Movie Titles Can Matter at the Box Office – But How Much?

Choosing a name is impossible to quantify in terms of ticket sales, but that doesn’t stop execs from angsting

As a movie title, “Gravity” doesn’t seem like anything special, but the space epic has shattered box-office records for October.

“Machete Kills,” on the other hand, was catchy, memorable and told you immediately what the movie was about — all the boxes the experts say should be checked when naming a movie. It bombed.

That fits right in with the words of the late movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, who famously explained that “what makes a good movie title is a hit.”

Also read: Behind ‘Gravity’s’ Historic Box Office Hold: 3D, Word-of-Mouth and Sandra Bullock

What makes a good movie title is also totally subjective. All involved agree that a bad title can hurt a film and most believe a good one can help, but determining which is which is extremely tricky, and quantifying the impact that a film’s name has on its box-office performance is all but impossible.

None of that keeps Hollywood film executives from staying up late worrying about them, however. Summit Entertainment’s Sylvester Stallone-Arnold Schwarzenegger prison break movie “Escape Plan,” for example, is on its third title.

Many movies are based on material from another medium, like a novel, a comic book or a play. They come with their own titles, but those are frequently switched for the big screen, usually for the better. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was a fine title for Philip K. Dick’s novel, for example, but “Blade Runner” made a much better movie title.

See photos: 15 Books That Scored Better Big Screen Titles — ‘Cruel Intentions,’ ‘Die Hard,’ ‘Goodfellas’

The titling process on original films, which begins with the script and continues through development, consultants’ reviews and market-testing with focus groups can take years — and leaves plenty of room for leeway. The movies can represent investments of  millions, so there’s plenty of motivation to get it right. And several recent films have undergone title tweaks.

Sometimes a change is a no-brainer, as with Relativity Media’s animated family film “Free Birds,” which is opening on Nov. 1. Holiday tie-in or not, there was no way the studio wanted to see its box-office results associated with the film’s original title, “Turkeys.”

Film titles often evolve, and studios frequently register two or three titles for the same movie with the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s Title Registration Bureau early in the process. “Escape Plan,” opening Friday, was called “The Tomb” and “Exit Plan” during its development.

Marketing concerns are almost always behind the changes.

When Universal recently dated its Seth Rogen-Zac Efron comedy for March of 2014, it changed the name from “Townies” to “Neighbors.” The studio didn’t provide its rationale, but the original title was provincial and East Coast-centric, which would have made it a tougher sell nationally.

Also read: Woody Allen Reveals New Colin Firth-Emma Stone Movie Title, First Images

Short, sticky, informative and intriguing are all qualities that a good movie title has, according to the experts, but even that varies from film to film and genre to genre.

Family movie titles don’t have to be intriguing or even informative. But if a title is simple and memorable – think “Turbo,” “Planes” and “Cars” – kids will bug their parents to take them to the movie.

The bar changes with movies that target adults, particularly independent movies, which need to pique interest as well as be memorable. “Reservoir Dogs,” “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Blood Simple” may not tell much about the movies, but were catchy enough that the movies found their niche.

Last month’s R-rated Joseph Gordon-Levitt sex comedy “Don Jon” was called “Don Jon’s Addiction” when Relativity picked it up at Sundance earlier this year.

“Addiction is a loaded word and has negative connotations,” explained Relativity’s President of Theatrical Marketing Russell Schwartz. “But ‘Don Jon’ was not only tighter, it conveyed a feeling that was much more in line with the movie’s character and that made it easier to market.”

A unique title – like James Cameron’s 2009 “Avatar” – is often the goal, but how much that title mattered to the all-time box office topper is a matter of debate. It works the other way, too. When last year’s “Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure” became one of the biggest bombs of all time, how much did that title have to do with it?

It’s important to remember that the process doesn’t take place in a vacuum.

The Weinstein Co. and Warner Bros. got into a high-profile spat earlier this year over “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which TWC wanted to call “The Butler.” That was the name of a 1916 silent comedy short from Warner Bros., and the studio refused to budge, so TWC was forced to change it — choosing to add the name of its director.

Disputes like that are rare, however. The MPAA says between 3,000 and 4,000 movie titles are submitted per year. The organization then sends out notifications to its members and gives them 10 days to respond. That brings somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 objections, the organization says, the vast majority of which are settled via negotiations between the companies or, as is more rare, via arbitration.

Also read: 12 Years a Slave’ vs. ‘Gravity’ – Who Filled the Seats at the Academy?

Some of the best movie titles never see the light of day.

Months ago, Relativity was preparing for its September release of “Malavita” – literally “The Bad Life” in Italian – in the U.S. It was looking for a title that would click with American audiences for the Robert De Niro-Michelle Pfeiffer comedy about a mob family planted in France as part of the witness protection program.

They considered going with “We’re the Blakes” – the family’s fake name in the film — but that was before Warner Bros. came out with its Jennifer Aniston-Jason Sudeikis comedy “We’re the Millers.”

After polling viewers following several test screenings, they decided to go with “The Family,” playing on the double entendre around the mob.

But the title audiences most sparked to – and the studio would have loved to have used – was “Badfellas,” a take off on Warner Bros.’ 1990 gangster hit “GoodFellas,” which also starred De Niro.

“That would have been a good one,” Schwartz said. “But we didn’t want to deal with the legal headaches.”