How to Write Screenplay Titles That Don't Suck
One of the most underrated aspects of a screenwriter's arsenal is their ability to create titles that jump off of the page and further entice the powers that be in Hollywood to take notice.
It's a sad truth that within Hollywood's over-saturated development platform, there are so many scripts to consider — and so little time. Therefore, screenwriters are tasked to do whatever they can to stand out from the rest. Often it's a strong and compelling concept. Sometimes it's a great logline. It could also be the writer's voice within the context of the script pages or even a special and unique character that hasn't been seen in movies yet.
But before all of that, what is the first contact that Hollywood has with any given screenplay that comes through their email inbox? The title.
Since the dawn of publishing, picking a strong title for a story has been a highly debated and profoundly explored subject. In these contemporary times, companies and individuals have even tried to create algorithms to come up with what they feel would be the most marketable title for novels and movies.
And that's really what we're talking about here — marketability. Now, there are two phases of conjuring marketable titles for screenplays.
The first phase comes during the spec writing process when a screenwriter is writing under speculation that their screenplay will be purchased and produced. Which is to say that no one is hiring them to write the screenplay.
The second phase is after the fact, when a screenplay has either been purchased by a studio or production company and is being produced, or after a concept has been specially developed by a producer or development executive, leading to the hiring of a screenwriter for the assignment.
In the first phase, the purpose of creating a strong screenplay title is to stand out from the thousands of other spec scripts being distributed through the over-saturated spec market. Unwise advice that often makes the rounds is the notion that when you're writing on spec, the screenplay title doesn't matter because it's likely going to be changed anyway down the line. It's true that if your script makes it to the second phase, the title could and probably would go through any number of variations based off of marketing and creative input from many individuals. However, the screenwriter still needs to use their title as a weapon in their literary and cinematic arsenal to call further attention to their script for it to be considered in the first place.
A strong screenplay title can't overshadow an otherwise horrible concept, story, or overall poorly written and conceived script. However, a strong title can grab the attention for consideration because, as most should know, there are hundreds upon hundreds of amazing screenplays that are over-looked by Hollywood. It'd be a shame for such scripts to slip through the cracks because of the early red flag of a bad title. It's disconcerting to think that a mere bad title would cause the demise of an otherwise excellent screenplay, but the reality is that the filtration process of Hollywood development can often cause that to happen.
So How Do Screenwriters Create Strong Screenplay Titles?
What are the factors to consider? What makes a title good or bad — and better yet, what makes a title stand out in strong and compelling fashion?
Let's start with some examples to ponder.
- The Babysitter Murders
- Shoeless Joe
- Star Beasts
- Not Tonight Josephine
- The Ship of Dreams
- East Great Falls High
- A Long Night at Camp Blood
- The Lunch Bunch
- It Had to Be Jew
- Love Hurts
- The Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night
- A Boy's Life
- Night Skies
- When I Grow Up
- Affairs of the Heart
- Coma Guy
You've never heard of these movies. Or have you? Most of them are actually the original titles of some of cinema's most iconic films.
- Field of Dreams
- Some Like It Hot
- American Pie
- Friday the 13th
- The Breakfast Club
- Annie Hall
- Annie Hall
- Basic Instinct
- Saturday Night Fever
- E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial
- E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial
- Fatal Attraction
- While You Were Sleeping
The reasons why they were changed — and why we're glad they changed — vary. We'll cover many elements of the hows and whys below, but one can argue that the eventual decisions made for the final titles were wise ones. Some are stronger than others, but all of them are titles that best convey either — or combination of — the concept, story, genre, or special compelling character featured in each script and eventual film.
We'll use these examples, and a few more, to break down the secrets and considerations that screenwriters need to utilize to find the best title for their script.
1. Avoid Clickbait
Clickbait is a contemporary internet reference that also harkens back to the tools employed by print journalism — creating headlines that force readers to "need" to explore further.
First off, the titles you choose can't purely be conceived for click bait. You'll be doing yourself no favor by titling your script The Secret Trump Files only to have the reader discover that the screenplay is actually telling the heartfelt story of a puppy lost in a strange place.
If you think that no screenwriter would ever stoop so low, I can tell you from years in development and writing coverage; this happens more often than you think.
2. Focus on the Core Concept
The idea isn't to deceive. It's to entice. It's to showcase the strongest and most specific core element of your screenplay. The best titles often wrap the genre and overall concept together in as few words as possible. Because the title is your first marketing tool that Hollywood sees, you want to find those words and terms that best encapsulate your whole screenplay.
Alien is as specific as it gets. The cast and crew of a space merchant vessel are tasked with surviving the assault of an alien on their ship.
