Screenplay Title – What’s In A Name?


Screenwriters are often told to write that page turning opening scene in their screenplays to hook the reader. After all, that is the first thing they read in your film script.

Why are titles so important in screenwriting?

Prior to reading the ubiquitous “fade in”, the title is actually the first thing a script reader sets their eyes on in your screenplay.

How does it make them feel? Is it intriguing?  Do they want to read past the title page? What does it say about the content of your film? Consider your movie poster. Your potential audience will see a title combined with an image to help them decide if they will watch it or not. Given that a title is an integral part of the marketing, make sure it stands out and encapsulates your film.

Marketing departments spend a handsome budget devising movie titles to evoke a particular mood in target audiences. Never submit a film script titled “Untitled Project” or “Working Title” even if you’re an established screenwriter. It’s lazy and unpolished.

A bad title at least shows you’ve made an effort. You spend considerable time to name your baby, so why not your script? How would your child be perceived if he was called Thurston? John? Dayton?  Bob? Same kid, very different perceptions.

Choosing Your Screenplay Title

Here are some tips in choosing a title for your screenwriting masterpiece.

MAIN CHARACTER

This is probably the easiest. “Jerry Maguire”, “Milk”, “E.T.”, “Spiderman”,  “Shrek” and “Amelie” are common examples. You can even add a twist to further bait the audience. Examples include “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” or “Malcolm X”.

MAIN CHARACTER’S ROLE

An alternative to using the main character’s name, is their occupation. An example of this is “The Machinist” rather than the Trevor Reznik story. “The Queen” can be arguably more powerful than “Elizabeth Windsor”. “The Wrestler” says something more about the film than “Ram”.

PLOT/ THEME

A good title should give the audience and indication of the plot or themes covered “A Few Good Men” and “Atonement” give a  hint of the theme, although we’re not clear it’s about the military or Victorian England, respectively. “Escape From New York”, ‘Kill Bill”, “Dead Poets’ Society”  or “Toy Story” encapsulate the plot in the title.

MAJOR EVENT

This relates to the plot, but a major event can also act as a powerful title. Examples include “Independence Day” and “World Trade Center” (place and event).

PLACE

Peter Weir’s “Picnic At Hanging Rock”, “Australia”, “Sunset Boulevard”, ‘District 9″, “Fargo” and “Pearl Harbor” are examples. The first example depicts a plot and place, while “District 9” is more elusive.

SIGNIFICANT DIALOGUE

A seemingly innocuous piece of dialogue that makes sense once the movie has been seen. An example includes “First Blood”.

GENRE

A title should also relate to a film’s genre. Consider “Jaws”. It wasn’t called “The Shark” because “Jaws” was more immediate and better conveyed the action genre. A comedy should have a funny title such as “40 Year Old Virgin” or “Knocked Up”. In these cases the entire plot is also conveyed. “I, Robot” suggests a science fiction movie, while “Paranormal Activity” indicates a supernatural thriller.

A PLAY ON WORDS

The examples I can think of are “Preaching To The Perverted”, “Shaun Of The Dead” and “Legally Blonde”. Catchy and all help sell the films. They may indicate a parody to the original.

SOURCE MATERIAL

Often the film adaptation carries the same name as it’s source for continuity. It’s a powerful tool of the branding process to create familiarity, awareness and mental relationships. “Harry Potter” is a prime example as is “Closer” which originated as a stage play of the same name by Patrick Marber. A notable deviation is “There Will Be Blood”. This title is more obscure than the bolder title of Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil”. The film title adds an element of mystery, death and saga, whereas “Oil” could be a story about acne.

OBSCURE TITLES

These are generally reserved for non-studio films to create an air of exclusivity to perhaps more high brow audiences who love to be challenged by what a film’s title actually meets. Consider the recently released film “Invictus” about Nelson Mandela’s shepherding of the Springboks to World Cup Rugby victory. Invictus is a Latin word meaning “unconquered”. Imagine if it was simply called “Mandela” or “Springboks Rule”? The Latin title adds prestige and so much depth to the film because South Africa winning the World Cup in 1995 was meant to unify South Africa. In 1995, rugby was more than a game. It was meant to conquer the evil ghosts of apartheid.

PARADOXICAL TITLES

Consider the Academy award winning film “Slumdog Millionaire”. Its diametrically opposed imagery causes instant intrigue.

NONSENSICAL TITLES

Examples include “Like Water For Chocolate” which doesn’t mean anything per se, but relates to the setting of the film, a chocolate shop.

Since first impressions are critical, make your  screenplay title puts your film script’s best foot forward.

Make your movie title have multiple layered meanings. Make it work hard like every other aspect of your screenplay. Don’t consider it an afterthought.

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