How Are Movie Titles Decided? Inside the Art of Naming a Movie

Winford Hunter

In 2021, Paramount was testing a new movie called “Something’s Wrong With Rose” — a supernatural horror film about a therapist named Rose who loses touch with reality after witnessing a patient’s bizarre suicide.

Audiences at the research screening were responding enthusiastically to the scary movie, but studio executives noticed that they were stumbling over its name.

“Walking out of the theater, we were like, ‘We need a simpler title,’” remembers Marc Weinstock, Paramount’s president of global marketing and distribution.

One component in the story — the bone-chilling grins that slowly creep over the faces of victims — distinguished this horror film from others, and Paramount knew those scenes would frighten crowds in a big way. So they landed on “Smile,” a common word that took on a new, more sinister meaning after the studio’s inescapable, smirk-centric marketing campaign. The movie became a huge hit, to the tune of more than $200 million worldwide.

“We took something normal and made it creepy,” Weinstock says.

The process of naming films is rarely a straightforward assignment. And with the glut of entertainment options vying for viewers’ attention, there’s heightened pressure to come up with something that sticks.

“We’re trying to get moviegoers into theaters,” says Jason Cassidy, vice chairman of Focus Features, “and because there are so many choices, there’s a higher premium on that than ever before. A title that cuts through the noise and even starts a conversation is truly additive.”

A good title isn’t going to save an unwatchable movie. But in the online world, a catchy name has potential to propel a film into the zeitgeist (see “M3GAN”), just as a clunky one can send a film plunging into obscurity faster than you can say “Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.”

“If audiences are stumbling on a movie title,” Cassidy says, “they’ll move on to the next one that much more easily.”

Hollywood has been struggling with movie titles since the beginning. Had things gone another way, “Casablanca” would have been known as “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” “Pretty Woman” was almost called “3,000,” and “The Breakfast Club” was originally titled “The Lunch Bunch.”

Hollywood has been struggling with movie titles since the beginning.
Everett Collection; Photo Illustration Variety

But, for the traditional studios tasked with getting audiences to buy movie tickets, finding the right movie title has become an important cog in the grand marketing machine of trailers, posters and billboards.

“It can make a difference between initial interest and not having an inclination to find out more about a movie,” says Alexis Garcia, executive VP of film development and production at Fifth Season, formerly known as Endeavor Content.

Those who own and operate cinemas believe the art of titling has become more essential because customers mostly book their showtimes online now. Though there’s no correlation between word count and commercial popularity, theater owners notice that long titles get cut off on mobile devices. That’s part of the reason that Sony, at the 11th hour, renamed its musical biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” to “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody”— though the singer’s name elongates the title, it immediately removes confusion about the subject.

SEO, shorthand for Search Engine Optimization, is another concern. Google “Plane” or “Dog,” and the action-thriller starring Gerard Butler or the road-trip comedy with Channing Tatum aren’t even the 10th options to surface.

“Studios are nowhere if audiences don’t know the name of the movie,” says one exhibition industry insider.

Directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert were unsure about a mouthful like “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” “We thought it would be a working title,” Scheinert says. Kwan adds, “It’s very unmarketable, and a lot of people were pushing back.”

Even James Hong, who stars in the movie, told the filmmakers, “That’s way too long. Nobody is going to be able to remember it.”

But the creators held firm, believing the unwieldy moniker captured the unwieldy energy of the film, which eventually earned a remarkable $100 million at the box office and dominated the Oscars.

“It’s a bit much,” Scheinert admits, “but we felt like it prepares you for the movie.”

According to Kevin Goetz, a veteran movie researcher and author of “Audience-ology: How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love,” the most difficult part of marketing is figuring out the right title. He says that there are two main ways to measure the way a title resonates with consumers. One is called monadic testing, which introduces the project with and without a name attached. The other offers five sample titles and polls moviegoers to see which would increase their interest in seeing the film in theaters.

It’s not a catch-all solution. Small sample sizes don’t always translate to the real world. And like many parts of the moviemaking process, there’s no surefire formula for success. But experts in the field have come to rely on a few truths.

“If the title is truly generic, that’s lousy. You want something distinguishable,” Goetz says. But don’t get too creative, he cautions. “If you’re spending more than a few seconds in a 30-second ad to explain a title, it’s a shitty title.”

Erik Feig, a longtime film executive who worked on the “Twilight,” “The Hunger Games” and “Step Up” franchises, finds the key is intriguing audiences without confusing them.

“A marketer’s dream is that perfect blend of specificity and universality,” he says. “You don’t want something that’s too generic, but you also don’t want something that’s too bizarrely specific. You want a title that people feel comfortable pronouncing out loud and don’t feel insecure saying.”

(Hello, “Banshees of Inisherin.”)

