12 Generic Movie Titles That Started Off As Something Better
This weekend marks the release of a movie we've been anticipating for a while, and which bears the kind of title you really can't forget. The Wettest County in the World is the new historical drama starring Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy as two brothers involved in a moonshine-running business in Virginia in the 1930s. The "wettest county" of the title is, of course, their own Franklin County, where in a period where the entire nation had gone dry and alcohol was outlawed, you could still get a drink.
Oh wait… you mean you've never heard of The Wettest County in the World? I guess maybe you know the movie as Lawless, the title assigned to Wettest County after it had finished production. And as Lawless prepares to go into theaters under this generic new name, it's worth remembering that it's far from the first movie to get saddled with a title way, way less interesting than the one it started out with. We've got 12 of our favorite examples below, but of course, there are many more. Check out our list, then join us in the comments to discuss other movies that started off with more interesting titles than they wound up with.
The Wettest County in the World vs. Lawless
To solve the mystery of the switch behind the movie that inspired this list, we went straight to the source: director John Hillcoat, who adapted Matt Bondurant's historical novel The Wettest County in the World. That title was intact throughout the film's production, but around the time it was acquired for distribution by the Weinstein Company last year, it was renamed Lawless. The answer, as usual, is simple and less exciting than you'd hope:
"It became a serious problem for overseas distributors - they simply did not get the meaning of wet and dry regarding prohibition. France thought it was either pornography or a wildlife documentary (rainiest place on earth). They would all re-title it per territory and we did not want a movie known by 100 different titles. Even in the US, audiences had an incredibly negative reaction, most thinking it was a documentary…"
It's kind of fantastic to imagine audiences showing up for a movie they thought was about a rainforest and getting a violent saga about gangsters and moonshine instead, but you can't blame Hillcoat for wanting to sell audiences on the movie he actually made. And while the posters featuring a sneering Tom Hardy and the bright red "Lawless" title are effective, they don't quite get across the movie's down-home charm and wit, something the exaggeration of Wettest County in the World captured perfectly. Fans of the original title can at least pick up Bondurant's book and let the title live on that way.
Anhedonia vs. Annie Hall
Woody Allen’s latest effort went through a few name changes, from The Bop Decameron to Nero Fiddled to the woefully generic To Rome With Love, but not that many people are aware of the last minute retitling of his most famous work. Allen has admitted that the transition from the mildly pretentious yet interesting “Anhedonia” to the kind of bland and only now ‘classic’ Annie Hall happened at the last minute out of fear that audiences simply wouldn’t know what the term meant.
That’s fair, I’m sure more than a few people would have to Google it if I hadn’t already - it’s the inability to experience pleasure - but it is a perfect descriptor for protagonist Alvy Singer. Now, it’s hard to imagine Allen’s masterpiece by any other name (Annie Hall does have a simple beauty), but the switch from “Anhedonia” is just an early example of studios deeming intelligence unmarketable. Leading up to the film’s release the film was even tested with more temp-titles like “Anxiety” and “Alvy and Me” before naming it after the strong woman in the picture. Oh, and two of co-writer Marshall Brickman’s nixed suggestions weren’t bad either - "It Had to Be Jew" and "Me and My Goy."
The Cut-Whore Killings vs. Unforgiven
Unforgiven isn't a terrible title. It just isn't the most memorable title for a truly remarkable Western. Like most of the monikers featured here, it's one-word, and slightly generic. What's sad is that Clint Eastwood had interesting options. The screenplay adopted multiple names before Warner settled on Unforgiven, and the others, according to reports, ranged from the equally simplistic The William Munny Killings to the similarly racy Whore’s Gold. My guess is that Warner wasn’t crazy about the word “whore” being in any title.
But do a little research and you’ll learn (via Richard Schickel’s Eastwood biography), that it was the director who ordered the name change, acknowledging its relation to John Huston’s 1960 film, The Unforgiven. “Well, it's a good title, it seemed to me to suit the film perfectly,” Eastwood said. “And since I think the film by Huston isn't one of his best, like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or other classics, I didn't see anything wrong in using it for mine.” Given the fact that Eastwood’s film went on to win Best Picture and Director in 1992, it’s kind of hard to argue against him.
