“A good title should be like a good metaphor: It should intrigue without being too baffling or two obvious.”
I’m staying on the Up in the Air gravy train (gravy plane?) just a little bit longer. Not only did I love the film but I love the title. It’s a title that has a literal meaning since it’s a film that deals with traveling via airplanes. But it’s also a common phrase in our culture meaning undecided or uncertain.
Up in the Air is a pretty good description of the Up in the Air main character Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney. A character whose only real purpose appears to collecting frequent flyer miles. Everything else is up in the air.
Many writers talk about starting with a title and build from there and others say they can’t even decide on a title even after they’ve written the script or book. Can a movie succeed without a great title? Sure, look at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Looking at the AFI list of top 100 films and you’ll see a mixture of great, good, and bland titles. A title doesn’t make a film, but in a day and age of the importance of the opening weekend, a great title is desired to help attract an audience.
The most common titles seem to focus a main character or being, place or thing, or an event.
Character or being:
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Bonnie and Clyde
A place or thing:
The African Queen
Bridge on the River Kwai
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
On the Waterfront
The Maltese Falcon
2001: A Space Odyssey
Saving Private Ryan
Bringing Up Baby
And while not a hard and fast rule, great titles tend to be short (three words or less). Just look at the above list. And my favorites of those listed are Jaws and Psycho. Each one a simple word, but both hit you at a gut level.
Titles like Avatar, Batman, The Matrix are easier to discuss around the water cooler. Even longer titles (especially sequels) tend to get edited around the water cooler and just called Harry Potter, Narnia, Pirates, Star Wars, Twilight, Spider-Man.
Up in the Air falls into that minority category of a title that’s a little more obtuse, in line with The Last Picture Show, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Silence of the Lambs, or Gone with the Wind. (All of which happened to have been books or plays first which tend to favor a more intellectual audience.) If you go with a metaphor, it doesn’t hurt to have a movie star in the lead role. As I talk up the film Up in the Air, I find myself calling it “The George Clooney Film.”
What are some of your favorite titles (even if they aren’t one of your favorite films)? Or some of your favorite bad titles.
I love the title of the lesser known 50s film Them. And I like titles such as Black Hawk Down, Meet the Parents, Witness, The Hunt for Red October, Collateral and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly because they all have built in conflict, mystery and intrigue. And the worst titles off the top of my head goes to Ishtar and Valkyrie, neither of which leave me with a visceral reaction.
Of course, the most bland title ever might just be…Movie Titles (tip #32). (But at least it’s twitter friendly.)
Update: I decided to do a Google search to see what others thought were the best and worst movie titles ever and found one blogger who had a post called Top 10 Worst Movie Titles Ever and the writer put Surf Nazis Must Die at #10. That film was written and directed by Peter George who I happened to go to film school with. (I was always a little upset I didn’t get a small role in the film.) If anyone knows where Mr. George is these days tell him I want my watch back. The one that I left at his Hollywood apartment after I crashed on his sofa one night back before he was making top ten lists.