A good title is easy to spot: it elicits a reaction, whatever that reaction may be. Something that’s “provocative for the right reasons,” Goetz offers. There’s no doubting what to expect from “Cocaine Bear,” a title that its producer Chris Miller describes as “reveling in its outrageousness.”

When a movie doesn’t work commercially, it’s harder to place the blame on a title. But ambiguous names that fail to explain what the movie is about, like “The Fabelmans” or “Amsterdam,” don’t help matters. With the right marketing campaign, though, an odd phrase or otherwise meaningless grouping of words has the potential to become part of the cultural conversation. Is “Forrest Gump” a place? That question was easily answered (no) in the first promotional materials, which invited viewers to “meet” Forrest Gump.

Or take “Despicable Me,” a family movie that sparked a billion-dollar franchise. The second spinoff, 2022’s “Minions: The Rise of Gru” generated nearly $950 million globally, the most of any animated film in pandemic times. A fourth “Despicable Me” installment is slated for 2024. Before the original was released, though, there was real fear about the title. Would kids, the target demographic for the cartoon adventure, be able to even say the name?

Goetz, who helped with audience research for the first movie, insisted the filmmakers stay with its original title, “Evil Me,” but they resisted. “I went berserk,” Goetz says. “Nobody could pronounce ‘despicable.’”

But Goetz is the first to admit he was wrong. In advertising materials for the film, the studio used repetitive mnemonic devices to get people to not only hear but also remember the tricky-to-say word. “It turned out to be a master stroke,” Goetz says.

Now that the reformed supervillain, Gru, and his tiny yellow henchmen have launched a franchise, the follow-ups and offshoots have the added benefit of brand awareness. When it comes to known properties, there are different considerations for names. A new trend, executives have noticed, is adding subtitles to sequels — like “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “Book Club: The Next Chapter” — rather than tacking on roman numerals.

“Subtitles give you a little more information and another layer of intrigue,” Cassidy says. “It may sound glib and small, but you need every extra than a few edge in creating interest for moviegoers.”

Original properties don’t have the benefit of brand awareness, Cassidy says, so borrowing song titles can be a good place to start, even if the movie has nothing to do with music. “It’s a phrasing that’s already in the public vernacular, so it connects to audiences quickly,” he says. Some classic examples include “Pretty Woman,” “Stand by Me” and “Dazed and Confused.”

There’s always a risk of getting too inventive. Tom Cruise’s 2014 sci-fi blockbuster “Edge of Tomorrow” had more name changes than his character had lives in the time-loop adventure. First, it shared the book’s name, “All You Need Is Kill.” But Warner Bros. executives felt audiences would have a negative association with the word “kill.” So director Doug Liman suggested “Live Die Repeat,” to evoke the mileage you can get out of a repeating day. It was used as the tagline, and later as a subtitle.

“It has about five titles. I don’t even know,” Cruise’s co-star Emily Blunt has admitted. “People say different things to me, and I go, ‘Yes, it’s one of those three titles.’”

It’s common to have emotional negotiations and discussions about names, says Adam Fogelson, vice-chairman of Lionsgate’s motion picture group. “You could absolutely outsmart yourself.”

Oscar-winning filmmaker Nicholas Meyer, who directed two “Star Trek” movies, developed his own informal metric for good or bad movie titles. He refers to it as the Saturday Night Test, which he used as he adapted the Philip Roth novel “The Dying Animal” in 2008. It goes something like this: “Hey, honey. Do you want to watch the movie ‘The Dying Animal’ on Saturday night?”

See what he means?

He knew he wanted to change the title as soon as he was handed the book. “I said, ‘I’m not going to call this movie “The Dying Animal” — it’s ridiculous!’” He suggested “Elegy,” to which an executive said, “Who knows what ‘elegy’ means?” (It’s a poem that usually reflects on the dead.) “I said, ‘Think of something you like better,’ and he couldn’t.”

David James/Warner Bro; Photo Illustration Variety

Worse than a name that conjures a disturbing image is a movie title that gets taken out of context. Feig fondly recalls the early days of Summit Entertainment, before the “Twilight” saga propelled the production company to indie glory.

One of the first projects in development was called “Get Some,” an MMA-style inspirational sports drama that’s described as “Step Up” meets “Rocky.” The title was a nod to the phrase used as boxers’ enter the ring. But moments before executives were locking in the final campaign and shipping the trailer, someone in the room offhandedly mentioned the phrase sounded like a sexual come-on.

“That’s not the kind of association we wanted,” says Feig. So they hired an outside company to brainstorm, eventually landing on “Never Back Down.” To this day, Feig isn’t sure it was the right decision.

“It’s a title that feels like it could be on any poster in a high school locker room,” he says. “If we stuck with the original title, I think our box office would have been higher. You never know. But when you have a title that doesn’t ask a question of the audience but provides too many answers they already know — you’re in trouble.”

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