Thursday, July 14, 2011

What's In a Movie Title?

"The Invention of Hugo Cabret," by Brian Selznick, won the 2008 Caldecott medal, a first for a novel-length children's book. It has been adapted into a big budget holiday film, directed by Martin Scorsese. Nobody has seen more than a few frames of it yet, as the marketing campaign hasn't started up yet. However, we do know that the title has been steadily shrinking since the project was announced. At first it was called "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," the same as the book. For most of the last year it was known as "Hugo Cabret." Now just recently, it's been shortened again to "Hugo." It joins a slew of other titles that have been shrinking on theater marquees - "The Eagle of the Ninth" became "The Eagle," "The Greatest Muppet Movie Ever" became "The Muppets," and "The Fast and the Furious 5" ended up just "Fast Five." One of the most confounding changes has been PIXAR's recent decision to shorten "John Carter of Mars" to the considerably less intriguing "John Carter." So they're making a spinoff "ER" film about Noah Wyle's character, eh?

None of the original titles look especially unwieldy to the uncynical eye, but these days titling decisions are often in the hands of marketers trying to build a brand. Shorter and more reductive always trumps longer and more descriptive. Movie titles need to be memorable, but they're also expected to be immediately comprehensible, easy to translate for foreign markets, and free of any difficult words or unpopular concepts. More and more studio films have titles reminiscent of simplified sales pitches. This year saw "Prom," "Bridesmaids," "Bad Teacher," "Hobo With a Shotgun," "Cowboys & Aliens," and "Zookeeper." You know instantly what each of these movies is about just hearing the titles, which make them much easier to sell than "The King's Speech," "Black Swan," and "Inception." Can you believe Christopher Nolan got away with calling an action film "Inception"?

When titles don't conform to the existing marketing paradigm, there's a lot of pressure to change them. For instance, there is every indication that Dreamworks' "How to Train Your Dragon" had a title the marketers weren't comfortable with. In many of the commercials and advertisements, they kept calling it "Dreamworks' Dragons," which tells you all the information they think the audience needs to know - it's a Dreamworks property and there are dragons in it. "Rapunzel" became "Tangled" because Disney wasn't about to admit they had made a movie about a fairy-tale princess in a hurry - princesses are très uncool to the young male demographic. I suspect that "Hugo" may have lost his last name for fear that children and some of their parents would have a hard time pronouncing "Cabret," and dismiss it as something foreign and icky.

Titles that have a better chance of staying intact are those that are already established brands that film marketers want to capitalize on. Hence, "Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer," "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2." Sometimes the studios will retain familiar titles even when they don't make sense - last year's new "Karate Kid" movie was about Jaden Smith's character learning kung fu. And I guess "Rise of the Apes" just wasn't as obvious and awkward as "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." "Hugo Cabret" may have won lots of kudos, but the book was not popular enough to retain the same title for the film. "John Carter," similarly, is based on a science fiction classic of a previous era that is virtually unknown to mainstream audiences today. The title of the source novel is actually "A Princess of Mars," but "princess" is a verboten concept (see "Tangled"), and so is Mars after the notable failure of Disney's "Mars Need's Moms."

The big budget films with the longest titles tend to be franchise sequels now, usually comprised of a main franchise title, a colon, and a secondary title (that is secretly the actual title of the movie). Examples from this year include "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules," "X-Men: First Class," "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World," "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1," "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked," "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," and the film that must have inspired several typographical and punctuation debates, "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol." Almost makes you wish for the days of numbered sequels again doesn't it? 2011 holds the record for the year with the most studio sequels, a whopping 27 films, so there won't be any deficit of these colon-ized titles any time soon. Heck, there are even a few gunners who aren't waiting for a sequel to break out the fancy punctuation, like "Captain America: The First Avenger" and "Dylan Dog: Dead of Night."

Logically, I suppose this means the only way to use the original title of "Hugo" is by calling the movie "Hugo: The Invention of Hugo Cabret." Or if you want to get fancy, "Hugo: Cabret, The Invention Of." You know, maybe I should just go and read the book.

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