Friday, March 11, 2005

What's it called, Kid?

What’s in a title anyway?

In the good old days of the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s AIP (American International Pictures) was the king of exploitation films. They made millions of dollars on the idea that their pictures were unlike anything you had seen before – bigger, bolder, and brassier. According to their CEO, Samuel Z. Arkoff, what made AIP the best in the business were their titles and artwork.

NOT the movies themselves.

In fact, theater owners one time told them to just ” put sprocket holes in the posters and run those. We can’t use the movies.” Titles like: I Was A Teenage Werewolf, The Fast and the Furious and The Wild Angels.

Lurid. Exploitation. Pulp. [Gawd, I love that term]

Let’s face facts: you the filmmaker may know how to produce a great film with no star power that delivers on the thrills, chills, and drama that audiences love. It’s shot well, lit correctly, edited crisply, and has a sound mix that makes your ears bleed. It’s the greatest exploitation masterpiece filmed inside a frat house ever (except for that time when your girlfriend found your video camera and had a few too many – I want copies).

More power to you - hallelujah! All hail the great filmmaker. Oh, and by the way?

You’re screwed.

Right out of the gate, you are so hamstrung you will cripple up like an arthritic old gelding and crumble into the dust. Off to the glue factory with you! Your film will never be seen or will be relegated to the “whatever happened to?” $1.99 bin at Amoeba or Blockbuster. If you’re a writer (who isn’t these days?) your script is going to be tossed in the “low priority/slush” pile at a production office. Your query is going to be deleted out of that Creative Executive’s email.

Why? Because you don’t know how to sell a film and you don’t understand how D2DVD films are sold. Until you know that little fact, your film is going to be caught in that quagmire of never-seen, never-distributed, epics that sit at the bottom of every film school graduate’s closet, gathering dust. Your script is going to go unread. Your career is never going to get off the ground.

I’m rambling, I know, but go with it because I'm telling you stuff you NEED to know. I know how to sell a film, and I know how films are sold. I’ve written, produced, dvd-produced, marketed and publicized over 50 now. Maybe more – I’m not counting box sets.

Movies that, for good or bad, got distribution and were on the shelves at a video store near you. I’ve made people very happy when they saw the finished product (yes, it’s a product), and I’ve made them angry when I’ve changed something like the title. I always tell the angry ones, “Would you rather have YOUR title on the DVD, or would you rather it sold more units?”


Fact: In the D2DVD world, titles and artwork are everything. Period.

Retailers depend on the selling power of the distributors’ titles to help them stay afloat every month. If it doesn’t look good or sound intriguing then it doesn’t get bought. Period.

Distributors send out “sell sheets” every month announcing the titles they are selling. Those pictures and titles are the only thing that the retailers go by when placing their orders. They request screeners occasionally, but the studios aren’t sending a lot of those out anymore. They don’t need to, because what really sells a DVD…is really just a picture and some words.

That’s what sells your masterpiece (It can also pre-sell your masterpiece, but that’s a discussion for another time). It’s not your film. It’s sometimes your stars (if you have the budget to get them). But it’s always the title and the artwork.

Think about that.

It’s a pretty scary concept that a film’s longevity depends almost solely on its marketing, but it’s also quite liberating, because this is something that a filmmaker can control at the outset. If you understand it, you can use it to your advantage when it comes time to find a distributor. You can develop the exact plan to communicate what your film is about. To hook your audience immediately, and get them reeled in.

And get this – it costs you nothing!

Let’s skip artwork for now. It’s a big subject that will take many posts. Let’s talk about the thing that you as the writer / filmmaker can do to enhance the salability of your project. Lets talk titles.

Have you ever heard of – Living in Paradise? Dead Dog Blues? How about Confederate Saber?

Of course you haven’t. That’s because they were released as other, better titles that actually sold the movie they made. Take a look below at the titles and loglines. Which one sold the logline better?

Living in Paradise = Bling Bling

A young rapper goes undercover at a rogue hip-hop label and uncovers a murder-for-profit scheme.

Dead Dog Blues = Grave Matters

An unbalanced woman kills her husband and buries him in a shallow grave only to have to deal with her own guilty conscience and a determined cop during the investigation.

Confederate Saber = Wicked Games

An interracial ménage a trois ends in murder and a young woman discovers the one you love could be the one you can’t trust.

Would you rent a movie called Confederate Saber? No, but you would rent something called Wicked Games that features a sexy threesome on the cover and a hint of murder in the air wouldn’t you?

And that’s the difference between making a movie, and making a sellable movie.

Bling Bling was actually written up in the USA Today as being in the top ten of video movie rentals that week. According to Billboard it beat Scooby-Doo! Trust me on this – Bling Bling was made for the amount of money they paid for a day’s craft service on Scooby - if that. No names, gritty style with lots of cheap handheld shots. Poor sound. Bad acting.

Great title. Great artwork. Period.

The really great thing about this is – the audience can’t really tell the difference between a D2DVD and a really big title when it’s on the shelf. The playing field is even. If you can hook them with the title – hint at the action, romance, intrigue, adventure, scares, thrills to come within that DVD case – then you have a winner.

Combine that with great art and you have a blockbuster.

Next time, I’ll tell you the process I go through as a pulp writer when it comes to titles, and how a good title can help you write, and how a bad one (or no title) shouldn’t stop you.

Stay tuned…


Aric Blue said...

Totally agree. My first film went direct to video and did very well--I'm sure based on the title and the artwork(which depicted nothing from my movie).

As for the title...I "borrowed" it from a non-fiction book.

My second film which I just completed just got me a call from Lion's Gate--and the rep mentioned how much he guessed it...the title and the artwork.

Anyway, nice blog. Will be checking it out in the future...of course, where were you ten years ago when I REALLY could have used the info? :)

Bill Cunningham said...

Ten years ago, I was an electrician for several shows, working my ass off in SC holding down three jobs to pay the rent.

I kick myself sometimes that I didn't even think to get into film work until after I got out of the USAF. I could have been flush in the eighties with all sorts of DTV titles...

ah well, I wasn't ready then.

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Kristen said...

What you're saying reminds me of J.R. Bookwalter's book on B-movies... someone bought it for me a few years ago from a flea market. (It's spiral bound like something from Kinko's.) He and his crew would sell movie concepts with the VHS cover and log line alone, and if those were accepted, he'd shoot the film in about 15 days.