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“My top ten tips for tilting your film. 1. The shorter the better…”
Chris Jones (Co-author of The Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook)
Top Ten Tips For tilting Your Movie

“A good title should be like a good metaphor: It should intrigue without being too baffling or two obvious.”
Novelist/essayist Walker Percy (The Moviegoer)

Gravity-1

There’s no “rule” that says movie titles have to be short, but it’s a pretty good proven principle to follow.

I noticed this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees followed a trend I began to see clearly back in 1998 with the release of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list. The vast majority of great movies titles are three words or less.

The original AFI list sits right about 75% with titles with three words or less. (Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Godfather set the tone right out of the gate.) Best Picture nominees this year have only one of the nine pictures with more than three words in it. And 66% have two or less words including four with only a single word; Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena.

Historically, going all the way back to very first Academy Award ceremony (1929), more than 60% Best Picture winners have titles with three words or less, but ever since Rocky won Best Picture in 1977, only three winners (out of 37) had titles of more than three words.  (And each of those three was a novel first.)

That’s a pretty good case for picking short titles. One reason is it’s easier to recommend  Gladiator or Platoon than it is The Bridge on the River Kwai or All Quiet on the Western Front. Hitchcock’s best films had short titles including Vertigo, Psycho, and Notorious. Even a list of breakthrough indie films (filmmakers who seek to be unconventional from the Hollywood norm) has its share of short titles: Memento, Clerks, Reservoir Dogs, Before Sunset, El Mariachi, Slacker, Metropolitan, Rushmore.

Shakespeare at his best? Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Henry V, and Macbeth. 

Woody Allen’s most referenced films these days? Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors,  Midnight in Paris, and Blue Jasmine. 

Chapin? City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and The Gold Rush.

And if I haven’t made the case for picking a short title clear enough consider Pixar’s titles; Toy Story, Cars, Up, Wall-E, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, A Bug’s Life, Brave, Monsters, Inc., and Trains. In fact, Pixar has never had a feature film title with more than three words.

up_

That doesn’t mean bland and slightly long title (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)—or even a bland short title (The Shawshank Redemption)— can’t find an audience. Or that Up in the Air isn’t the perfect metaphor for George Clooney’s character. (A character whose only real purpose appears to be collecting frequent flyer miles—everything else is up in the air.) Or even that it’s unheard of to have a very long title like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. (Although, when that last film came out in 1984 I remember people referred to it as Buckaroo Banzai.)

The point is short titles rule. Why fight an uphill battle?

Movie titles are important. How do you pick a good one?

Some writers talk about starting with a title and going from there, and others talk about struggling to land on a title even after they’ve finished their book or screenplay.

But the most common titles seem to focus a main character or being, place or thing, or an event. Of the non-sequel films (or non-comic based films) at the top of the all-time box office include Avatar, Titanic, Skyfall, and Jurassic Park. (And audiences tend to abbreviate sequels/comic-based movies around the water cooler calling them Batman, Star Wars, Pirates, Spider-Man, Twilight, Iron Man and Harry Potter.)

CHARACTER(S) OR BEING:
Citizen Kane
Lincoln
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
King Kong
Rocky
Alien
Erin Brockovich
Patton
Forrest Gump
Spartacus
Bonnie and Clyde
The Godfather
Tootsie
Norma Rae
Jaws
Psycho
Raging Bull
Bridesmaids
The Artist
Annie Hall

A PLACE OR THING:
Titanic
The African Queen
Bridge on the River Kwai
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
On the Waterfront
Chinatown
Sunset Blvd.
The Bridges of Madison County
Pearl Harbor
The Maltese Falcon
The Apartment
Casablanca
Fargo
Oklahoma
Wall St.
Philadelphia

AN EVENT:
12 Years a Slave
High Noon
Apocalypse Now
Star Wars
3:10 to Yuma
Flight
2001: A Space Odyssey
This is 40
Saving Private Ryan
Bringing Up Baby
Sophie’s Choice
Mutiny on the Bounty
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

(Or a person, place, & event: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.)

