Saturday, July 30, 2011

Straight to the point

I thought up the idea for Cowboys & Aliens about ten years before producer Steven Spielberg, director Jon Favreau or the seven credited writers ever did.

(You don't have to mention this to them. I'm not planning to sue or anything.)

Except in my version of the story, the aliens were attacking during Revolutionary War times. There was something about the image of early Americans frantically reloading muskets while aliens wiped them out that appealed to me. Of course, the Americans would have to win in the end, but in the meantime, there would be a lot of powdered wigs blown off of a lot of heads.

Of course, their idea is better. By using cowboys, not only do you have better weapons that are easier to load, but you've also got an actual established genre: the western. Besides, Cowboys & Aliens is a much catchier title than Minutemen & Aliens.

"Catchy" may not be the word for Cowboys & Aliens as a title, actually. "Straight to the point" might be a better way to describe it.

That's right, the title of today's big release is all concept and no poetry. This is not necessarily a bad thing -- it's just funny. It tells you exactly the idea behind the movie without any pesky metaphors or abstractions to get in the way. "If cowboys and aliens occupied the same territory in the space-time continuum, this movie is what you would get." Almost like the title was a placeholder until they came up with the real title, and they just ended up keeping it. If all movies followed this bare bones title philosophy, a movie like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would be called Memory Erasers. And many of us wouldn't have gone and seen it.

But it really works here, I think. It gives the movie a bit of a kitschy, B-movie feel, one that helps rather than hurts its cause. It tells me about what to expect from Cowboys & Aliens -- a fun summer ride that isn't going to be too deep. But not in a bad way.

So it got me thinking of other titles that leave no room for nuance, that get straight to the point of what the movie is about. Now, in a way, that's the primary goal of any title -- you want something memorable that will give the viewer a good idea what they have in store. And so a lot of movies do this in some way or another. But not that many of them do it in such funny, obvious ways as Cowboys & Aliens. Sure, the title Nixon is straight to the point -- you're seeing a movie about Richard Nixon. It works a lot better than Not a Crook or Corruption or Impeached or any other title they could have come with for a movie about Richard Nixon. But it's not funny, and that's the big difference.

So, I've come up with a list of titles that do strike me as funny in some way, because they totally eschew any sense of subtlety in communicating what the movie is about. Ten seems like a nice round number, don't you think?

10. Hot Tub Time Machine. "This movie involves a hot tub that functions as a time machine." Yep.

9. Four Weddings and a Funeral. And all the action will take place within the course of these five events.

8. Three Men and a Baby. "There are three men taking care of a baby, and shenanigans ensue."

7. Walking and Talking. I almost didn't include this one because it's actually sort of abstract -- you don't necessarily know what it's about just from the title. However, once you've seen the movie, you realize it distills the essence of an independent movie: people walking around and having conversations.

6. Monsters vs. Aliens. I sort of think of this as the template Cowboys & Aliens used.

5. Zombie Strippers. "Strippers become zombies, and shenanigans ensue."

4. Love & Basketball. "This movie is going to have some love, and it's going to have some basketball. If you like those two things, you should see it."

3. Hobo With a Shotgun. "A homeless guy has a shotgun, and shenanigans ensue."

2. 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag. What more do you need to know? I guess how they got there might be of interest.

And of course, #1 ...

1. Snakes on a Plane. Yep.

Would love to hear any you might like to add ...


Travis McClain said...

First things first. Cowboys & Aliens is adapted from a graphic novel published in 2006. It was written by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, Fred Van Lente & Andrew Foley who were probably three of the seven credited writers of the movie (I suspect a "Story by" credit for them). Let's not credit Hollywood for creating a story that originated elsewhere.

Secondly, I have an idea for a story I'm actually currently working on that pits Daniel Boone against a zombie invasion. I love Boone, I dig zombies and I think the relatively primitive technology of the times would make zombies more threatening. Plus, I want to see zombies storm Ft. Boonesborough, even if I have to make the story myself.

As for titles, I prefer perfunctory, summary titles to the kinds of ambiguous, generic titles that we had to endure throughout much of the last decade. I can't tell you how many times I had conversations with people where we began talking about a current movie and none of us could think of the title, or we saw the title and couldn't think of what movie it was. Was it the one with that guy from that other movie, or was it that other movie with that other guy from that TV show? That was the best we could manage, because the titles were entirely forgettable.

Also, at least we've gotten away from our marketing obsession with numbers and acronyms and acronyms with numbers. Remember how ridiculous it was when Independence Day was advertised as "ID4?" I'm convinced that "9/11" was the apex of that marketing mentality. Can you imagine if the founders had been so reductive? We would celebrate
"7/4" instead of "The Fourth of July."

Other titles I would add:

The Empire Strikes Back - Because it sure as hell does.

