Sundance Hit Coming to a Theatre Near You…With a New Title (Or Why Movie Titles Matter)

For those of us who eagerly await the release of festival hits in theatres near us, we track film reviews during their festival runs and make our lists of must-see films in the hopes that at least one screen nearby will get a limited run of the festival darlings later in the year (or even next year). So, if you live in New York or Los Angeles, and you've been waiting to see the Sundance comedy favorite Toy's House (because of our in-depth interview with its screenwriter Chris Galletta, naturally), you'd be forgiven for not realizing that the film already opened in very limited release this weekend, albeit as the movie now known as The Kings of Summer. This Sundance breakout certainly isn't the only film that stood out at this year's festival to get a new title, nor is this a new trend altogether, which made me ponder this thought: why do movie titles matter so much?

First, to give us some context from a marketing perspective, here's a trailer for The Kings of Summer, formerly Toy's House, now playing in New York and Los Angeles, expanding to 22 additional markets in the U.S. this Friday:

In addition to The Kings of Summer, at least two more prominent 2013 Sundance films have new titles, although neither of which are much different from their original titles. Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner Fruitvale is now more specifically titled Fruitvale Station, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut Don Jon's Addiction is now more generically titled Don Jon. Marketing campaigns from the studios distributing these films dictate these types of title changes. We can only speculate what the studios' market research told them about the original titles. Fruitvale Station tells the true story of a man at the center of a tragedy that occurred at Fruitvale Station, so more specificity will clue in members of the general public who remember the news story. As for Don Jon, which is a comedy, I imagine the word "addiction" conjures up certain images (e.g. drugs, alcohol) not actually associated with this film (Don Jon's addiction is to porn), nor is addiction typically associated with comedy.

In the case of Toy's House, the original title is quite specific to the central plot of the story: the protagonist Joe Toy sets off with a friend and a newcomer to build a house in the woods to get away from his teenage suburban life - hence, Toy's House. While the original title makes complete sense in the context of the story and also explains why the writer would give his protagonist the surname of Toy, I'm guessing that the marketing team at CBS Films didn't think the title evoked the sense of adventure and freedom that the film's characters and the target audience ultimately seek - hence, The Kings of Summer.

Notable Title Changes

Sometimes, title changes for festival hits are inevitable. Notably, I recall the recent tour de force Precious. When the film debuted at Sundance in 2009, it was titled Push, but another studio film titled Push was being released only two weeks after Sundance and was in the middle of its major marketing campaign at the same time as the festival. The MPAA has rules that prevent films from having the same title in the same year of theatrical release to avoid market confusion. To avoid the initial confusion, I believe this is why we started to hear the Sundance hit referred to as Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire during the festival itself and eventually leading to Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire to make sure the general public knew that, yes, in fact, this was the movie that made waves at Sundance back in January 2009 when the film eventually hit U.S. theatres in late November 2009.

The title Precious has graced another Sundance film in the past, but this film's problems with finding a title during the festival actually became more of a story than the controversial subject matter of the movie itself. Back in 1996, Alexander Payne's debut film, a satire about the abortion debate starring Laura Dern, was acquired by Harvey Weinstein prior to the Sundance Film Festival with the original title of The Devil Inside. Recounted in Peter Biskind's book Down and Dirty Pictures (which you can find on the NFS film school on a bookshelf), Weinstein believed the original title sounded like a horror film, so he demanded a title change before Sundance. At one point, Payne suggested Meet Ruth Stoops, but Weinstein didn't like that title. Instead, when Payne arrived at Sundance, he discovered posters with Laura Dern falling through the sky with the title Precious, neither of which he even knew about before arriving in Park City. Apparently, Weinstein conjured up both the title and poster design. Payne hated the title and the posters, and so did a lot of people at the festival, some of whom actually booed the title card of the film and even asked during a Q&A session who came up with the lousy title and poster. Plus, the Sundance program listed the film as Meet Ruth Stoops to add to the general confusion.

Late in 1996, the film eventually hit theatres as Citizen Ruth, another Payne suggestion, and caused absolutely no controversy in the press and did very little business at the box office. Let's hope Payne's current festival darling Nebraska doesn't suffer the same fate and somehow wind up with a new title that has nothing to do with the film. Like Delaware. (I can say that because I'm originally from Delaware, aka Small Wonder, aka Home of Tax-Free Shopping).

With these more recent Sundance hits getting new titles, I wonder what is lost when a title is changed. In the cases of Fruitvale Station and Don Jon, I would argue not much as the new titles are very close to the originals. But for The Kings of Summer, all of the positive buzz associated with the title Toy's House could effectively be lost. At a minimum, some of the most ardent independent film fans may be confused. Ultimately, the same folks who decide on the title change, the marketing team, put the onus on themselves to sell the film under the new title and manage to hold on to the earlier buzz in some way to avoid confusion in the marketplace.