The movie Snakes on a Plane is a perfect example of selling the core concept within the title alone. It says it all. "The title was what got my attention," Samuel Jackson told USA Today. "I got on the set one day and heard they changed it, and I said, 'What are you doing here? It's not Gone with the Wind. It's not On the Waterfront. It's Snakes on a Plane!' They were afraid it gave too much away, and I said, "That's exactly what you should do. When audiences hear it, they say, 'We are there!'" While the eventual movie wasn't anything to remember, for the most part, the marketing centered on that title gave an otherwise lackluster thriller some box office legs to stand on in the end.
Big is another straight to the core title. While the script's previous title When I Grow Up could be considered a strong contender, the single word Big captures the essence of the film. When asked to make a wish, the small in stature Josh quickly says, "Big. I want to be big." That's the whole film right there. His wish and the repercussions of it. If that script is in the first phase with a screenwriter writing on spec and trying to find a title that best captures the core elements of their script, the title Big sells it, especially when Hollywood goes on to read the logline — After wishing to be made big, a teenage boy wakes the next morning to find himself mysteriously in the body of an adult.
So when you're looking to title that script of yours, understand that being overly specific is often the best way to go in the end.
3. The Unique Character
Some screenplays have characters that are the focal point of the overall concept, which is to say that the whole film centers primarily on a unique character. If you take them out of the story, there is no story. You can't replace them with a stock protagonist.
Juno is a unique character. She's a pregnant teen with a witty and "beyond her years" outlook on life that she isn't afraid to share. Without that character, there is no film.
Forrest Gump is a unique character. He's a learning and socially challenged man that lives a rather adventurous American life. The whole film is about how this "different" character reacts to love, war, and loss. Without him, there is no film.
Jerry Maguire is a unique character. One could argue it's more about him being a unique character type, but we'll cover that below. The concept is that he's the ultimate sports agent success story that has to deal with losing everything and building himself back up, but this time with heart and honesty. Without him, there is no film.
Annie Hall is a unique character. While the film doesn't focus on her point of view as the other examples do, her character is the primary purpose of the concept as the main character — neurotic New York comedian Alvy Singer — falls in love with her.
Naming a screenplay or film after the main character isn't always advisable, but in certain situations where you have unique characters that stand out, you should consider it as an option as long as the character is centered upon and strong enough to warrant putting their name on the cover page.
Another variation of this is including the name of the character in the title, as was the case with films like Good Will Hunting, When Harry Met Sally, and There's Something About Mary. While including names of the lead characters in titles may seem as if they'd pack less of a punch upon first sight, know that Hollywood is all about casting, and lead actors especially are looking for unique characters to play. If the character name is in the title, it's often a slight hint that the screenplay in question is character driven.
4. The Unique Character Type
In this context, character "type" is referring to a certain character that has a unique power, position, or occupation.
American Sniper — and the fictional action film Sniper before it — is a title that sells the concept, story, character, and much of the genre. All in one.
The underrated Alec Baldwin and Demi Moore film, The Juror, sold the package of the movie with its title. The film was simply about how a juror involved in a sensitive case deals with coercion from the mafia.
The upcoming American Assassin sells the concept of an American that becomes an assassin after terrorists kill his fiancée.
The Invisible Man — or the lesser title of The Hollow Man, a once-hot script turned into a lackluster movie — was about, yes, a man who has acquired the power to become invisible.
So if you have a character that has a specific power, position, or occupation that stands out, consider using that — or a variation of it — for the title of your script. Words like The Soldier, The General, The Master, The Conjurer, The Hypnotist, The Garbage Man, The Lawyer, The Wrangler, The Pilot, The Engineer, The Mail Man — these are all examples of the possibilities that you can explore, depending on your script. The variations can be as simple as dropping The from the title, which makes for a more powerful statement with the single word. You can also add additional words into the mix to give the title more depth, such as The Soldier Within, Lawyer No More, The Last Pilot, etc.
5. Avoid the Steven Seagal Syndrome
You always want to avoid generic terminology and phrases in your screenplay titles — words and combinations thereof that could really mean anything and everything.
I call this the Steven Seagal Syndrome.
Here are the titles of many of Seagal's movies — Above the Law, Hard to Kill, Marked for Death, Out for Justice, On Deadly Ground, Fire Down Below, Half Past Dead, Out for a Kill (seriously), Driven to Kill, Contract to Kill, Out of Reach, Into the Sun, Mercenary for Justice, etc. If you're not a truly dedicated Seagal fan, you wouldn't know the difference between most of these movies because they are utterly generic titles. Sure, many denote the characteristic of the hero, but beyond that, they don't stand out. They are forgettable. And when you're in the first phase of screenwriting writing spec scripts, forgettable is not a term you want to be connected with your writing.
