I first wrote this piece in 2008. I still consider it to be among my best, because the subject matter is even more relevant today than it was four years ago.
I’m not plagued by all too many irrational fears. Some people are afraid of dogs, or spiders, or clowns. Not me. Not my issues. I feel kind of lucky that way. In about three decades, I have probably had exactly that many irrational fears, and I eventually found a way to defeat them all. Here’s a quick rundown of how that process went:
Irrational Fear #1: Sharks
Reason Why I Was Scared: Soulless, doll-eyed apex predators who come out of the sea (which itself is unfathomably vast and emotion-less) in order to bite living warm-blooded things.
Reason Why I Am No Longer Scared: Stood face-to-face with a captive great white until the fear went out of my knees for good. (Long story, but it really happened!)
Irrational Fear #2: Bears
Reason Why I Was Scared: Way more dangerous than sharks, because at least sharks look scary as a warning, and they stay put in the [easily avoidable] sea. On the other hand: Bears look cute, but by nature they are lethal killers! And they’ll get you on land or in water, if that’s what they want to do.
Reason Why I Am No Longer Scared: Haven’t gone into the woods in almost five years. As long as I keep that up, my chances of not running into a bear are better than average.
Irrational Fear #3: Sewage
Reason Why I Was Scared: There’s so much of it, and so much more daily. Where does it all go?!?
Reason Why I Am No Longer Scared: Maturity? I just don’t think about it any more. There’s nothing I can do about these concerns of mine, and I have to trust that the environmentalists and the poo-specialist scientists have it all figured out.
So that’s all well and good. I mean, how excellent for me to finally be less afraid than I was of all the things that are least likely to ever threaten me. I genuinely do wish that simple peace for all my loved ones, acquaintances, and readers.
But very recently, a new irrational fear has loomed on the horizon I’ve been sailing towards, a fear that I’m not even sure is all that irrational. As I slowly, steadily become more active as a professional writer, I am hit square in the gut, and directly in the writer vein, more and more by the day, with this crippling worry:
Irrational Fear #NOW:
What if we run out of movie titles?
This one literally keeps me awake at night.
Think about it: There’s only something like a quarter of a million words in the English language that have ever existed. Which sounds like a lot, but not when you consider a few things:
¨ That a huge percentage of those words are no longer in common use (I like “Petard” or “Cicatrice” as action/horror titles, but try pitching those);
¨ That as far as movie titles go, we’re really limited to nouns, and after that maybe a small fraction of the available adjectives and verbs; and
¨ That in the century-plus of world cinema to-date, almost all of the best single words, and word combinations, have already been taken.
Making up new words, or tapping into foreign languages, as an alternative title source is simply not an option, or at least, it’s a very limited one. Movies from Apocalypto to Zathura have suffered diminished returns by braving the waters of scantly recognizable titles.
Then there are the wealth of original, yet-unearthed words which you nonetheless just can’t use.
Antidisestablishmentarianism: The Movie is a highly unlikely candidate for arrival at your local multiplex, and not just because it wouldn’t fit on the marquee. It’s because if your average man or woman on the street can’t say it when they’re ordering a ticket, the studios probably won’t let it happen. Nor should they. Again, that’s one of those business strategies I happen to agree with – a movie shouldn’t send you to the dictionary before you even get a chance to experience it. That would be kind of elitist, intentionally or otherwise. Certainly it’s not inviting a practice as befits the essentially populist art form of movies. So as much as I am curious to watch every picture originating from the word processor of Charlie Kaufman, the title of the upcoming Synecdoche, New York bothers me a little. It might be a title that tickles New Yorker critics, but I personally can’t pronounce it, so how am I going to recommend it (or not) to my friends?
Then again, at least he found a word no one else was using. Ain’t too many of them left.
Make no mistake, this is a real problem.
And don’t think that the practiced professionals don’t share my fear. The studios have vaults full of words and phrases and titles trademarked. They’ve been stockpiling for the titular apocalypse for over twenty years, according to archived articles I found in the New York Times (circa 1986) and other such sources. The studios own entire books full of copyrighted titles that they can slap on a movie at will. That means if you’re a fledgling writer with a title you’re just positive hasn’t been used before, chances are you’re not right.
Most writers know the very specific brand of agony that comes with inventing a movie title that perfectly encapsulates the story you’ve told, only to see in the papers that the same title is already in development. Well, strap yourselves onto the torture rack because the pain’s only going to get worse, as more and more thesaural real estate is claimed.
I’m positive that this downtrend has plenty to do with why there have been so many sequels appearing over the last twenty years. Surely, sequels happen largely out of audience popularity, and because of the monumental and simple financial rewards. But it’s also, somewhere, got just a little something to do with the shortage of titles.
A related, disturbing trend is that there are plenty of movies that start out with one title, only to be switched to another. Hancock is one such example. Originally titled Tonight, He Comes, last summer’s Will Smith superhero action comedy was yanked back and saddled with the main character’s surname instead, like an overzealous kid who runs out of the house without putting his winter coat on and is called back by his mom. Personally, I felt that Tonight, He Comes was something of an unfortunate double-entendre, but better to go with that, than to lock up a more unusual title forever. (Particularly because it’s still kind of an unfortunate double-entendre.)