Choosing Titles

From a screenwriting perspective, movie titles matter so much because this is the one opportunity you as the writer may have to influence the marketing of the film, and the marketing of the film is a big reason why people eventually go to see the movie. A good title tells you what the movie is about or evokes an emotion that draws you to the story. For example:

  • Titles about the protagonist are obvious choices, but they can be so much more than just a character’s name (Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Raging Bull)
  • Some titles are simply what the movie is about, but the film’s resonance gives the title so much more meaning (Sophie’s Choice)
  • Some titles don’t seem to mean anything until after you see the film (The Silence of the Lambs, Chinatown)
  • Some titles can be discussed and debated for meaning based on the context of the movie (Do the Right Thing, Unforgiven)
  • Half of the titles mentioned above are book titles from which the movies were adapted, so many times the title comes from the source material because title recognition is built-in marketing

Sometimes when you are writing a screenplay, the title is so obvious, it hits you over the head. Other times, that turn of phrase that will encapsulate everything that matters about your story seems so elusive. Nevertheless, as the screenwriter, it is your job to figure out the best title for your story. Do not take this job lightly, or somebody else will come up with a title for you.

How do you come up with your screenplay titles? Do you think changing a title of a festival hit before its theatrical release helps or hurts its chances to connect with its target audience? Let us know your thoughts in the Comments.

Link: The Kings of Summer -- IMDb

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Your Comment


Also, Fruitvale, winner of the grand jury prize at sundance was changed to Fruitvale Station

June 3, 2013 at 11:54AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Yes, as was mentioned above. :)

June 3, 2013 at 12:15PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Joe Marine
Camera Department

Loved this film at Sundance, go see it!

June 3, 2013 at 12:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I'm currently working on my first feature, titled Lost Boys. It has absolutely no connection to "The Lost Boys" in any way, but is there a possibility i'll run into some sort of problem with that title?

June 3, 2013 at 12:21PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


If you ever have a question like this, you can check with the WGA. Its a good idea to visit their site at some point as well to register your screenplay. This helps you copyright your work, which is important for original treatments. Its fairly cheap to register a script and they help you with the legal stuff.

If your title is close to another, more famous film or book title, but the subject matter is completely different, you might think about trying to change the title. Many people have heard of or seen "the Lost boys" and if your title is close, it could cause confusion, as mentioned above in the article, that would not help sell/ market your film.

As far as a title goes, this can be one of the last things you finalize, before you start your marketing campaign and final print (titles).

On a side note, "October Sky", was originally titled "Lost Boys", you can see it on the Slate in the outakes and extra footage.

June 4, 2013 at 7:41AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Thanks for the tip. I appreciate it.

June 6, 2013 at 12:51AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Screenwriters aren't always the best people to come up with titles. Some people have been in the forest too long to see the proverbial WfT

June 3, 2013 at 12:41PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Titles can be meaningless and worthless.
"Jaws", "ET, the Extra-Terrestrial"... horrible, just horrible. They made no difference, great films, great B.O.
Please, please never use the title "Searching for ...." its a genre unto itself.

Oh Jake... yes their might be. Find a new one. Titles can be copyrighted certainly from studios. It's not worth the hassle. The question is why confuse your audience with a well know film like the original Lost Boys? The alternative is to switch it up like Tarantinos rename spell error mash up of Inglourious Bastards. He does title his movies very very well...

June 3, 2013 at 2:24PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


It's hard for me becuase it's the absolute perfect name for the film, but i'm starting to come to grips with the fact that a tiny indie film won't be able to go up against a studio in some title debate.

June 3, 2013 at 3:23PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


you think Jaws is a bad title??? really? strongly disagree

June 4, 2013 at 11:56AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Excellent, excellent film!

Got to see this in a double feature with Stand By Me at The New Beverly Cinema recently. The DP, Director and Writer did a Q&A afterward. They shot on RED Epic (which they said they will never do again but didn't elaborate).

What I found particularly astounding is that it was made for "well under $2 million," according to the director.

June 3, 2013 at 3:45PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I can tell you who don't think movie titles matter at all: spanish translators. They butcher every non- spanish movie title and write whatever they feel like.

June 3, 2013 at 6:57PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


When it come to the World Release of films, there is a dedicated team(s) that decide if a literal translation is the way to go or a new title would be better. This is done by the studios using the same formulas and tests they use in the sates for determining a marketable title. I am not sure how much time and money is spent on this aspect though, it's most likely one or two person operation, I would suspect.

For example, Marvels "The Avengers" was released everywhere in the world with that Title except in the UK where it was titled "Avengers Assemble" because there was a TV show titled "The Avengers" and they were worried about confusion in the branding.

June 4, 2013 at 7:49AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


A method I've sued for titles has been closing my eyes and grabbing a book from the shelf, then opening it up and hitting my finger somewhere on the page. Then I open my eyes and see what word my finger is at. Sometimes it's perfect, sometimes I have to do it a few times to assemble a sentence.
The best one was a story about two women who live together, one a crazy punk and the other disabled. My finger found (in a book about composers) "Sinfonia Domestica". It totally fit!
But I suspect that isn't how a Hollywood producer would do it. :)

June 3, 2013 at 10:57PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Clark Nikolai

Hi man thanks keep working always.

November 5, 2018 at 8:34AM