Scary Movie vs. Scream
Scream is such a terrific title that it's hard to imagine the Wes Craven classic being called anything else. Yet when Kevin Williamson was an up-and-coming screenwriter pounding the pavement to sell studios a possible horror franchise, his groundbreaking screenplay held the lackluster title Scary Movie. Of course that name now brings to mind the parody series that mocked this and other popular horror offerings in the most obvious and unimaginative ways, but Williamson's original title stuck to the project through much of production, even being emblazoned across cast and crew wrap gifts.
Then as the shoot neared its final days, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, founders of Dimension Films, swapped Scary Movie for Scream. The marketing savvy brothers felt the original title didn't do justice to the horror film's fresh aspects of satire and sharp humor. Reportedly both Williamson and Craven protested the change, though both later came to side with the Weinsteins.
Eaters of the Dead vs. The 13th Warrior
It’s understandable that Touchstone Pictures didn’t want to use the full title of Michael Crichton’s novel - “Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in A.D. 922” is a little long - but the settled-on The 13th Warrior is by no means a better choice. And the decision not to use the awesome name Eaters of the Dead was only the first of many missteps made by the studio, since the film was coming right on the heels of Jurassic Park and The Lost World, not to mention in the middle of E.R., making Crichton as bankable a name as any.
Why would a studio decide to disconnect their upcoming release from their famous author’s original source material? Well, Eaters of the Dead was deemed ‘too weird’ for mainstream audiences so it was replaced with the completely boring The 13th Warrior. And the title wasn’t the only thing replaced, director John McTiernan was also let go with Crichton himself brought in to reshoot scenes. An Eaters of the Dead original score by Graeme Revell even existed by it was junked for the Jerry Goldsmith music heard in the ‘final cut.’ Apparently the McTiernan version wasn’t testing well so the studio figured making several changes at once might shake off the stink but instead resulted in The 13th Warrior being a complete failure.
Oh No She Didn't vs. Obsessed
We learned about this change from this terrific NPR article, which tackles many more title switches that seemed more interesting the first time (like Alien being originally called Star Beast??) And while they don't really explain why the title Oh No She Didn't was eventually changed to Obsessed, you can kind of get it if you look at it through movie studio logic. Once again, they leaned on a generic title that everyone could get, rather than something saucier and a bit sillier, which seemed much better suited to the soapy tale of romance and envy that Obsessed eventually became.
Maybe Beyonce didn't want the lurid title of Oh No She Didn't on her resume. Maybe the gossip website Oh No They Didn't threatened to sue. Those are much more interesting scenarios than what likely happened-- a studio buying a script that had the perfect title, then backing away from it in a misguided effort to please everyone.
A Couple of Dicks vs. Cop Out
Cop Out being a Kevin Smith movie, this title change has been widely discussed online, largely by Smith himself, who positioned himself as railing against 'the man" of the studio basically from the moment Warner Bros. allowed him to make this buddy cop film in 2009. The original title A Couple of Dicks did seem pretty perfect for Smith, a legitimate way to describe two private eyes that also includes a sophomoric penis joke. But he and everybody else knew that advertising a film with the word "dicks" in the title was going to be a challenge, and a few months before the movie was set for its early 2010 release, the hammer came down.
As Smith explained, after he had trouble getting networks to air ads for his previous film Zack and Miri Make A Porno, he ran the Couple of Dicks title by the major networks, all of whom told him they couldn't run the ads before 9 p.m. Even though the film that eventually became Cop Out was an R-rated comedy, Warner Bros. wanted to widen their advertising scope, so the title was scrapped. Yes, naming it Cop Out was a pretty clever way to acknowledge that the original title was way better, but it's still utterly forgettable-- appropriately enough, since the movie itself is too.
I'm With Cancer/Live With It vs. 50/50
50/50 is a really great movie with a disappointingly bland title. The story of a young man, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who discovers that he has a form of spinal cancer, the movie’s name refers to the main character’s chances for survival, but while the title makes sense when you understand the context, a person who knows nothing about the film has zero clue what it’s about. This wasn’t the case for the names that the project had before it got its official label. Before being called 50/50, the film was known as both I’m With Cancer and Live With It, two names that not only have some kind of creative edge to them, but also give you an idea of the plot.