Worst of all, some of the best titles ever imagined have already been used on movies that don’t earn them. My personal favorite example is Hell Comes To Frogtown. I literally purchased this movie on DVD just so the title on the spine can sit alongside all of my other, more high-minded DVDs. It’s a glorious title, Hell Comes To Frogtown. Of course with a title like that it was never going to aspire to be more than a midnight movie, but it could have been an outright classic of midnight cinema, to rank with Big Trouble In Little China or Mother, Jugs, & Speed. Instead, it just kind of sags. The movie only has to recommend it the deadpan genius of the opening line (“At the turn of the century there was a difference of opinion” – and then you see a nuclear mushroom cloud). There is also the joy of the revelation that the “Hell” in the title refers to the main character, whose full name is Sam Hell, and who indeed eventually goes to Frogtown. But the movie otherwise doesn’t live up to the title. And now that title can never be used again. It’s not like a remake is forthcoming.
So more often than not, the result is unambiguous, unambitious, utterly boring monikers clogging up the marquee. There’s more senselessness and generic branding than ever. That’s not an attack, believe it or not. It’s just so hard to achieve art in the naming. I’m sitting here looking at a list of recent and upcoming movies, and it hurts:
¨ Bangkok Dangerous sounds like something a generic Thai cab-driver would warn an American tourist. (Or like something Short Round would say to Indiana Jones. “Bangkok Dangerous! Very, very dangerous!”)
¨ Pride And Glory could be a movie about almost anything, from almost any era. It’s not like having an interesting title helped a seemingly similar movie, We Own The Night, but it doesn’t hurt to differentiate as much as possible when making a movie about tormented cops. There’s only a few thousand entries in the genre.
¨ The Haunting Of Molly Hartley? Okay, only who’s Molly Hartley and why might we care if she’s haunted? I’m haunted. Most of us are, and we make do without a movie.
¨ Twilight is surely a cool title, but they’re counting on the fact that the Goth kids won’t remember a not-very-old-at-all movie, which was a solid enough piece of old-style Hollywood the first time. It had the great, recently departed Paul Newman, and Gene Hackman, and Reese Witherspoon’s kajoobies. It might have been a low-key effort, but I’m not sure that pasty, pouty vampires will up the coolness quotient all that dramatically.
¨ Beverly Hills Chihuahua is a movie that should only ever exist if it were a line-for-line remake, Gus Van Sant Psycho style, of the Eddie Murphy classic action-comedy, with a golden retriever in the role of Rosewood and a bulldog as Sgt. Taggart.
Some newer movies are taking the clever, post-modern tactic of overloading a title with words. The more title words, the better. For instance, just recently we’ve had Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. But this is a temporary fix at best, and the inevitable shorthand is somehow incredibly annoying. It’s somehow cringe-worthy whenever people talk about how much they love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – because they don’t say Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, they say “Eternal Sunshine.” Them: “Want to go see ‘Nick and Norah’?” Them: “Want to ‘Lose Friends’?” That’s one way to do it, I guess. Want to get punched in the face?
Using a one- or two- word character name is another thumb-in-the-dam tactic. After all, it’s a fair bet that there are many more first names, last names, and nicknames than vocabulary words. Examples are the recent Max Payne, or W. This tactic is solid, because it’ll last as long as there are character names, which I feel has GOT to be longer than the stable of remaining title names will last. But remember, fellow writers, you can title your movie with only one or two names – never three – unless your movie is about a political assassin.
Aspiring namers can also whip up a recipe for a new movie title combination by using some of of the most commonly-used prefixes. I’ll use the two most common to illustrate:
American + [blank] = [somewhat original movie title]
EX.: American Beauty, American Graffiti, American Splendor, American Pie, American History X, The American President, An American Werewolf In London, An American Tail, American Gangster, American Pimp, American Psycho, American Gigolo, American Buffalo, American Zombie, and American Ninja.
Dead + [blank] = [barely original movie title]
EX.: Dead Man, Dead Man Walking, Dead Poet’s Society, The Dead Pool, Dead Calm, Dead Again, Dead Man’s Shoes, Dead Presidents, Dead Ringers, Dead Heat, The Dead Zone… and I’m barely into the horror genre yet…
The above naming strategy may be about as original as Frank Caliendo’s never-ending John Madden impression, and I do not recommend it.
Sometimes a writer will put the pitch in the title. “Jim Carrey is Yes Man!” It’s a successful, if cynical, way to get your movie made. But to those who have long memories and remember a popular movie with the same star a decade ago called Liar Liar, that particular example is a cue for sighs. Likewise Zack and Miri Make A Porno, which gets the job done in a more original, daring fashion, even if, like so much Kevin Smith, it is awkwardly worded and a high-wire act on the tongue.
Speaking of tongues and awkwardness: Be careful, fellow writers, of the risky move of swapping out one word of a pre-existing title. Most recent example: Body of Lies: Is it a political spy movie with Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, or an early-90s erotic thriller with Willem Dafoe and Madonna? [By the way: ewww.] It might not be the topical subject matter alone which scared audiences away from the newer film. I’m just saying.
All of which brings us full-circle to fear. I wish I was writing this essay with the intention of presenting a corrective, or as a ninth-inning method of salvation. But I’m not sure it’s forthcoming. And if I did have the answer, even being the born giver I am, I would probably have to keep it to myself. But tragically, no, I don’t know where the new movie titles are going to come from; rather, like everyone else, I’m watching them rapidly disappear every day.
Just a couple weeks ago, I learned that the title I had selected as one of my horror stories is already well into production… as a talking-animal kid’s movie! [Heaven help us; It was this.] That’s not the worst of it – the scary part is that the title absolutely works either way! So I don’t want to unduly alarm anybody, but we have to face the creeping truth: The boogeyman is out from under the bed. Hiding under the covers won’t work anymore. He’s roaming around the room, headed straight for us, and our collective national flashlight is low on batteries.
Get scared now.