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. (Again all were books or plays first which tend to favor a more intellectual audience, and gives them the advantage of a built-in audience when the movies hit theaters.If you go with a metaphor, it doesn’t hurt if the title is a common phrase like “up in the air.” Even still, I heard people called Up in the Air,  “The new George Clooney movie.” (More words than the actual title but easier to explain to a friend when picking a movie.)

What are some of your favorite titles (even if they aren’t one of your favorite films)? What are some of your favorite bad titles?

Some of my favorite titles are the lesser remembered movies Them! (1954) and  Zulu (1964).  And I like titles such as Psycho, 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. They hit you at a gut level.

When I think of bad movie titles it tends to be because I think the movies are bad. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the movies listed at The 100 Worst Movie Title are longish; The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

I should add in closing that just because you have a short title doesn’t guarantee success as Ishtar and Gigli prove. But even in an internet driven age where viral reviews may trump movie titles, short titles still seem to work best because word counts are as important as ever.

P.S.  One blogger wrote a post called Top 10 Worst Movie Titles Ever and 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 in the day.

P.P.S. My own longest and worst title for a script I’ve written—When the Cold Winds Blows. More novel-friendly, but I should really be forced to write an apology letter to James Taylor for sampling the lyrics from his classic Fire and Rain. And in case you think I’m kidding—here’s the tattered title page from over a decade ago.

photo-2

Updated from the post: Movie Titles (tip #32) published in 2010.

Related posts:
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (part 2)
Irony in Movies (Tip #79)
Average Length of Movie Scenes (#21)
Choosing a Title for Your Script  “A good title could get your script moved up from the bottom of the stack of to-read scripts to the top — and change your life.”—Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek)

Related links from others:

Choosing a Great Title “Will the title look good on a poster and will it intrigue passersby?”—Julie Gray
Screenplay Tip #6: Title  “Sometimes dramas will have a lengthy title like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but this seems less now and I certainly can’t remember the last time I saw such a long title for a drama in the spec pile.”—Lucy V. Hay
Reader mail—titles “You know what does stick with me? The clever titles, the unique ones.”—The Bitter Script Reader
The Ultimate Guild To Screenwriting Titles

Scott W. Smith

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“You do things sometimes as a writer subconsciously, things you’re not even aware of. I’m always comfortable doing things instinctively because I see it as tapping into this vein of archetype that works for a broader audience base.”
James Cameron
Writer/director of Titanic and Avatar

“I think it’s fine for young (filmmakers) to out and out rip off people who come before them because you always make it your own.”
Francis Ford Coppola
World News interview


Yesterday we looked at several films that share some of the same DNA. I mentioned several words and phrases used to explain why some movies resemble other movies. Blake Snyder in Save the Cat added one more phrase—”Hollywood’s Dirty Little Secret.”

“Look at Point Break starring Patrick Swazye, then look at Fast and Furious. Yes, it’s the same movie almost beat for beat. But one is about surfing, the other is about hot cars. Is that stealing? Is that cheating? Now look at The Matrix and compare and contrast it with the Disney/Pixar hit Monsters, Inc. Yup. Same movie. And there’s a million more examples. Who Saved Roger Rabbit? is Chinatown…In some instances, the stealing is conscious. In other, it’s just coincidence.”
Blake Synder
Save the Cat

So let’s have some screenwriters weigh in on the topic.

“I wrote the screenplay (for The Magnificent Seven), Johnny Struges, the director, asked me to make a screenplay out of Kuroisawa’s (Seven Samari), setting it in the West.”
Walter Brown Newman

“(The movie Red River) was Mutiny on the Bounty. I had always thought what a great Western.”
Red River screenwriter Borden Chase as told to William Bowers

Okay, but do screenwriters have to be at retirement age to admit to taking from other films? Well, writer/director James Cameron prefers to use the words “reference point” when talking about films that he watched before he made Avatar.  Here’s an Q&A interview that he did with the Los Angeles Times that addresses if Avatar is Dances with Wolves in space.

