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Winning the Title

As more and more films are made, the search for a fresh, eye-catching title becomes harder, especially when they have to compete with other IP such as songs and books.

Developing a commercial title for a film is a challenge these days, as those working in specific genres are only too aware.

Take action films: the obvious single word titles — think Revenge or Vengeance — have been used so often that they are seriously clichéd (especially when paired with Extreme or Rough) and are likely to condemn a film to the DTV section.

The problem is that even big-budget action films need to keep it simple to convey what an audience can expect. They need a “Ronseal” title, if you like, something that “does what it says on the tin”. Producers and marketers of mass-market fare cannot risk being cryptic or poetic unlike in the arthouse field where, it seems, anything goes — think The Killing of a Sacred Deer or The Duke of Burgundy.

Sometimes it seems that the more obscure or incongruous the title, the better!

In my career I have been involved in re-naming several films; most recently Parkland Entertainment’s big-budget biopic about 1950s German footballer Bert Trautmann. A goalkeeper, Trautmann is celebrated by Man City fans for his role in the 1956 FA Cup win during which he broke his neck but continued to play.

The producers packaged the film as Trautmann, which was fine for City fans of a certain vintage but really limited its chances with a wider audience, especially as the film is also a love story. So the name was changed to The Keeper, which is a clear nod to his position as a goalkeeper but also to a deeper possible meaning — that of a man to keep or someone who protects or holds on to something of value. The film will be released in UK cinemas on April 5 and so far the new title has been well received by all involved in the production.

The thriller genre is highly commercial, so changing the name of film so that it can be easily identified as such is valuable. Hence positioning Richard Gere-drama Franny as The Benefactor helped move the perception of the film from a drama to a thriller, ditto Zipper to the more obvious Reckless and The Adderall Diaries to True Deception. Adderall, by the way, is an ADHD medication but not one that is known in the UK.

These films were probably originally made with theatrical audiences in mind — in which case the original titles could have stood — but in the UK they were positioned for VOD and DVD, where buyers are looking for films with a stronger genre appeal that a straight drama film could deliver.

The slightly larger release, How to Make Love Like an Englishman, became the more palatable and aptly titled Lessons in Love. It was also re-titled Some kind of Wonderful in other English-speaking territories, which just goes to show how widespread the practice is. Most films, in fact, gain a new title in translation, even blockbuster Bond films — in Croatia Quantum of Solace became A Grain of Comfort and in Italy Octopussy became Operation Octopus.

Another example of this was with the hit Danish film which, translated directly, would have been The Bald Hairdresser, but was changed by the sales agent to Love is all You Need for English-speaking territories.

Now it could be argued that some title-changes can make an interesting title a bit generic but they also can be a tactical move to suit the ultimate platform for the release. Where the film is not getting a theatrical release, a more direct title will be more commercial.

Title changes can drive audience appeal in different ways and a single word in itself can appear strange in isolation — it will behave differently when you see it written down or on a poster. If you are browsing for a film to watch on a VOD platform with no other visual prompt, then the title needs to do all of the heavy lifting. If you are, say, looking for a rom-com, you need a longer title with key words such as Love or Date. If you’re looking for a horror film, the title itself will need to induce a sense of fear.

Sometimes obscure cultural references can be motivators for title changes. For example, so that Marvel blockbuster Avengers would not to be confused with the cult 1960s TV show or the disappointing 1997 movie of the same name, it was decided that the word “Assemble” would be added for UK audiences.

Another example of cultural confusion happened with kSilver Linings Playbook. The word Playbook refers to American Football game-plays, which would be lost on most UK cinemagoers, so the distributor decided to make it really small on all of the marketing materials and omit it from the voice overs on the trailer and TV spots.

American sports terms can have this effect: the 2005 Drew Barrymore film Fever Pitch was changed to The Perfect Catch in the UK, moving it away from being a baseball comedy to a straight-up romcom and avoiding confusion with the popular British film of the same name.

I imagine that some film titles start off as “working titles” and then stick around until a distributor comes up with something more suitable — a practice that is commonplace with distributors that favour the direct-to-DVD or VOD approach.

For theatrical, however, less generic titles are definitely in vogue right now and seem to be engaging with audiences. Recent releases such as Beast, God’s Own Country, Apostasy, Lady Macbeth and The Selfish Giant have captured audiences’ imaginations and paved the way for interesting key art explorations.

Producers and distributors in the genre film space are also toying with more interesting titles, such as Bird Box, Calibre, Tigers are not Afraid and The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot.

Regardless of the genre, interesting, metaphorical and allegorical titles seem to be the order of the day (maybe because all of the single-word generic film titles have been used). Of course, films still need a strong promotional platform to communicate their appeal because, if all the consumer can really go on is the title, reverting to the Ronseal approach may not be quite such a bad idea after all.

The key takeaway is that, while titles are attached at the time of production or international sales, it is vital that distributors get involved before release so that the title helps to marry the ultimate consumer platform with the designated target audience.

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