It’s risky to "Think Different" and choose a movie title of varying font cases; especially one that makes searching the web ten times harder, even if your movie features a celebrity actor playing one of America’s best-known entrepreneurs.
But, borrowing from veteran ad man Ken Segall’s now-famous iMac branding with the small "i" standing for internet/i/individual, director Joshua Michael Stern and his producers somehow selected jOBS as the title of their bio-drama of Apple cofounder and longtime CEO Steve Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher as Jobs and soon to premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
To many film and Apple fans, the title seemed like an odd choice. The jOBS team remains silent prior to their Sundance premiere—like Apple prior to a product launch—but John McMahon, President and General Manager at Art Machine, the creative division of entertainment marketer Trailer Park, offers a perspective.
"jOBS has to do with a smart understanding of how the Apple brand is identified all over the world," says McMahon, taking a break from his visit to CES. "Obviously the brand architecture of Apple is reliant on the lower case and to me it’s a smart creative approach to an international superstar. We didn’t work on jOBS but that would be our assignment in the title treatment design. How do you define this person who is a legend and you define him in the same way that his company defined themselves and defined their products, with the lower case."
Whether or not you buy that (a j is not the same as an i…), the jOBS affair throws light on the importance of a movie’s name to its critical and box office success.
Before title sequence directors and graphic artists get to work creating eye-popping movie openers and Hollywood’s leading marketing agencies start building a movie’s brand identity, the first creative wave occurs with directors and their Hollywood studio partners pinpointing the best movie title.
Adaptations of a Nicholas Sparks novel, Batman comic book, Broadway musical, classic TV show, maybe even a Disneyland ride, are no-brainers. But choosing an original title that will persuade audiences to fill cinema seats, one that that drops you in your tracks and cements a creative vision into your memory is hard, even (or especially) after numerous focus groups and extended testing. A great title can make all the difference in launching a film towards success. Remember, Disney’s Rapunzel transformed into Tangled and became a hit.
"There’s not a science to it," says Scott Goldman, EVP Theatrical at the entertainment advertising and branding agency mOcean, speaking to us from his West L.A. office. "I will say that it’s really putting a lot of brainstorming into what the story is and how can it be conveyed as something new. Sometimes it’s brevity. Sometimes it’s as simple as keeping it short and sweet. We really don’t get too many opportunities to do a Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb anymore."
Talk to Hollywood’s brand identity leaders and key themes to successful titling become clear. One does not want a title that misleads audiences like the Vince Vaughn vs. aliens comedy The Watch, the plane crash survival movie The Grey, or the teens-out-of-bounds comedy Project X.
Honesty, understandability, what one veteran marketer and agency owner calls "leading audiences right to the water, like with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln," is a good practice for creating a marketable title.
Movie titles that take risks need the boost of a well-known director or acclaimed/bankable cast to help audiences accept that they’re going to see something special. The Meryl Streep/Tommy Lee Jones comedy Hope Springs and the Maggie Gyllenhaal school drama Won’t Back Down take ambiguity to new heights. The same can be said for the comedy Here Comes the Boom starring Kevin James as a high school teacher who becomes a weekend mixed-martial arts fighter to raise money for his school.
If you’re lucky enough to be dealing with a film that strikes critical acclaim and becomes an awards-season contender, risk-taking can become an asset.
"Think about those projects that push the envelope of a title because of who’s attached to it like Zero Dark Thirty," says Stephen Lapp, co-owner and creative director of Iconisus L&Y in Culver City, CA. "Zero Dark Thirty is not a title that anyone in the general public will associate with the content of the film but because it comes from Kathryn Bigelow you can get away with a title like that. People are looking forward to that film because of what the film is—the public is savvy enough to realize this film is about the Osama bin Laden capture and it’s by Kathryn Bigelow and they hear Zero Dark Thirty and it sticks in their minds because it’s so different. It’s not The Capture of Osama bin Laden. It’s something completely abstract but it works."
Lapp agrees that risky titling is the domain of Oscar contenders. Still, it’s worth noting that the matter-of-fact Lincoln pulled in more Oscar nominations than its ambiguously titled competition: the Iraq Hostage drama Argo, Wes Anderson’s coming-of-age comedy Moonrise Kingdom, and Zero Dark Thirty (for people still wondering what the phrase "Zero Dark Thirty" actually means, it’s a military phrase for 30 minutes after midnight).
Then again, giving audiences a title that lets them know exactly what to expect leads to movies like Hobo with a Shotgun, The Three Stooges, I Saw the Devil, and cult favorites Snakes on a Plane and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.
Numbers are good. Think of classic titles 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Seven Samurai, and The 400 Blows.
Matter-of-fact names are even better: Ted, Magic Mike, Wreck-It Ralph (the recent stumbles Jack Reacher and John Carter being rare exceptions).
Karen Crawford, partner and creative director at the L.A. marketing agency Blood & Chocolate, knows how important a movie title is, especially in the multiplatform world of movie marketing. A stellar movie title strengthens live streaming premiere footage, Facebook likes, Twitter feeds, and theatrical teasers.
"Just keep it simple and short if possible," Crawford adds. "Something catchy and provocative that hints at what the film is about (like identifying the genre) but makes the audience want to know more."
For now, toss jOBS on the twisty title pile of mistakes along with recent movies like xXx and Thir13en Ghosts. It will be up to premiere audiences to determine just what they think of its branding choices.
After all, creating a great movie title is not an easy task or there would never have been the Lucy Liu/Antonio Banderas action movie Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever.
There are plenty of guidebooks and fan lists for popular movie titles but no official awards to recognize the heavy lifting involved with titling. Here, some of Hollywood’s leading entertainment marketers step forward pre-Oscars and deliver their nominees for the 2012 Movie Titles They Can’t Get Out of their Minds:
Karen Crawford, Partner, Creative Director, Blood & Chocolate, Los Angeles, former creative director at Artisan Entertainment, VP of Print Design at FX and SVP Print Advertising at Fox Atomic.
1. Chasing Ice
2. Zero Dark Thirty
3. Moonrise Kingdom
5. Rust and Bone
7. Dark Horse
8. Trouble With The Curve
9. The Guilt Trip
Stephen Lapp, Co-Owner, Creative Director, Iconisus L&Y, Culver City, former creative director at Seiniger Advertising and Art Director at The Walt Disney Studios
1. Zero Dark Thirty
2. The Silver Linings Playbook
5. Mirror Mirror
6. Rust and Bone
Scott Goldman, EVP Theatrical, MOcean
4. Magic Mike
(On the Risky Side)
1. The Silver Linings Playbook
2. Django Unchained
3. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
John McMahon, President and General Manager, Art Machine, Hollywood, the print and creative division of Trailer Park
1. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
2. Man on a Ledge
3. The Cabin in the Woods
4. New Year’s Eve