Geoff Boucher: There’s also maybe some heritage linking (“Avatar”) to “Dances with Wolves,” considering your story here of a battered military man who finds something pure in an endangered tribal culture.

James Cameron: Yes, exactly, it is very much like that. You see the same theme in “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” and also “The Emerald Forest,” which maybe thematically isn’t that connected but it did have that clash of civilizations or of cultures. That was another reference point for me. There was some beautiful stuff in that film. I just gathered all this stuff in and then you look at it through the lens of science fiction and it comes out looking very different but is still recognizable in a universal story way. It’s almost comfortable for the audience – “I know what kind of tale this is.”

Dances with Wolves was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and Avatar was nominated for 9. Combined they both they won ten Oscars. And while only Dances with Wolves won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Screenplay based on Material from Another Medium (Michael Blake), Avatar became the all-time box office champ making $2.7 billion worldwide.

As a sidenote Avatar’s production designer saw shades of The Wizard of Oz in the script. (The Wizard of Oz just happens to be one of Cameron’s favorite films.)

Scott W. Smith

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Photograph by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

“My bracket has Kansas winning the whole thing. Kansas is that big, fast, strong, deep, good, great, unbeatable.”
Gregg Dovel, CBSSports.com

President Obama was wrong. But he was not alone in picking the Kansas Jayhawks to win the NCAA National Championship in men’s basketball this year. In case you don’t follow such things, Kansas lost yesterday to that little known team from right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa—The University of Northern Iowa (UNI).

One sports writer said the upset victory, “could go down as the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history.” Of course, that’s debatable. What is less debateable is this is the biggest victory in UNI’s history. This was the first time they have ever beaten a top ranked team. To do it in the NCAA Tournament before a national TV audience is all the sweeter.

The above photo of UNI player Ali Farokhmanesh celebrating says it all. It’s one frame that if it were the end of a movie the critics would be rolling their eyes calling it cliché. But movie audiences enjoy a good underdog story time after time. Why do we love underdog stories?

What is it about an underdog story that makes us feel so good? Perhaps it’s as simple as we all feel like underdogs. We can relate. Heck, I have a blog called Screenwriting from Iowa which might as well be called Screenwriting for Underdogs. But then again that would be redundant, wouldn’t it? (Tell me Joe “I’ve been in fights most of my life” Eszterhas hasn’t felt like an underdog his entire career?)

So screw the critics and keep writing underdog stories because the truth is cinematic history is full of great stories of underdog characters and underdog stories. From Rocky, Indiana Jones, and Norma Rae Webster to Hans Solo, Oskar Schindler, and Erin Brockovich they’re all underdogs that are greatly admired.

More recently, The Blind Side (based on the life of Michael Orr) found an audience to the tune of $250 million so far and landed Sandra Bullock her first Oscar. People still want to see Michael Orr stories. And, of course, an underdog doesn’t have to be an athlete.

Both James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic are the #1 & #2 box office champs—and both underdog stories.

What are some of your favorite underdog characters or stories?

P.S. The University of Northern Iowa is where Kurt Warner played college football before he became one of the greatest underdog stories in contemporary sports history. I should also give a shout out to the University of Iowa’s wrestling team who last night won the 2010 NCAA Division 1 wrestling championship. No underdogs there—it’s the third straight year they’ve won the championship and 23rd in school history.

Related post: Orphan Characters (Tip #31)

Scott W. Smith

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Now that writer/director James Cameron has claimed the number one and two spots of worldwide box office money makers with Avatar and Titanic he really is king of the world…at least the king of the box office world. But it’s worth a look back to how the Canadian born and raised Cameron made the transition from making films for Roger Corman to making mainstream blockbusters–including a film that is up for nine Academy Awards Sunday.

