What’s in a title, a movie title? Especially a long movie title? Michael Kelly, a student of the subject, believes that the right selection of words - in the right order, with the right rhythm - can be valuable in helping a film make a name for itself in the crowded cultural marketplace.
“Long is bad,” said Kelly, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. He has explored why people choose certain combinations of words rather than others and why some phrases work better than others.
“There’s a lot of evidence that people’s memories are not as good as we think,” Kelly said. “Long titles that involve clauses are harder to remember.”
Such a pronouncement is bad news for “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain.” The film, starring Hugh Grant, is a quirky comedy about proud Welsh villagers who refuse to accept the word of English surveyors that their mountain is really just a hill.
Memory tests have yielded some clues about what we remember, and in what order. Kelly says people prefer to put positives before negatives (heaven and hell, for instance, would beat out hell and heaven) and short words before long (as in the title “Crimes and Misdemeanors”).
Offering an example of preferable word order, Kelly said: “Ben and Jerry’s is strong; Jerry and Ben’s is weak.”
He added that most people prefer phrases separated by “and” (“To Have and Have Not”) over those separated by more complex words (which might be bad news for “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain).
Perhaps the true judges of long movie titles, however, are the managers of movie theaters. It is they, after all, who have to make the titles fit their marquees. Imagine trying to squeeze “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain” onto an ordinary marquee.
Or, next fall, “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar,” a Universal Pictures film about three drag queens, starring Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo. (A spokesman for Universal said it would not shorten the title.) i
Sometimes theater managers use just the first few words of the title. Thus the movie of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” became “How to Succeed.” (Today, they might even shrink it further, to “H2$,” as the producers of the current Broadway revival have done.)
Titles that use colons offer theater managers an easy option: “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” obviously became “Greystoke.” And “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad” became “Oh Dad, Poor Dad.”
But there are other solutions. “On smaller marquees, we would have to take the most distinctive word in the title,” said Marc Pascucci, vice president of advertising and publicity at Sony Theaters. In that case, “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain” will probably be billed as “Englishman.”
Then again, perhaps it doesn’t matter what’s on the marquee. “Anybody who is savvy about movies makes a decision not based on marquees,” said Pascucci. “They don’t draw people into the theater. They merely serve as information boards.”
“There are some people who agonize over film titles,” he added. “We’re not them.”
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