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.
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.