Monday, January 16, 2012

What's in a name?

There's general agreement that the 2011 flood of reboots, remakes, and "out-of-nowhere releases" is all about brand recognition and names.

For a movie industry that's dangerously profit-minded, it's all about the brand, right? I'm not just talking about the fact that Battleship is only one of the many boardgame movies in development. The choice of what to even call a movie is also a big part of green-lighting spinoff features.

There were 3 X-Men films released in the 2000s, which were named X-Men, X2, and X-Men III: The Last Stand. They were about a super-powered team, so the titles fit the pix. Later, though, there was a spin-off focused on the star of the first entry; it was called X-Men:Origins:Wolverine. The obvious dumb thing here is the title's absurd length and complexity. The other dumb thing is that X-M:O:W has nothing to do with the X-Men at all. I'm not sure whether to write "oops" or "duh" or both.

Of course, last year saw the release of a prequel film called X-Men:Origins:First Class. This choice was not as dumb, as the events here lead up to the creation of the X-Men. Still, they're not actually involved here, and so it's a "less-dumb" move, not anything approaching "smart" or even "neutral."

You could say that this is a flaw that's likely to happen in super-hero-type movies. I mean, why else call a film something like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer? But they're not the only ones, of course. Johnny Depp's Cpt. Jack Sparrow is so popular that studios just had to ride on the franchise that created him, and so we got Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. This is also a dumb and excessively-long title.

Believe me, I'm already incensed enough about the possibility of a Where's Waldo movie or a Candyland film. I'm just astounded that, not only are studios obsessed with re-working the same 12 or so successful franchises, but they need the names to track so closely!

It makes it clear that studios are doing exactly that: re-working the same 12 or so successful things. To pick a recent topic, when something like Green Lantern fails, execs are more likely to blame "the property" instead of the writing, acting, and direction. I'm not sure if the problem is intelligence, and understanding of language, or a need for philosophy courses.

Hell, all the Star Wars prequels have "Star Wars:" in front of their actual titles, not simply part of the poster. Like it or not, it's one of the most successful film series ever, and Fox/Lucasfilm thinks people won't know what Revenge of the Sith is about unless "SW:" leads it off? This is dumb, dumb, dumb.

Smaller and Wrap-Around is Better
Big and On Top is Worse

Ultimately, this all comes down to two annoying Hollywood tropes: (a) thinking the audience is stupid and/or easily confused and then catering to that belief, (b) making sure to "brand" everything so that anything can become a micro-industry, like Star Wars did.

Sci Fi Channel became "SyFy" because the old name has limited trademark potential - it's a word in common use, so if someone makes a product (t-shirts, songs, lousy movies) with that name, a court wouldn't protect the cable network much. The logic goes that since no one uses two silly "y" letters when referring to "science fiction," the channel's company gets better legal protection in trademarks.

It's obvious why every major company wants to be like a respected college - they all want to get to the point where they can trade on their name and print it on clothes. But I can't see a lot of people walking around with t-shirts, hats, or sweatshirts for the Sci-Fi Channel - and I really can't see a lot of people wearing those clothes if they had the word "SyFy."

Astonishingly, I can think of only one recent series that breaks from this trend: the Ocean's movies by Steven Soderbergh. It's a huge blockbuster series that lives on its excess, but I guess you can count on Soderbergh to innovate, even when he's making a movie that plays to the cheap seats. And, hell, if "Ocean's" followed by "a number" doesn't tell people that "Thirteen" is a sequel to "Twelve," then they probably shouldn't be allowed to go to movies - they should have court-mandated educational classes...

It wouldn't be hard for me to write this in a totally-neutral tone. Forget my own opinions, sections here sound close to flat out complaints. I won't soften my language because if you told me in 1987 that Die Hard would produce Live Free or Die Hard, I'd've assumed you were drunk or insane. The "market" isn't producing very good "product," not even on names like Die Hard or Aliens or Star Wars or Alvin & the Chipmunks.

Pretend I didn't write that last one, OK? If you're in the business of making movies, just focus on making good ones - or focus on making good movies that will shamelessly make money, fine. It sounds like top-down incompetence if you plan out and start up a franchise with a bad story, flat dialogue, or no arcs. It might be worse if you start abandoning those things only when you get to sequels and spin-offs; now you broke it!

