In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting.
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 times 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 highly 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 specifically 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 likely 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 in order to find the best title for their script.
Avoid Click Bait
Click bait 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’re thinking 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.
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.
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.
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 like the other examples, her character is the main purpose of the concept as the main character—neurotic New York comedian Alvy Singer—falls in love with the ditzy Annie Hall.
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.