“My first success as a writer was The Terminator.  And it was successful, in a way, before the film was made. I wrote the script entirely on spec, for myself, and it was sent out by my agent as a writing sample. It was only sent out, to my knowledge, to a few people, and I managed to land jobs with two of them. One was Rambo and the other was on Alien.”
James Cameron
American Screenwriters
Karl Schanzer & Thomas Lee Wright
page 57

Scott W. Smith

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“[Kathryn] Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal…have made the first fictional feature about American soldiers in Iraq that doesn’t fall apart, or preach to a choir, or turn into a position paper.”
Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune

The Hurt Locker had a limited release last summer and never made it to my neck of the woods. Nor did the release in December. Which is too bad, because I think that the story which takes place in Iraq would have resonated well in a part of the country that attracts a lot of men and women into the military.

What’s worse though is it never found an audience in the theater so not many people got to see this great and well crafted film on the big screen. Fortunalty,  the film was nominated for nine Academy Awards which has helped it attracts more of a following. I watched the film this week and found this exchange on the commentary track between producer/director Kathryn Bigelow (K-19: Widowmaker, Point Break) and producer/screenwriter Mark Boal talking about the impetus of the film.

Mark Boal: (The Hurt Locker) sort of came out of a experience I had in Baghdad—in Iraq–where I was embedded as a journalist in 2004 covering the bomb squad and going out on daily missions with them and seeing the kinds of situations they got into. And it was a really eye-opening experience  just to witness the sheer onslaught of bombs that these three man teams would have to deal with at that time in the war. And I think that it took the military a little bit by surprise, it certainly took them by surprise. I wrote a article about the bomb squad and then felt that the story warrented a larger translation, perhaps into a film.

And when I came back from Iraq (I) presented the idea to Kathryn Bigelow, and I think you were intrigued–I don’t know if that’s putting words in your mouth…

Kathryn Bigelow: I was more than intrigued. I thought that these men have arguable the most dangerous job in the world, And that it’s a voluntary military, so that’s a very interesting psychological profile and I thought because we had an opportunity to look at this conflict through first hand observation of Mark’s embed I thought it was a pretty rare and extraordinary situation and could be a very interesting film. I also felt that the war was under reported and that I, being a member of the general public, I had very little idea what was going on over there. What EOD, IED–what these terms meant, And looking at a day in the life of a bomb tech really unpacked it.

Mark: So having secured Kathryn’s interest I set out to write a script on spec. Which means that there was no contract or money involved and we ended up producing the movie independently, raising the funds sort of outside the Hollywood system.

I hope that the film gains traction and I imagine as we look back on this era The Hurt Locker will be one of the defining film of the times.

A second rare and extraordinary situation is this is Mark Boal’s first screenplay.

And third rare and extraordinary thing surrounding The Hurt Locker is Kathryn Bigelow was once married to writer/director James Cameron who also has a little film out called Avatar which also has been nominated for nine Academy Awards. What are the odds of that combo ever happening again?

The Hurt Locker and Avatar are up against each other in the best picture category. Fantasy vs. reality. 3-D vs. 2-D.  Pandora vs. Baghdad. At the box office there is no question who the winner is–Avatar probably made more thanThe Hurt Locker in just its first weekend playing at the Archlight Cinema in Hollywood.

Avatar just became the top box office money-maker in the history of movies, and it would be poetic justice if The Hurt Locker took home the best picture Oscar next month. It would be well deserved.

Scott W. Smith

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“The movie Frankenstein is not much like the book but there’s some essential creation in the book without which there could not be the movie.”
Walter Kirn
writer of the novel Up in the Air

 

Just in case you think Up in the Air is the only movie I’ve seen recently let me assure you that in the last couple days I have seen both Sherlock Holmes and Avatar. Both were spectacles that from a writing perspective left me with little inspiration. So back to Up in the Air. I found this nice little exchange at Cinema Blend between the novelist Walter Kirn and the screenwriter/director Jason Reitman about turning the book Up in the Air into a movie.