UPDATE: As Vance commented below, the James Bond franchise never fell back on the franchise titles thing. I actually feel a little dumb for not mentioning it, although its foreign and classic status kind of takes it out of the conversation.

It's also true that many productions are relatively left alone. Sherlock Holmes is on the same level as Bond, of course, and a search for Hound of the Baskervilles shows that studios left the name alone. I chose it randomly, and I'm glad, as it's been released multiple times in almost every decade since film began. Even the most recent editions are respectful of Doyle's fame.

Of course, I also left out the Fast and Furious titles, as I would be ashamed to type those names out. And I wasn't going to mention the recent Captain America film was subtitled :The First Avenger, which was just a deeply shameful plug for
The Avengers, coming this May.


The idea of "what's in a name" is about the way we use language and the philosophical (un)importance of words. In art, it can be about the relationship between the artwork and what its creator called it; sometimes a lot is revealed about a painting, sculpture, or poem (or film) by the name given to the piece. On a few occasions, my idea about some work changed greatly when I learned its title.

What got me thinking about this subject is also the perfect example for why this practice is wrong: In 1981, Spielberg directed a movie starring Harrison Ford. It was called Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was wonderful, and I love it dearly. But, in 1999, when it was re-issued on VHS, it was retitled to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Why? So that its name would match the two other pictures in the series.

We know who it is guys. And he's a "raider," too.
Was that necessary? It sounds like a George Lucas move, so did he develop severe OCD? How do you decide that a beloved 18 year-old film should change its official title? And how do you justify doing that, not because the new name matches the film better, but because it matches the subsequent movies in the franchise?

The likeliest goal was consolidating the "intellectual property" so that a video store would display all 3 side-by-side. Even this justification is a little silly, since they still wouldn't be in alphabetical order - the 3rd movie would be in the middle. So, I guess the only idea was: "Indiana Jones movie titles should start with the hero's name."

And this reason is no good, either. Calling it Raiders of the Lost Ark is neat because it refers to Indy just as much as it does to the Nazis; everyone involved in the search for the Ark is a "raider." All of them are intruding on sacred, spiritual, forbidden territory. RotLA, then, is a name that expresses one of the themes of the film - remember, Sallah tells Indy as much.

At the 0:54 mark, you can hear Sallah say it.

Even better, the title highlights Dr. Jones' relative lack of importance. Sure, Indiana matters to us, because he's... awesome. Regardless, he's nothing compared to a device sent from the gods, is he? By omitting him, it highlights the importance of the object he's hunting.

It surely would've been better than this.
Even better, my childish self easily imagined that there could be a whole high-quality series about people who hunt out special artifacts. With Spielberg behind the camera and John Williams doing the score, there could be several of these, only some of which would feature Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford could return to the role at leisure, the entire "supernatural archaeology quest/1930's serial homage" could stay fresh - and Jones could eventually team up with the leads of some of these other pictures. Hell, they might've even predicted Lara Croft!

In fact, this is sort of what Marvel has been doing for The Avengers for the last 5+ years. Cool idea, right? I had it when I was still an adolescent. It occurred to me when I saw the next two movies and noticed his absence from Raiders' title. Wow, even the name of the picture was inspirational.

I'm going to follow that tangent for a moment:
Of course, I'd rather we had as many Indy films as we do Bond pictures. Yet, that actually would've been more likely if the series had been spun off, with the spin-offs running in parallel or in tandem. Instead of seeing the mixed reviews of Temple of Doom, and running away scared for 5 years, Spielberg and Lucas could've switched over to a pic about other relic-hunters. This would've given them a chance to shift gears a little while still working up ideas, buzz, and motivation for the next Dr. Jones adventure.

Yes, I know, the most unbelievable thing I've written so far is that George Lucas once stepped away from pictures because they got bad reviews, even though they were highly-successful at the box office. I swear I'm not making this up - Temple's earnings were the 3rd highest in 1984, and Steven and George constantly say the critical reception made them back off.

It was already perfect, guys.
It's true in some ways that names aren't important. I think I'd be the same person if I was called Donald or Blake or Johnny. What's important, then, might be the importance that we ourselves place on names, why you would give something one name over another, and why you would change a title that's already well-established.

