The title is vital. It is the first point of contact between the script and the reader, and between the movie and the audience. When the audience comes to the theater and they look at the one-sheets and the marquee, the title is both the hook and the handle by which they shall make their ultimate decision: Which of these movies will they see?
So let’s talk about titles. A good title accomplishes several tasks within just a word or few.
The first task is to reflect the genre. We want to tell the audience what kind of experience they can expect if they buy a ticket for a particular film. If it’s a horror movie, it should have a scary title. For example, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is pretty clear in terms of what kind of movie we are going to get.
The title might also imply the sub-genre. For example, both SAW and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY are horror movies, but one title suggests a gritty and bloody film, and the other leads us to something more ghostly (and thus perhaps more PG-13 as opposed to R).
The title might tell us about the “big idea” of the film, THE MATRIX being a perfect example.
The title might key off the protagonist. For example, JOHN WICK doesn’t tell us anything about the genre. But it does tell us who the movie is about. And that can help in terms of attracting name talent to the lead. “It’s a script called JOHN WICK.” “Who do I play?” “John Wick.” “Okay, I’ll read it.”
A good title not only sells the movie, but does so in a clever or poetic way. Consider BACK TO THE FUTURE; it’s a beautiful twist on words that also, amazingly, sells exactly what this movie is about.
Best of all is when we have the pitch (and the marketing hook) right there in the title. The perfect example is THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN. Right off the bat, what can we surmise? It’s a comedy… of course. We know who the protagonist is, the titular virgin. And we can guess what the movie’s going to be about: He’s gonna try to get laid, right? Which in turn tells us something about the sub-genre; it’s going to be a raunchy sex comedy, likely rated-R.
Look at all of the information we can draw from five words. It’s incredible.
Pay attention to your own thoughts as you consider various titles. What do you assume, what comes to mind when you hear a movie is entitled something like BRIDESMAIDS? How about HALLOWEEN? Or TAKEN? Off a single word, how much can you surmise about what a film might offer, and what it might be about?
There is such a thing as a counter-intuitive title, like FUNNY GAMES or CANDYMAN or GREEN ROOM. But in those cases marketing has to work that much harder. We want a title that makes everyone who sees it think, “I want to watch that movie!”