically an offer, from my perspective, so it better be a good one.
- Makya McBee
That’s good news for my new script, tentatively titled . . . NEW FREE SALE PUPPIES . . . don’t have a plot yet, am hoping to sell it on title alone.
- Toby Garfath
Interestingly, Ridley’s BODY OF LIES was originally titled PENETRATION – right through to the end of the development process in fact. Less generic, although perhaps raised a few problems of its own.
- Chris Thorne
Titles are important but the films you have picked, both films are about the mess in politics and the war on terror. The stories, more about highlighting the system… There is no end to it.
Maybe following a documentary path?
Just asking a question, of course ‘they’ want a box office return but is ridley scott all about that?
I agree on our level, the title is everything.
See the english/bbc version of State of Play, much better. Paul Abbott/the screenwriter, great writer…
- David Schultz
Blake, can you explain what you mean by the “lightbulb” in the BGCI section?
- Sarah Beach
Okay, I’ll give mine a trial run. (This story started life as a comedy/adventure idea, but it reworked itself to something more serious in the first draft — Oh, well. But this is the NEW approach for it.)
Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
And a hero with frozen emotions.
There’s a hard, fast thaw coming on.
Worst titles in my opinion:
FAILURE TO LAUNCH Any title with the word “Failure” in it is doomed.
SEVEN POUNDS Even after seeing the trailers and ads, I still haven’t the slightest clue what this movie is about.
FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! Never saw the movie, just love the title.
SING A SONG OF SIX PANTS Ah, sweet pun…thy name is Stooge.
- Patrick Knock
Hey Blake, I love your books. They were extremely helpful in me writing my first screenplay (outline). I liked the tips like save the cat, pope in the pool, black vet, etc. I was wondering if there are more tips that you have thought of since writing “Save the Cat”.
Also, in the 3rd act of a lot of movies I’ve seen, the camera seems to cut to this and that as the action picks up to the point that it seems like there are 100 different fast paced scenes in it. I feel a little like I don’t know what I’m doing as I’m trying to come up with an exciting end. Any tips would be appreciated. Thank you very much.
- Chris Thorne
Just put redux/the beginning in the title. Hopefully with Wolverine we’ve seen the end of the redux phase.
Good article about movie franchises.
- Mike Rinaldi
I read somewhere that 40 DAYS OF NIGHT sold based pretty much on the title alone.
- Captain Perry
I just finished BEAUTIFULL TEA AND ME . logline: SHAMED BEAUTY HIDES HERSELF BEHIND HER OWN SKIN LIKE A SEED . It’s about an 18 year old alchoholic who excells as a model and actor, but doesn’t look so good inside. So she runs from New York and for her fathers Tea farm in South Carolina with the Paparazzi, her mother and the law on her heals. She hides herself like any make up artist would. PAINT. If anyone would like to read this,it’s hot off the [email protected].
How about this one I’m working on? Care to take a stab what it’s about based on the title & tag?
“She’s A Real Looker”
- Kevin Sheridan
Some that I’m working on:
LIFE IMITATES BART – He’s delusional, psychotic and ready to settle down.
BOY BECOMES LESBIAN – Boy meets Lesbian, Boy Loses Lesbian…
NO MORE LIVES LEFT – They’re trading in their controllers for combat gear.
- Mark Fulton
This entry and its responses are so compelling that I keep coming back for more. I finally had to jump in with my own response:
THE HOLY LAND VIRUS – The Doomsday Clock is reset at five till twelve when a never before seen virus breaks out in the Middle East, rendering its hosts emotionally incapable of committing violence.
- Kieron Evans
Body of Lies – I couldn’t agree more. That title could be tacked onto any film that involves deception.
I would have to say that the best title that I have heard recently is Drag Me to Hell. It tells me all I need to know!
I just saw THE PAINTED VEIL for the first time, which came out in 2006. I loved this movie! But there’s zero reference to a painted veil in the movie. So afterward I looked it up. It refers to a poem Percy Shelley wrote, and the allusion does tie in–W. Somerset Maugham’s novel (which the movie is based on) borrowed Shelley’s poem title. The main female character in the movie essentially lifts the “veil” off her pampered existence and discovers real life.
I don’t remember this movie AT ALL in 2006, and I wondered, “How did I miss it?” Maybe it was that title. This must be a quandary for directors and producers when they’re making a movie based on a novel. I guess they really CAN’T change the title, can they? That wouldn’t make sense. Yet if a title is everything, a title like THE PAINTED VEIL isn’t going to draw in a lot of moviegoers other than the literary, artsy crowd.
This is a great blog topic, and there are some really good ideas flowing here! Here’s one for a young adult novel I’m working on:
Murder in the O.C.
When her brother is accused of murder, a misfit Orange County teen reporter goes undercover to catch the real killer.
I’m not too crazy about the title. I feel like it says what it is, but it’s kind of “blah.” I’ll have to see if I can think of something with a little more pizazz. :)
- Melody Beattie
Thanks for this blog (even though it’s archived). I’ve been looking all over for the elements of a good title — from cable movies to Netflix to the movies I like (or dislike) the most. I’m writing my fourth draft (really my first as it’s a complete redo) on a screenplay inspired by my bestselling how-to book, Codependent No More. Book’s didactic. Story’s mostly true, based on court records when it comes to others, and some imagination when it comes to me. I’ve gone through: I Hate My Mom; Mother’s Day; Promises, Promises; No More; Honor Thy Mother; A Mother-Daughter Thing; Choked Up; To Mora Tomorrow; and the list goes on in a screenplay about the bestselling author attributed with putting the word “codependency” on the world’s lips who discovers the secret to mental health when her abusive, pathological mother, now stricken with Alzheimer’s, becomes the victim of vengeful family who turn the tables and begin abusing her. To save her mother’s life, the author must get past her mother’s poisoned mind, leave her comfortable life in Malibu, gather remaining scattered family together and turn them into a team for the first time, and then take care of the ailing wretch they despise in Mora, Minnesota — a town the author hates even more than she does her mom.
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Now you’re in my wheelhouse, Blake as I deal with titles on a regular basis – not only as a screenwriter and writer, but as a movie marketing director.
Always, always, always: Concept = the win. If you can come up with a title and a tagline for your movie then everyone who hears it will get energized to read your script (and you’ll get jazzed to write it!)and they’ll also want to talk about your script’s title. It’s good advertising.
Titles should be memorable, simple and relevant (with a twist). Ditto taglines. I think the best title I’ve heard recently is MEGA SHARK v. GIANT OCTOPUS…seriously.
It’s memorable. It’s simple. It tells you exactly what you’re going to get, but elicits a bit of a giggle as you’re saying the words. You want to see the movie BASED ON THE TITLE ALONE.
A long time ago, (5 yrs. — which in Hollywood time is an eon) I marketed a D2DVD urban action movie which had a really bad, generic title. The filmmaker was adamant about keeping the title until I told him that we would sell 10,000 more units if we changed the title, which we did.
BUT WHAT SOLD IT TO RETAILERS was the tagline: BLING BLING. BANG BANG.