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Big Studios Take Pains With Names

Fri., July 11, 1997

Demi Moore’s new movie is called “G.I. Jane.”

Or is it?

Maybe its name today is “A Matter of Honor” or “Pledge of Allegiance.” Or, depending on the week, “In Pursuit of Honor” or “Navy Cross.” Does “Pride of a Nation” do anything for you?

Fact is, Moore’s film has gone through more titles than Frank Gifford has excuses. And once upon a time, before all the flip-flopping, “G.I. Jane” was called … “G.I. Jane.”

Its titular tiltings are scarcely unique among summer and fall films.

“Amy Foster” became “Forever” which became “To Love and Be Loved” which became, at last check, “Swept From the Sea.” “The Mark of Zorro” turned into “Zorro” which then turned into “The Mask of Zorro.” “The Day of the Jackal” is now known as “Jackal,” meaning another movie previously called “Jackal” is now known as “The Assignment.” “Bookworm” was changed into “The Wild” and then “The Edge.”

Got all that?

Some title changes almost defy detection. “Copland” is now “Cop Land.” “She’s De Lovely” has turned into “She’s So Lovely.” “Dr. Bean” is now “Bean.” “Ants” is now “Antz.”

From large to small, the changing titles all reflect the same basic battle: How do you create eye-catching (meaning: profitable) names that don’t stomp on somebody’s toes (meaning: lawsuit)?

The movie formerly known as “The Day of the Jackal,” due Nov. 14, stars Bruce Willis in a reworking of the 1973 assassination thriller based on Frederick Forsyth’s novel. Forsyth and the first film’s director, Fred Zinnemann, went ballistic over the cloned title.

Unless Universal Pictures altered the name, the two said, the studio would be “destroying not only our film, but erasing its memory.” Under no legal obligation to switch names, Universal did so anyway: It’s bad business to have an Academy Award-winning filmmaker calling you artistically bankrupt. Zinnemann died soon after the title change.

Bad titles can kill a good movie, and good titles can redeem a mediocre project.

The Oscar-winning prison movie “The Shawshank Redemption” was confined in part by its swollen title - and that was shortened from “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” The acclaimed chess prodigy movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer” didn’t win its match, either, and producers blamed the ambiguous name.

Conversely, when “Teeny Weenies” was renamed “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” it went huge. Julia Roberts’ “Pretty Woman” was originally known as “3,000,” the dollar cost of her services. Sandra Bullock’s “Coma Guy” was turned into “While You Were Sleeping.”

It also pays to make sure a name translates. Chevrolet couldn’t sell its Nova car in Latin America because in Spanish the word “nova” means “doesn’t go.” Warner Bros. struggled with “Free Willy” in the United Kingdom because a “willy” is, well - ask Howard Stern.

Movie studios test virtually every aspect of movie distribution, using research screenings and focus groups to check endings, cut unfunny jokes, change music. Problems with titles usually surface long before the sneak previews - the names just don’t feel right.

If the average moviegoer can’t pronounce the title, switch it. Hence, this fall’s “Kilronan” became “Bloodline.” The 1995 foreign-language movie “Gazon Maudit” was renamed “French Twist.” Short and succinct - “Air Force One” - is far better than long and obscure - “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill, But Came Down a Mountain.”

And don’t send an unintended message. “Shoeless Joe” turned into “Field of Dreams” because audiences thought star Kevin Costner might be playing a homeless person. The comedy “Dr. Bean” became “Bean” over Gramercy’s concern that moviegoers might assume it’s a medical yarn.

Moore’s “G.I. Jane,” an account of a female commando that opens in theaters Aug. 15, certainly has had its share of name troubles. “G.I. Jane” was among many suggested titles, but there was one small problem: G.I. Joe.

The toy’s maker, Hasbro, declined to give the Walt Disney Co. permission to use the “G.I. Jane” name, according to people familiar with the movie. Disney floated a series of alternative titles, but kept coming back to “G.I. Jane” - it was concise, capturing the essence of the film. So they went back to Hasbro, checkbook in hand - and Hasbro dropped its objections.

“The Edge,” which will be released Sept. 26, is based on a David Mamet script called “The Bookworm.” But the latter title, in 20th Century Fox’s view, conveyed nothing about the drama set in the Alaskan wilderness. So the studio changed names to “The Wild,” but couldn’t get legal clearances. Hence, “The Edge,” which still sounds like a documentary about the U2 guitarist with the same name.

“She’s So Lovely,” debuting Aug. 15, couldn’t be called “She’s De Lovely” because Cole Porter’s estate wouldn’t share the Porter song title with Miramax.

Movie titles are supposed to convey an emotion - just not too much of one.

The romantic drama once known as “Amy Foster” first suffered from a generic title - who is Amy Foster and why should we care? Then came “Forever,” which didn’t mean anything, either.

“To Love and Be Loved” was closer, but it sounded like a Harlequin Romance, which could scare men off?

“We really struggled with this one - it was not easy,” says the film’s producer, Mike Medavoy. Tim Rice had written a soundtrack song called “To Love and Be Loved,” and artists were poised to start making “To Love and Be Loved” posters. But Medavoy grew nervous: “‘To Love and Be Loved’ skews very female,” he says.

So the former “Amy Foster” became “Swept From the Sea.”

A difficult title can just as easily be a sales hook as a sales dilemma. Fox Searchlight worried that the title of its Aug. 13 release “The Full Monty,” an English comedy, was meaningless to Americans.

“Only a handful of the population in England knows what ‘The Full Monty’ means,” says Fox Searchlight’s Lindsay Law. “It’s a title that’s so obscure and difficult that we thought we would make it part of the marketing campaign.”

So what’s a “Full Monty?”

Buy a ticket and find out.


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