What was the adaptation process like?
Kirn: I think that the book is to the movie, what a piece of paper is to a paper airplane.
Reitman: That was great! That’s not the first time you’ve said that though!
Kirn: What I mean by this paper airplane comparison is this, he took this story and he folded it and he refolded it and he transformed it in a way that I completely recognize my own impulse in writing it but when I sat down to see it was not only honored and delighted but surprised by the transformations that had taken place in my own material and some of the potentials that I left untapped and, you know, here are two characters [gestures towards actresses Anna Kendrick and Vira Farmiga], one of whom is sort of in the book and one of whom is not at all in the book. There’s an Alex of a sort and there is no Natalie. So there’s so much invention. I think that anyone who’s interested in book to film adaptation really should look at this book and this film and see the way that that can be something more than a linear process but actual sort of chrysalis, you know, butterfly process. I read Jason’s script amazed and when you talk about Oscars and that sort of thing, because I know the source material that it came from intimately, there is a very deserved one there.

If you’re interested in adapting a book into a story I’d recommend Linda Seger’s The Art of Adaption:Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. And it would be most helpful to pick your favorite film made from a book and do a breakdown of the similarities and differences of the two. Try to figure out why some things were added and some things left out. Ask how creating a visual film changed some of the literary qualities? How how the structure of the book and the movie are similar and different.

Go deep with one book and one movie rather than trying to do broad strokes with several of your favorite books/movies.

And if you’re adapting a book into a screenplay, unless it’s just an exercise, it’s best to get the rights before you take on the task of investing in the screenplay. (Though I believe Reitman began his script before he actually had the rights to the story so these things do work out sometimes.) Some authors are very accessible, especially if you pick one of their obscure short stories.

And don’t forget there is a lot of public domain material out there.

Also, Walter Kirn has said in interviews that he wrote a script version of his novel. If anyone knows if there is a link to that script I’d love to read it to see how the original writer attempted to adapt his own material.

Scott W. Smith

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“I rode a school bus for an hour each way… so I had two hours a day on the bus and I tried to read a book a day.
James Cameron

They should have a special room for James Cameron over at Box Office Mojo. Titantic, which he wrote and directed, sits atop every film ever made in terms of box office gross ($600. million domestic/$ 1.8 billion worldwide). And for the last two weeks his newest film Avatar has been #1 at the box office already bringing in $600. worldwide.

And, of course, those aren’t the only films he’s ever made. Aliens, The Terminator,  Terminator 2:Judgment Day also found quite large audiences. But how many saw his first two films Xenogenesis and Piranha Part Two; The Spawning? It’s easy to get lost in the big numbers Cameron puts up and forget that he had to jump-start his career just like anyone else who’s made it.

So where did he come from?

Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada and raised in a town of 2,000. He was inspired by the movie 2001:A Space Odyssey and said he read The Making of 2001 book eighteen times and dreamed of Hollywood all before his family moved from Canada to Los Angeles when he was 17. And before he ever won an Oscar he drove a truck to pay the bills until his screenwriting career took off. I’ve pieced together a few of his quotes from various places to give a succinct overview of his views on filmmaking.

“The film industry is about saying ‘no’ to people, and inherently you cannot take ‘no’ for an answer…You never really ‘get’ an opportunity. You take an opportunity. You know, in the film making business no one ever gives you anything…If you wait until the right time to have a child you’ll die childless, and I think film making is very much the same thing. You just have to take the plunge and just start shooting something even if it’s bad…Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee…I think it’s, the old adage: ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get.’ I think chance is not a big factor in the long run…There are many talented people who haven’t fulfilled their dreams because they over thought it, or they were too cautious, and were unwilling to make the leap of faith.”
James Cameron

Most of these quotes were pulled from an interview found on the Academy of Achievement website.

Scott W. Smith

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