“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)
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.
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:
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 Bridges of Madison County
The Maltese Falcon
12 Years a Slave
3:10 to Yuma
2001: A Space Odyssey
This is 40
Saving Private Ryan
Bringing Up Baby
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.
Updated from the post: Movie Titles (tip #32) published in 2010.
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