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Some movies are entitled to do well

What a project is called can make or break it at the box office. Studios mine experts' brains in the quest.

May 12, 2008|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

When they met last year with executives at New Line Cinema, marketing consultants Seth Lockhart and Jamil Barrie pitched their 10 favorite alternative titles for "Pride and Glory," a police drama starring Edward Norton and Colin Farrell. Then they passed around a report with dozens of others that didn't make their cut.

"One of Our Own" caught the eye of Russell Schwartz, New Line's marketing chief at the time, who asked, "What's wrong with this one?"

That's when Lockhart, who hated "One of Our Own" because it sounded to him like a tag line, gave a kick under the table to Barrie -- who thought it perfectly suited the tale of cops betrayed by a corrupt colleague. When even the partners who call their consulting firm TitleDoctors disagree, it's clear the business of naming movies can be tricky.

"When movie titles don't work, studios are leaving potential earnings on the table," Lockhart says.

One of the most notorious examples of a missed opportunity because of an ill-chosen title was "The Shawshank Redemption," the 1994 prison drama starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. The film was lauded by critics but landed with a thud at the box office. More recently, the Russell Crowe boxing saga "Cinderella Man" and the futuristic thriller "Children of Men" also failed to capitalize on strong reviews, in part because of titles widely seen as turn-offs.

"Titles are one of the hardest things to do because every movie is an individual brand that is going to live in perpetuity," says Christine Birch, marketing president at DreamWorks Studios, "but you only have an opening weekend to prove that you've gotten it right."

Usually, of course, the title comes with the script. Sometimes it's picked by the producer or director, in other cases studio marketers. Occasionally, studios redo titles because of legal issues. More often, they're searching for a catchy and marketable name, sometimes with the aid of consultants such as the Ant Farm, Crew Creative and Rich in Meaning.

As it turned out, New Line stuck with "Pride and Glory" for its long-delayed drama, now set for release in 2009. Officials at the Time Warner Inc. unit declined to comment.

Getting studios to agree on a name change is never easy (none of the titles for the 13 films Lockhart and Barrie consulted on during their first year in business has been adopted). Filmmakers and production executives can become enamored of a movie's "working" title. And studios may have already invested millions in marketing a project under a particular name, making it financially costly to alter.

"A lot of times the title takes on a life of its own," says naming specialist Brent Scarcliff of Redondo Beach-based Rich in Meaning. "It develops an equity that makes it hard to change."

But not impossible.

Fox Searchlight Pictures' police thriller "Street Kings," with a cast including Keanu Reeves and Forest Whitaker and a screenplay by James Ellroy, had been known as "The Night Watchman" until this year. Test screening recruiters found that moviegoers thought it sounded like a story about a security guard.

Walt Disney Studios switched the name of "South of the Border," its upcoming live-action comedy about a ritzy dog from Beverly Hills that gets lost in Mexico, to the more comedic "Beverly Hills Chihuahua."

Re-titling can improve a film's prospects. Woody Allen's comedy "Annie Hall" had been known by the clinical-sounding "Anhedonia," a term for the inability to experience pleasure. The sci-fi thriller "Blade Runner" originally bore the name of its source novel, Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"

Andy Solomon, co-president of the Ant Farm, which makes film trailers, says he's worked on titles for about 20 movies but offered only one idea that stuck.

In spring 2003, the firm was putting together a teaser trailer for an untitled Nancy Meyers project, a romantic comedy starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, and it mixed in the classic Johnny Mercer tune "Something's Gotta Give." As the lyrics go: "When an irresistible force such as you meets an old immovable object like me, you can bet as sure as you live, something's gotta give."

Solomon and a colleague suggested naming the film after the song, and Sony executives liked the idea. Whether the title was responsible for helping "Something's Gotta Give" gross $267 million in worldwide ticket sales is unknown. But Solomon says, "It just fit so well, the way those two are always butting heads."

A spokesman for Sony Pictures said he couldn't remember who came up with the idea for the movie's title.

Regardless, the names of songs -- "Stand by Me," "Sea of Love," "Sweet Home Alabama" -- often are borrowed to title movies in Hollywood.

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