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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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“A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing, always be closing.”
Blake (Alec Baldwin) in Glengarry Glen Ross


Do you remember Pete Jones? He’s the guy who was the first writer/director picked by Project Greenlight to have a movie made. He has a new movie out today called Hall Pass starring Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis. (Jones is credited as co-writer with Kevin Barnett, along with the Farrelly bothers from There’s Something About Mary fame.)

Ten years ago Jones was this guy in Chicago selling insurance and hoping to be one of the lucky ones chosen by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to have their script plucked from the Internet to be made into a movie. The result was the movie Stolen Summer. It was far from a blockbuster film, but it launched Jones’ career.

Back in ’03 or ’04 I met Jones in West Hollywood. I was in LA for a TV program I was producing and the cameraman on that shoot was Pete Biagi. Biagi is well-known in indie circles in Chicago and was the director of photography on Stolen Summer. So when we wrapped our shooting after a of couple of days Biagi called up Jones and a small group of us had dinner at the Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood.

The Formosa is one of those classic old Hollywood restaurants that’s been around since the ‘30s and whose guests over the years have included Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Depp and so on. The Formosa was also featured in the movies L.A. Confidential and The Majestic.

So I’m at this restaurant with this Chicago-connected gang and I’m the outsider from Orlando. So I don’t say much but I learned something important that night.

I asked Jones how many screenplays he had written before he got discovered on Project Greenlight. He said six. If you remember the HBO special made on the making of Stolen Summer you may recall how they played up the fact that Jones was an average Joe insurance salesman who wrote a script. I know people who call themselves screenwriters who haven’t written six scripts—I don’t know any average Joe salesmen who have written six screenplays.

Playing up that Jones was a salesman is called PR. Because everyone wants to think, “I could probably do that if I tried.” The fact is Jones was an insurance salesman, but he had also graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. (That school has turned out a lot of accomplished writers.) Keep in mind that he was in his early thirties when he was chosen for Project Greenlight. His sales training played a critical part of his success. Graduating from J-School couldn’t have hurt. But he still wrote six dang screenplays before being discovered.

You can pick up a used DVD set of the complete first season of Project Greenlight for under $10 on Amazon, and that’s a solid investment in getting a foundation of what it takes to make a film. I’ll go as far as to say that I think it’s the single best example on DVD I’ve ever seen of watching the entire filmmaking process unfold.

But my favorite part of Project Greenlight is when Affleck, Damon, producer Chris Jones and others have narrowed their selection down to three screenwriters. It’s late at night and after six hours of deliberations the producers have to finally make the call on what film they are going to spend a million dollars to make.

In desperation Affleck asked the sound guy working on shooting the HBO special who they should choose, and he says, “Pete. Pete’s the guy that’ll never get the chance unless you do it.” Miramax VP Jon Gordon jokes that they should just have the screenwriters wrestle for it.

What they do is bring the three finalists back individually to have them make a final pitch on why their script should be chosen.

That’s when Jones’ insurance sales background kicks in. Where the others talk about their story, Jones hits the producers emotions. He tells the group;

“It’s about making the best film. And I’m getting a little emotional and I shouldn’t be, but it’s about making the best film…and the HBO thing is great—I would personally love it. Call me narcissistic, but I enjoy that. That’s not what it’s about, it’s about you guys screwing the studio system and saying let’s make the best film. Market the film? F*#K you. Who cares? We’re making the best film, we’re putting out a million bucks. I don’t have a million bucks, but studios have some money and a million dollar budget is not going to crush them. So he’s let’s make the best film that we can make. And, obviously, I’m biased, I think my movie’s the best film to make. I think my film probably wouldn’t get made by a studio—by a big studio, you know? I think that Greenlight is the kind of project  that would make a film like this.  I’m not a Hollywood expert, so I don’t know—I’m just going on a stereotype here.”

You can tell by the faces of those in the room that it’s a done deal. Sold.  Damon and Affleck are either dead tired, stoned or mesmerized. Chris Jones says, “I don’t have any other questions after that answer. “ Remember people invest in passion. And the part where Jones says, “F*#K you. Who cares? —I’m pretty sure Jones was channeling Mamet/Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross. “Coffee’s for closers only.” Jones was a closer that day.

And that was the turning point in Pete Jones’ career. The man was good in a room. He understood the basic sales principles of features and benefits and hitting human emotions. Next thing you know Jones was directing Aidan Quinn and Bonnie Hunt.

The movie Stolen Summer had a limited theatrical release making only $140,000.  But Jones got to make another film. Oddly he chose to follow a kid film with the gay-themed movie Outing Riley (2004) which went direct to DVD. And the next year he sold the spec script Hall Pass for high six figures and it eventually, six years later, became the movie that opens in theaters today.

Everyone’s got a story, right? (Even if you haven’t seen Jones’ movies or like the ones you have seen, you have to appreciate his journey.)

The common recurring theme on this blog is Pete Jones did the leg work before he got a shot. He wrote six screenplays before he was discovered. Just like fellow Chicagoan screenwriter Diablo Cody, Jones had been writing for over a decade before his big break.  And he used that sales experience from his day job to sell Hollywood producers and actors that he was the right person to be chosen for Project Greenlight.

Related posts:

Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours

Learning to be “Good in a Room.” (part 1)

Screenwriting Quote #87 (Ray Bradbury)

Stephen J. Cannell’s Work Ethic

Screenwriting da Chicago Way

Writing “Good Will Hunting

Scott W. Smith

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Genevieve Jolliffe & Chris Jones have written several books packed full of useful information for filmmakers including The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook which weighs in at 720 pages. Here’s one little Q&A  from the book.

Q-What single piece of advice would you offer?

Dov S. S. Simens: Read 200 scripts this year. If you don’t you will fail. If you read lots, you will be in a better position to go forward to write a screenplay, or to hire someone to write for you. 

Years ago when I lived in LA in the days before the Internet if I wanted to read a script I used to stop by AFI’s library, pay $15 to buy one, or see what the Burbank library had.

These days it is much easier to read scripts since there are many places that offer them online (Drew’s Script-O-Rama). So the lesson for the day is less TV, less video gaming and Internet, and more script reading.

Scott W. Smith

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