Unfortunately, the change was made for the exact reason you expect: fear that nobody would see a movie called I’m With Cancer. “Part of the reason we’re making it is for as many people to see as possible, and we’re really proud of it, and I think it would be a shame if something as silly as a title were to keep people away,” director Jonathan Levine told us prior to the movie’s release. The real shame is that the film didn’t end up finding success at the box office anyway. Maybe it’s a sign that people just aren’t that into generic titles.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret vs. Hugo
The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the novel by Brian Selznick that became Martin Scorsese's film, is one of those mouthful titles you can never quite remember correctly-- is it invention? Creation? Intuition? But it also gives you some sense of the movie's French setting, with Hugo's last name, and hints at the movie's focus on the inventor and filmmaker George Melies. And even though Selznick's book was for children, the title has a more grown-up feel-- something that Paramount presumably wanted to step far away from as they began to market the expensive film to family audiences in the Christmas of 2011.
The film went into production as Hugo Cabret, but by the time the first trailer hit it was simply Hugo, emphasizing a story about kids in a magical version of Paris, and even some CGI snowflakes to give it the right holiday feel. Scorsese never really talked about the reason behind the change, probably because it seemed obvious-- ditch that mysterious French name that no one knew how to pronounce, and you might be able to boost box office. You can debate whether or not that worked-- Hugo made $73 million domestically, not a ton for such an expensive movie-- but it snagged a Best Picture nomination at least. And in France, unsurprisingly, it was released as Hugo Cabret after all.
John Carter of Mars vs. John Carter
Earning only $73 million domestically, Disney's $250 million tent pole John Carter is one of the biggest flops of 2012. Many have blamed part of this feature's box office failure on its far from evocative title. But how did Disney settle on such a bland moniker? Well, as you might expect, it was a process.
The movie was actually based on the book A Princess of Mars, but as Disney already has a lock on the girl demographic, John Carter was meant to pull in boys. So "princess" couldn't be anywhere near the title. (It was a similar revision turned Rapunzel to Tangled Stateside.) Thus this action-adventure's working title became John Carter of Mars. But a year before its release, it was changed to simply John Carter. While the film's blandsome star Taylor Kitsch has claimed this was because Carter isn't really "of" Mars until the finale, it's more commonly accepted that the studio dropped "Mars" to get distance from another tanked Disney effort Mars Needs Moms. The result is a movie that's title tells you nothing but the name of its hero, and so failed to capture the attention and imaginations of audiences worldwide.
Cogan's Trade vs. Killing Them Softly
The funny thing about the title of the upcoming film Killing Them Softly is that there’s actually nothing really wrong with it by itself. As explained in one of the first clips that was released, the title refers to Brad Pitt’s character’s preferred method of murdering people – namely from a distance. The problem is that the title immediately reminds anyone who hears it of the 1973 number-one hit with the similar title by Roberta Flack.
That leads us to the film’s original title: Cogan’s Trade. While perhaps not the most self-evident of names, it doesn’t exactly take a lot of research to figure out what the name means: Pitt’s character is named Jackie Cogan and the movie is about what he does for a living. And what’s wrong with inspiring people to do a little research? Draw the audience in with a less-than-obvious title, get them to watch a trailer or two, and then hook their interest. It may cut out the lowest common denominator audience, but at least you don’t immediately lose peoples’ focus by subconsciously getting them to do YouTube searches for songs covered by the Fugees.
One Shot vs. Jack Reacher/Moscow vs. Jack Ryan
When you're trying to kick off a new franchise, you can't do better than to simply name the first film after your main character. That, at least, seems to be the logic behind two upcoming movies about men solving large-scale mysteries, both of which ditched slightly more intriguing original titles in favor of a regular man's name. Moscow was the working title for the Jack Ryan movie, a reboot of the character who starred in Patriot Games and A Clear and Present Danger, but after a pause in production to let star Chris Pine make Star Trek 2, they're going back in action this fall as Jack Ryan. And One Shot is the name of the Jack Reacher book by Lee Child that is being adapted for the Tom Cruise vehicle, but as generic as that is, it's not the franchise-starter that Jack Reacher would be.
Plenty of movies that are just named after their main characters have done just fine-- Jerry Maguire, Ray, a whole string of Bourne movies-- but it's a bummer to see them fall back on the names when they had slightly more interesting titles to start with. We'll see how the switcheroo pans out for them when Jack Reacher comes to theaters this Christmas, and Jack Ryan arrives Christmas 2013.
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