McGinnis: Lousy titles that workedWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
On Jan. 20, a touching drama starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock opened wide in theaters across the country. Telling the story of a boy trying to piece together his life after his father is killed on 9/11, the movie’s intriguing story led to it grossing over $11 million dollars in its opening weekend. Its name, of course, is…
Uh…”Incredibly Loud and Close?” “Extremely Close and Loud?” “Extremely Loud and Crazy?” “Up Close and Personal?”
Moviegoers can be forgiven for finding the exact title hard to remember. (For the record, it’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Just keep repeating it to yourself and you’ll get it eventually.) It’s not exactly the kind of name that sticks in the mind right away. Also sharing the bill in many theaters is the equally baffling “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Sure, that one’s a remake of a classic novel, but for modern audiences who haven’t heard of the original work, how easily are those words remembered? (Actual request overheard in a local theater: “Tinker Toy Super Boy.” Noble effort, sir.)
The goal of a title seems to be straightforward: Make the film/show/album/etc. easily identifiable and distinguishable. There’s a level of complexity and obscurity in naming a product that would seem, superficially, to undermine this effort. Yet history is littered with examples of what would seem to be lousy titles that turned out to be great successes.
There’s an old Hollywood saying that a great title is one that’s attached to a hit. Here are just a few examples.
“The Shawshank Redemption.” Whoa whoa whoa. What the hell is a Shawshank and why does it need to be redeemed from anything? What about that name gives its viewers any idea whatsoever that it’s a prison drama? What an obscure name for such a gritty enterprise. Of course, it could have been worse — the original Stephen King story’s full title is “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” Then you’d have a mass of kids asking who the heck Rita Hayworth is.
The ungainly title was indeed a cause for concern — several new names were proposed while the film was in production. And, indeed, the name did seem to be a hindrance during the film’s first theatrical run, where it was largely ignored. But then, as word of mouth spread, the movie began to gain a huge audience in second-run theaters and on home video, and eventually, became one of the most beloved films in the past 20 years — and that same awkward title became unforgettable.
“Ratatouille.” Okay, first things first — how the heck do you even pronounce that, let alone know what it is? To an American audience, it looks like someone just threw up Alphabet soup on the screen, leaving a hodge podge of random letters in their wake. Then, you learn it’s a French word referring to a traditional stewed dish, and it still seems utterly nonsensical. And THIS is the latest film from animation giant Pixar? Those guys must be insane. Do they really think they can name their movies ANYTHING and have them be a hit?
Actually, they probably do — and they’re right. Of course, Pixar did take caution with the unique moniker, as the film’s first trailer not only established its concept and characters, but included a full set of pronunciation symbols for the title. By the time the movie debuted a year later, most everyone had been thoroughly educated in the proper way to say the name, and the fact that most of the main characters were rats helped set it in the memory. Add in its wonderful and inventive story, and the film became yet another huge hit for Pixar, earning them their first of four straight Best Animated Film Oscars.
“Quantum of Solace.” That isn’t a title, it’s an “Increase Your Word Power” game. James Bond movies have always been a little obtuse, but usually maintain at least some air of sophistication and badass-ness (often by including some variation of the word “Die” somewhere). This seems to be all sophistication and no badass whatsoever. That’s the kind of name a little drama that plays on 200 screens would have, not a huge budget action extravaganza. The fact that the name does come from an Ian Fleming Bond story — though one that has no relation to this plot — offered little comfort.
Of course, it WAS still James Bond, and that’s pretty much enough. After the enormous success of Daniel Craig’s first outing as the famous secret agent in “Casino Royale,” the anticipation for his follow-up adventure was through the roof, and even an ungainly and awkward title wasn’t gonna stop it. If anything, it added to the anticipation, as fans were left with little to go on from the title’s sparse clues. The movie went on to become the second-highest grossing Bond film ever. Craig will soon return to the screen with his third outing as 007 — the more apocalyptic-sounding “Skyfall.”
Coming soon, the flip side: A look at great movie titles that flopped!
Jeff McGinnis is Toledo Free Press Star Pop Culture Editor. Email him at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com. Listen for his pop culture reports at 9 a.m. Tuesdays on “The Morning Rush” on 92.5 KISS-FM.