Please don't think this post is about nostalgia. If you want to get to the heart of my problem here, it's that the Hollywood movie system places a lot of importance on names - but it does so for all the worst, cheapest, and greediest reasons. And they don't even take the trouble to hide their motives... Or do you think The Empire Strikes Back is confusing? Do you even think the rare people who don't know it should be spared the trouble of just looking it up?


  1. Good points. I especially like your point about why The Sci-Fi Channel changed the spelling of its name, which I had never considered but which is dead on. I'm pretty much opposed to any retroactive changes, whether it's in the title or in the film itself -- I'm of the school who believes that the first version that is exposed to the world is THE version of the movie. (I don't even like director's cuts from directors who are really good.) You mention James Bond ... doesn't it kind of blow your mind that no studio has ever felt it necessary to include Bond's name in the title of one of the Bond films?

  2. Thanks, man! I accept director's versions because I was exposed to them early on. I "make some art'" too, so I know the importance of revision. It's odd, because I don't usually believe in folks getting two bites from the same apple..

    I guess it's because I wanted to see a version of Alien 3 that Fox didn't run into the ground... And maybe a version of From Dusk til Dawn that cut Cheech Marin's monologue where the joke is that he says "%%%sy" 40 times in 2 mins. Ooh - a version of Scrooged where Bill Murray doesn't ad-lib over the credits!

  3. The Bond thing ... is more surprising because of how low the franchise sunk. My family (and I) almost had a party when cable picked up the series, but I had long been bothered by how tacky and predictable they got during Moore's run. Writers obviously put more time into groan-worthy (if appropriately English) puns than they did to the story or character arcs.

    The real saving grace was probably (of course) the extensive collection of titles Fleming left behind, as well as the British producers confidently recognizing the success of the franchise.

    But yeah, considering the artistic choices made in the franchise, I can't believe they didn't release a 2001 pic called Double-O 7 Rising: Origins: James Bond is Sharken, Not Stored, a Re-beginning . As a title, that's still better than GoldenEye as a movie...

  4. Great post! Very interesting topic that I honestly haven't really thought about until you mentioned it. I agree that the Syfy bit definitely makes a lot of scene...even though the name change is ugly and anti-intellectual, which is...not something you want to promote to a SCI FI audience.

    Honestly, I haven't really thought so much about "branding" titles. It doesn't bother me, except for the fact that it makes an extra long name that I have to tediously spell out. I get when you have a series you want to keep it in the see a lot of that in novels just to keep the linear storyline in order.

    But, of course, if you want to go back to the root of all evil, you start with George Lucas. George Lucas doesn't make art--he runs a business. He'll do whatever it takes to squeeze out another set of ugly kids toys, even if that means sucking any soul out of the prequels (they had so much potential!). So I can definitely see how branding every movie makes for a possessive moneymaking scheme. But hey. When was the last time anyone expected integrity from Hollywood?

  5. Thank you! The whole "movie aspects" tag came to me because it's worth writing about the things that are part of movies. Popcorn, trailers, all the stuff that's tacked-on to your viewing.

    The "branding" thing is big because it's been a growing business idea. You turn your name into not just goodwill (i.e. customer approval), but into its own product that you trade off directly. Everybody wants to be able to trade on nothing more than their name and logo, and toys, t-shirts, clothing, theme parks those are all fine ways to bring in more money. J Lo, right?

    Maybe Adult Swim is a good example of folks who got to merchandising/branding themselves quickest. So the thinking goes, why not SyFy? Why not a Pfizer perfume line?

    Time Warner Wines, we'll get you drunk from 4-8Pm!

    With movies, the idea is to make everything a franchise with multiple sequels or spinoffs. Puss in Boots off of Shrek? I heard it wasn't good. Wolverine off of X-Men? Ditto. Why do people forget to work hard at telling a good or fun story?

    And obviously the sequelizing is going crazy. My post on the # coming out in '11 and '12 gets Google search-ed (not a word) a lot. Sony pulled such a big and crappy move by rebooting the Spiderman movies like that. No justification but to make it, and make it younger. Twilighti-er (also not a word =)

    I like to believe if studios stuck to good ideas first, and didn't misuse the whole concept of name recognition, everyone might come out a winner. They'd enjoy plenty of fresh success, possibly even creating new cool "franchises" or names to hopefully not run into the ground.

    I'm sorry about the freakish length of this reply ;)


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