Note: Most of Seagal's movies are titled to emulate the titles of his earlier successful hits specifically to capture the international market attention where most of his current movies still make money today. Thus the many iterations of "... Kill". So there is a method to that madness.
6. Capture the Genre
Studios and producers will want and need to know the genre of your script before they even read it — the title is the best and fastest way to do that.
Halloween captures its genre instantly and is much more broad and appealing compared to its former title The Babysitter Murders. The same can be said for Friday the 13th, which was a better option than A Long Night at Camp Blood. Halloween and Friday the 13th have an atmosphere to them that embraces the horror genre. They're instantly creepy, foreboding, and scary.
When you're titling a horror script, search any and all terms that touch on those types of stories. Do the same for action, comedy, science fiction, and drama. Search for keywords and phrases that emulate the tone and atmosphere of those specific genres. Then delve deeper by looking at synonyms for those words and try to create compelling wordplay on the phrases you find.
7. Explore Titles with Dual Meanings
A screenplay's title comes into play twice — before the reader reads the script, and then after they've read it. When you've paid extra attention to crafting a title, you can often come up with two meanings. This offers extra significance to the title and also manages to give the reader an extra punch when they're done.
If you look at the title for the Tom Hanks film Cast Away, you'll notice the dual meaning behind it. His character is literally cast away from his world, specifically from the love of his fiance — and he literally becomes a castaway when his plane crashes, and he washes up on the shore of an uninhabited island.
Good Will Hunting has the dual meaning of including the unique lead character name, and it denotes the story element of finding the good in Will Hunting.
This is where the screenwriter can truly have fun with their titles and use their creativity on multiple levels.
But be careful. Sometimes you unknowingly — or knowingly if you have a sick sense of humor — create titles that have unintentional dual meanings.
Sexual innuendos can quickly sneak up on you. When I worked as a studio liaison for Sony Studios, one of my jobs was to create Sony I.D. badges for all incoming productions and their personnel. I created many badges for a Will Smith superhero film called Tonight, He Comes. Snickers ensued. The studio wisely decided to rename the film Hancock, which still instigated some snickers but was a definite improvement. There exists a whole different kind of entertainment industry that has mastered the art of sexual innuendos in movie titles. Let them handle it and save yourself and your script from some unintentional laughs.
8. Ensure That the Titles Make Sense to the Story
During my studio liaison days, I also created hundreds of Sony I.D. badges for a film called 50 First Kisses. At the time, this was Adam Sandler's next film, reuniting him with his The Wedding Singer co-star Drew Barrymore. The film tells the story of Henry Roth, a man afraid of commitment up until he meets the beautiful Lucy. They hit it off, and Henry thinks he's finally found the girl of his dreams until he discovers she has short-term memory loss and forgets him the very next day. He takes it upon himself to meet her again and again, even though at the dawn of each new day, she forgets who he is. Now, if you watch the film, you'll notice that while they may have 50 dates (onscreen and off), they don't necessarily have 50 kisses. So the title of the film was changed to 50 First Dates. Needless to say, when the post-production crew came in, I had to print additional badges with the new title.
Lesson learned — make sure the title stays true to the story. Don't call your script The Lone Gunman if the main character travels with multiple gunmen.
Hollywood screenwriter John August tells the tale of a script he worked on during one of its drafts — it was called Planet Ice. The problem was, there was no planet made of ice in the script. It was a title that was a holdover from previous drafts. The film was eventually released as Titan A.E.
9. Google Any and All Titles
We do live in a small world after all (my apologies if a particular song is now stuck in your head). Compelling titles are hard to come by, and as we're all humans, well, great minds think alike. It's not uncommon to discover that multiple books, screenplays, and movies share the same title that you just brainstormed for two weeks. It can be heartbreaking. So do yourself a favor and Google any titles that you come up with. If you find matches with self-produced books or any other more obscure property, don't worry about it as long as the content is vastly different. But if you see that previous movies have been released with the same title — or there are upcoming releases in development or production — you're better off going in a different direction.
Studios have often been known to stockpile and trade great titles as well, even if the actual script isn't used. The Bruce Willis film Tears of the Sun was actually a title of a script that was previously under consideration for a then fourth Die Hard installment. Willis later asked the studio for the title to use for the non-Die Hard film in exchange for agreeing to do a Die Hard sequel based on a different script, which would become Live Free and Die Hard (Die Hard 4.0 in some territories).
There is no exact science for creating masterful screenplay titles. No magic formula. No "fill in the blank" Mad Lib sheet. It's all trial and error. The true key is to put a lot of thought into it because it truly is a key factor to your screenplay in that first phase. A strong title can be the difference maker, no matter how ludicrous that may seem to some. These nine directives are there to help you through the journey of finding that one title. And maybe you'll luck out and find one that proves to be lightning in a bottle.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies