March 1, 2011

The conundrum of the long movie title

Despite having a MOST IMPRESSIVE psychology minor indicated on my college diploma, I don't pretend to understand the mysteries of the human mind. But after a year and a half working at a video store and countless conversations with people of all stripes, I can claim some insight into the way the average brain remembers movie titles.

This may seem like insignificant nonsense to you - after all, how hard is it to remember movie titles? Take some recent Best Picture nominees, for instance - Inception, Black Swan, The King's Speech. What's so hard about that? On the whole, movie titles are pretty straightforward, and what they lack in everyday language (i.e. Inception) they usually make up for with brevity.

But occasionally you'll see a film with an unusual or long titles, particularly among indies. That's fine, and I'm all for artistic individuality, but it's very possible that that naming choice could cost the film its audience.

How?

From working at the video store, I learned that the average consumer (and I'm excluding movie nerds here) can remember about 2-3 words of a movie title. That's why most movie titles aren't longer than that. If they are, the extra words get cut from their recollection. For instance, the Kevin James and Adam Sandler laff riot I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry was shortened in the collective memory of our customers to just Chuck and Larry. We actually had to re-file it under "C" because no one could find it under "I." People were also much more likely to remember a unique word in a title, i.e. "Prada" in The Devil Wears Prada. If all they could ask for was "you know, the Prada something" then the process of elimination was pretty simple. Occasionally, you'd even get someone who could remember the approximate grammatical or thematic structure of a longer title, but nothing else. I once spent nearly half an hour with a man who kept insisting he wanted the Jodie Foster movie The Last House on the Left despite the clear absence of Ms. Foster on that film's IMDb page, until I finally pieced together that he was actually talking about The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.

Now that video stores are all but gone from the typical consumer's lifestyle, the importance of remembering titles increases significantly. If the aforementioned man had been searching for that movie on Netflix, he probably would have hit a brick wall since the two titles don't have any words in common except "the." Of course, he could have just searched the filmography of Jodie Foster, but I'd have a whole lot of nickels if I got one for every time someone would swear on their dead mother's grave that a movie had Jodie Foster only to later admit sheepishly "although y'know, I guess it MIGHT have been Meryl Streep..."

So this brings us to the film 45365. The number refers to the zip code for Sidney, Ohio, which is the town depicted in this slice-of-life documentary. It's kind of a cool idea for a title, and I'm behind it conceptually. But I can't help but feel that the directors and producers just shot themselves in the foot. No one is going to remember a movie title that's just a sequence of five numbers, even a devoted cinephile. Maybe an interested viewer will remember that the title is a zip code, and go back and try to find that article where they first heard about it, but are unable to find the article. They'll Google "ohio zip code movie," as I did when trying to recall its title for this post, and won't find anything relevant. Only when you search "ohio zip code DOCUMENTARY" do you get what you're looking for, but perhaps the mildly interested viewer has already given up. A potential viewer lost on a technicality.

Here's another: the recent Sundance hit Martha Marcy May Marlene. The average person will probably remember that the title contains a series of names starting with "M." That alone could probably find you what you want with the help of a video store employee, but Netflix won't be so understanding. You'll have to remember at least one of the names, and in all likelihood you'll probably figure that one of them is "Mary." Or "Maggie." Or you might misremember Marlene as "Maureen." If you can't get at least one word correct, then you're out of luck and once again the film has lost a viewer.

Long titles don't always present this problem. For example, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has two things going for it that people would probably remember: the mention of an identifiable figure (Jesse James, or Robert Ford if you know your history), and the fact that it stars Brad Pitt. That's why longer titles hit indies harder, because people can't look them up by star.

So, again, I'm all for artistic freedom and integrity. I just sometimes wonder if filmmakers realize that their titles could cost them viewers, and if that's a tradeoff they're willing to make.

What do you think? Is a consumer's desire to see an oddly-named film hindered by the limits of human memory?

1 comment:

The Red 9 said...

I would argue that with Netflix, the problem becomes much smaller not greater. By that, I'm refering to the "suggestions" feature. Nowadays, you don't need to worry about people remembering the title, since they'll probably see it there anyways.

Also, if you come across an article online, don't most people just pop open Netflix in another tab and type in the title then so there's no chance of forgetting about it later? (Or at least, that's what I tend to do?)

Of course, if your movie has an obscure director, a cast of non-stars, and is in a genre most people don't usually watch, then you might want to start thinking about a more memorable title, but otherwise, I don't see the problem.