From 'Shawshank Redemption' to 'Silver Linings Playbook': Movie titles that can hurt at the box office


This month, we offer a guest column from Elliott Kanbar, president of the Quad Cinema, the venerable Greenwich Village, New York independent art house. Mr. Kanbar’s comments originally appeared on the Quad website.

I have always believed that a movie title can affect box-office income. An excellent film like Simon and the Oaks was ruined because of the unfathomable title. Silver Linings Playbook will do fine, because it's a good film with a superb cast, but it would do better if the title explained what the film was about. On the other hand, the clear simplicity of the title Lincoln, will, I predict, bring this film a well-deserved Oscar. And, what can be more direct and definable than the title Flight? Even the less-accomplished film Hitchcock will be successful because the title is clear and simple. Can anybody who has not seen Rust and Bone tell me what it's all about? Meanwhile, effective titles like Anna Karenina and Hyde Park on Hudson may help these weak films make a few bucks. You would think Promised Land would be a biblical odyssey; instead, it’s a rather mundane story about corporate execs looking to get drilling rights in a rural town.

How about these films from years ago: Synecdoche, New York (I can't even pronounce it), Changeling (I had to look this word up in the dictionary) and Nights in Rodanthe? All these films failed because of their crazy titles. What's really unfortunate (for the studios, that is) is how bad titles ruined exceptionally good films like The Shawshank Redemption, Igby Goes Down and The Squid and the Whale. Sometimes (not often) a good film can overcome a bad title. Today's films Django Unchained and Life of Pi should do very well at the box office.

One-word titles can often deliver a strong impact, like Jaws, Rocky and Psycho. There's also something to be said about the cliché that "sex sells," especially when you have titles like Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin and Is There Sex After Marriage? It's noteworthy that using the name of a romantic city can bring on a seductive emotion such as in the films Casablanca, Chinatown and Roman Holiday. Occasionally a film title can be misleading. The Roaring Twenties is a gangster movie, but it sounds like it could be a typical Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical. At first I thought Sleeping with the Enemy was a wartime spy movie, but it's really about a psychotic relationship. Save the Tiger sounds like an environmental movie about an endangered species. Instead, it's a heart-wrenching film about a failing garment center business. Today's film The Intouchables brings to mind another Eliot Ness film.

When it comes to westerns, John Ford understood the importance of a movie title: Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Cheyenne Autumn. On the other hand, these two superb westerns would have fared much better with better titles: Bend of the River and Little Big Man. And, finally, GoodFellas is a brilliant Scorsese film. But if you did not see the movie, wouldn't you think it's about two long-lost friends meeting again and bonding? Meanwhile, The Godfather says it all. An unforgettable title that packs a wallop.

Hey, you Hollywood executives! Don't try to be too clever and deep-thinking with the title for your next blockbuster. Just remember that old saying: “Keep it simple, stupid."