So, in the last couple of weeks I’ve been wading through the submissions pile for London Screenwriters’ Festival which takes place at the end of this month. The scribes in question have been applying not only for the actors’ table reads (where, unsurprisingly, actors read out sequences from applicants’ screenplays, before giving the writers in question feedback); but also The Script Labs, which I run each year.
But as with *any* large volume of screenplay submissions in one place, I’m struck by a number of usual issues, this time regarding titles, so thought I’d share my thoughts from the front lines of the spec pile:
1) DO Google / IMDB your title. I’m always surprised when writers DON’T do this for their spec screenplays in advance, for two reasons:
- What might SEEM like a great title, may well have connotations you know nothing about! Google can be your friend on this. As an example, I had no clue, waaaay back, the British phrase “bang to rights” is actually “dead to rights” in the USA and that “bang” has, shall we say, a completely different connotation over the pond (AHEM). Now, this isn’t a problem for me and has actually helped my brand over the years (even if I do get an awful lot of porno spam too), but this was by accident rather than design. Also, an online persona / script reading business is very different to a screenplay title, which is viewed more often in isolation. You CANNOT afford to pick one that “misfires” and misrepresents your story.
- It’s worth checking IMDB for a very obvious reason: if your script has the same title as countless others (produced or not), how will yours stand out? Oh wait, it can’t. (I’m reminded here of how some commentators went POSTAL about Disney’s Snow Queen story being called FROZEN – but oh look! Literally 200 other titles called THE SNOW QUEEN! Ooops. Also, since when is thematic title relating to the issues characters go through in the story “diminishing” a protagonist? Le sigh. Moving on).
SO: people in the industry Google and IMDB titles, including producers and sales agents when deciding what to call a film on release, so you might as well get into this practice too. By the way, IMDBPro lists projects (and thus working titles) in development as well, so in my opinion any spec screenwriter deadly serious about making a sale should have a fully paid up Pro account. Here's MORE about titles.
2) DON’T pick a “classic” title. So, here are some of the classic titles I’ve seen in MY submission piles over the years:
- EASY RIDER
The above does not include those that are *almost-but-not-quite* “classic titles”, either: I am reminded of a screenplay I received many years ago via a literary agent that was called, I kid ye not, WAR IN THE STARS. And no, it wasn’t even science fiction.
SO: NEVER pick the title of a classic movie for your spec screenplay, even if it is different genre or type of story – it’s simply far too much semantic noise for your poor little spec to deal with.
3) DO match your title with your genre / type of story. This is obvious, but you don’t want your comedy to sound like a Horror or your Horror to sound like a drama and so on. Obviously there’s some leeway, especially on cross genres and subgenres, but again IMDB will help you with this. You may notice sometimes movies have the same title, despite being wildly different genres - like Disney's FROZEN, about two princess sisters and 2010's FROZEN, in which three students get stuck high up on a ski lift for three days. This is fine, as long as it makes sense - after all, both movies deal with peril, created by cold, both literal and metaphorical. What you DON'T want is to call your animated kids' movie something like, HEY SISTER I NEVER KNEW YOU WERE GAY.
SO: Check out stories LIKE yours and see what their titles were ... Were they good? Bad? Indifferent? Why? Learn a lesson from the ones that work and avoid the ones that don’t.
4) DON’T be boring. This harks back to point 1 and/or 2 – a boring title is one readers have seen COUNTLESS TIMES. Sometimes, when looking through the SAME submission piles, I will see the SAME titles from DIFFERENT writers, two, three or more times. Example: a couple of months ago, a production company hired me to read the first ten pages of a pile of about 20 thriller screenplays they’d had submitted for a script call with a very specific brief in mind (with the proviso I read the rest of the screenplay if I was suitably hooked). Of that pile, 4 of them had the same title. That’s TWENTY PER CENT of the submissions pile.
SO: Remember, I had been told by the prodco to read the WHOLE draft only if I was hooked in the first ten pages. The title is part of hooking the reader and intriguing them, never forget that.
5) DO go wild. A kooky title is obviously fantastic if you can pull it off, but usually needs to be coupled with a comedy – and the writer needs to REALLY go for it. That’s not to say other genres can’t get away with kooky titles, but you may be “misfiring” again if you’re not really careful.
SO: Remember your genre / type of story. Don’t be kooky just ‘cos you can; you don’t want your worthy drama to sound like a Seth Rogen comedy or similar.
6) DON’T pick a song title / lyric. So every year, I get a stack of screenplays with titles that are song titles and/or lyrics. I’m sure the songs involved are great and mean a lot to the writers involved; perhaps said songs even inspired the story? And yes, some movies ARE named after song titles too (note: often by sales agents, not writers). This is something to talk about when networking and/or meeting with whoever’s interested in your story when you get through the door. Whether you love this device or hate it with a passion like I do, these are the cold hard facts: everybody is using song lyrics as titles for their spec screenplays, so there’s a stronger than average chance you’ll end up with the same title as someone else. Quelle surprise, we’re back at point 1 again!
SO:Don’t use song titles or lyrics, ever. Just don’t. Fanks!
7) DON’T be obscure for the sake of it. A willfully obscure title is often NOT intriguing; it can be just weird and/or pretentious. Of course, sometimes scribes get away with it – ETERNAL SUNSHINE springs to (my not-so-spotless) mind – but it’s a very delicate balance.
SO: If you’re going to go for an obscure title, you need to try your title out on everyone you can and gauge reactions. Do they “get” what you’re trying to do? Do they think it “matches” your story? If the answer is “no” to either or both of these questions, find another title, STAT.
8) DO be enigmatic. One of my fave thrillers in recent years is THE AMERICAN (2010). Its source material’s, a noveI have not read, is called A VERY PRIVATE GENTLEMEN. Both titles are great I think, since both suggest the idea of an isolated character, literally via geography (after all, why would we care he’s American, if he’s IN America?) and again metaphorically, via his arc. Crucially however, the film’s title is the literal one and the book’s is the metaphorical one. Why do you think that is? Think about it.
SO: Film titles need to hit potential audiences between the eyes much more than book titles.
9) DO read through screenwriting contest lists of titles. Want to see for YOURSELF what readers moan about it when combing through the spec pile, ie. The same titles, boring titles, weird titles, etc? Great idea and it's a lot easier than you think ... The internet means we’re all connected and even if you don’t personally enter or even like screenwriting contests, handily these organisations will compile lists of spec screenplay titles for you! You don’t even have to go looking for them – sign up for newsletters and once the quarter finals, semi finals and finals are released, they’ll appear in your inbox, as if by magic!
SO: Don’t trust to luck on your title. FIND OUT what other spec screenwriters are doing and DON’T do the same as everyone else.
10) DON’T get hung up on your spec screenplay’s title. If your spec screenplay gets picked up / made? Someone will want to change its title anyway. True story!
SO: Do not simply pluck a title out of thin air and stick with it no matter what, just because YOU like it. You need to hook readers and potential audiences, as well as ensure your title doesn’t misfire or misrepresent your story. Luckily, the worldwide web can help you do this, for FREE – so put the work in, just like with any other element of screenwriting.
Want even more pointers on picking titles? HERE YOU GO.
- More articles by Lucy V. Hay
- Storytelling Strategies: When In Trouble, Reach for the Deadline
- Nicole Perlman Q&A: How ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Went From a Writers Program Project to Record-Breaking Film
Script analysis by screenwriting guru Syd Field
Four Screenplays: Studies in the American Screenplay