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What’s In a Title?

20th Century Fox recently revealed the title to the 5th film in the Die Hard series: A Good Day to Die Hard.  It’s always good to see a sequel that doesn’t go for the easy way out and just slap a number at the end of the original title.  However, with the number of cheesy titles this series has had, you’d think George Lucas was naming them.  The first sequel was officially given the title of Die Hard 2, but confusion with the tag line had a lot of people referring to it as Die Harder.  Of course, the tag line is silly but works as a marketing tool as it was intended; as a movie title it would be ridiculous.  What would the third be, Die Harest?  No, as it turns out, it was the awkwardly-named Die Hard With a Vengeance.  When that came out, it left people scratching their heads.  It sort of made sense, even if it was giggle-inducing.  It had the original’s title in it, which is always a good thing as it reminds audiences what series it’s part of.  It also had to do with the plot of the movie, which initially seemed to be about revenge (though, of course, was actually about greed as all of John McClane’s adventures are).  When the studio decided to revive the series after a 12-year absence from the theaters, Fox announced that the film was being called Die Hard 4.0 (as it’s still listed on IMDb’s search engine).  This actually worked, since it was the fourth film in the series and was about computer hackers, so the title implied the fourth version of a computer program.  Perhaps that was too clever, but the name was changed to Live Free or Die Hard.  Of course, this is a play on New Hampshire’s state slogan.  It seems the studio was trying to out-awkward the third film with this clunky nomenclature.  In a way, it has to do with the movie since the plot concerned national security, but the actual words “die hard” are buried.  It’s like naming a Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back During the War in the Stars.  So now we have a Klingon proverb with the word “hard” tacked on at the end.  It seems in the search for originality, the studio is grasping for any phrase with “die” in it so they can twist it to be a Die Hard title.  What’s next for the series?  Do or Die HardDie Hard a Natural Death?  If they decided to go a romantic route with the series they could have  Die Hard of a Broken Heart.  If it becomes a comedy, they’d end up with Die Hard LaughingThe obvious end of the series would be Old Habits Die Hard.

As was previously pointed out, movies can be saddled with any number of annoying trends, so you have to give credit for Fox and the producers of the Die Hard movies for thinking out of the box.  Too bad the same couldn’t be said for the Lethal Weapon series, which was content with just numbering each film.  But then again, what else can you do with it?  Lethal Weapon sounds cool (though since it seems to refer to only Mel Gibson’s unstable and deadly character, it’s a bit odd since the films are about buddy cops).  Would a better name for the sequel be Lethaler WeaponAnother Lethal WeaponLethal Weapon to the Rescue?  Or maybe go the Aliens and Predators route with the plural Lethal Weapons (now including Danny Glover as a titular character)?  It’s a tough call because you want your audience to readily know that this is a sequel to a popular movie with no confusion.  It’s as much about marketing as it is being creative.

Which brings us to naming new movies.  If you write a screenplay that is certain to be a hit movie, what name do you give it that captures the plot, tone, or theme of the movie and is marketable?  With sequels, it’s almost beside the point because by now you’re selling a brand rather than creating a new product.  A new movie’s name has to be handled delicately.  Would an audience go for a film called The Last First Kiss, or would it be better to promote Will Smith’s character and simply call it Hitch?  Would a Western called The Cut-Whore Killings win four Oscars, or would the Academy respond better to Unforgiven?  Let’s face it, Blade Runner is a much cooler title than the book’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (no offense to the late Philip K. Dick).

What is a screenwriter to do?  You want to come up with an amazing title that grabs people’s attention and sums up what you want to say about the story.  Primarily, you need to worry about getting it read by agents, producers, and studio exec.  What will draw them to the screenplay?  Will they read Untitled?  The writers of American Pie made a joke out of it by coming up with the too-literal title of Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made For Under $10 Million That Your Reader Will Love But The Executive Will Hate, knowing that the studio will slap whatever name they want on the finished film.  At least it got the script read–and sold.

Read more musings on film and television by Jamie Helton at FilmVerse.

This article was originally published at FilmVerse on October 12, 2011.  Republished with permission.

copyright © 2011 Jamie Helton

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