Grumpy Old Men - Because they sure as hell are.

Batman Begins - Because he sure as hell did.

Mars Attacks! - Because it sure as hell does.

Quantum of Solace - Because I have a sense of humor.

Vancetastic said...


See, my distaste for fact checking is why I got out of the journalism game in the first place. I prefer to just put forward things that, if wrong, would not offend too many people anyway. (I didn't know who actually thought up the idea for Cowboys & Aliens -- even though I could have easily figured it out -- but my whole point was just to humorously give myself credit for thinking up the concept, and humorously pretend that I had missed the boat by failing to capitalize on it, and humorously pretend that my intellectual property had been stolen.)

I like your Boone/zombie idea, but watch your back for Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. I think they're already making a movie of it.

Good additions on the movie titles. I considered but left out Mars Attacks!, in part because it overtly taps into a B-movie sensibility from the 1950s, and therefore is less of a "placeholder title" than a conscious homage to an earlier era of cinema. Grumpy Old Men, however, works perfectly.

Thanks as always for the comment ...

Don Handsome said...

Stuart Saves His Family;
My Dinner With Andre;
One Good Cop;
One Tough Cop;
500 Days of Summer;
Lets Scare Jessica To Death;

Vancetastic said...

Don, I hate to say this, but I'm going to have to quibble with all your choices. (500) Days of Summer is not actually a particularly on-the-nose title, in part because the parentheses are always going to be quirky, and in part because its overt meaning (the season) is not its actual meaning (the name of a character). The others are closer, but if you accept them you have to accept a slew of other titles that are similar. (Why One Good Cop but not A Serious Man?)

I guess I'm really going for high-concept movies here ... the most high-concept (in a sense) of these movies is My Dinner with Andre, because it all takes place at the dinner. However, to really be on-the-nose like I'm going for, the title would need to be something like Eating Food With Andre.

Wow, I'm such a dick. You know I love you.

Don Handsome said...

Fine. Here are a couple of high concept choices from recent years:
Frozen; and

Wouldn't it be great if you could mix these titles like you can ice cream flavors? I'd like to watch Frozen Cowboys and Aliens on a Plan.

Not so great, I guess.

Also: stop being a dick.

Vancetastic said...

Yeah, but adjectives as film titles don't count either. You still don't know what the movie's about.

Conclusion: I thought up all the relevant titles for the topic, and there are no more.

Still being a dick I guess. ;-)

Vancetastic said...


From your comment I forgot to comment on:

Yeah, I'm totally with you on the interchangeable names movie titles sometimes have. If you go to my State of Play label, you'll find a whole diatribe from me on movie titles that say nothing about the movie, and are easily forgotten, even if some of the films were good enough that you remember the title as a result. (State of Play being one example of that, though I didn't know that at the time I wrote the post.)

Also: Very funny on Quantum of Solace. I haven't seen it -- does seeing the movie ever give you an idea what the title means?

Don Handsome said...

HE IS BURIED FOR THE WHOLE FUCKING MOVIE. The reasons why and the activity that happens because he's buried are totally superfluous. The movie is about being buried. I am sure that there is at least one shot of something that is not either a Cowboy or an Alien in that movie or at least one plot point that does not directly relate to the title, yet I agree that the title perfectly describes that film. Just as you must now agree with me or I'm taking my Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru figures and going home, you dickhead.

Vancetastic said...

I thought Aunt Baru and Uncle Owen were lost in the stream, and Grand Moff Tarkin was the one who was buried?

You're right of course ... but I guess the title Buried does not make me laugh because I think that's what I would have called that movie, if given the chance to name it. It would have made me laugh if it had been called Man Stuck in Coffin Underground.

Travis McClain said...

At the risk of being the know-it-all commentator, Mars Attacks! was originally a line of trading cards from Topps in the 50s. I still maintain its title fits your criteria, but in the interest of proper accreditation, Hollywood doesn't get to claim that one.

Also, it occurred to me that RoboCop should probably be added to your list.

As for Boone/zombies and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I'm not overly concerned. My idea wouldn't really be based on a preexisting work in any way, and the idea of combining historical figures with that kind of situation is hardly unique or original. Look at Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter or the recent Bonnie and Clyde vs. Dracula, for instance.

Besides, I'm a nobody and even if I actually had a completed story, I have no agent, publisher or even any contacts in any relevant business (print, screen or other) to make it become something.

Lastly, the Captcha I have to complete to post this comment is, "nommon." Is Cookie Monster writing Captchas now?

Vancetastic said...

I've never heard the word Captcha before. So THAT's what that's called.

I like you keeping me honest on my generalized claims. I clearly don't look things up as much as I should, so keep 'em coming -- it gives my blog more credibility if I'm not constantly writing things that are slightly incorrect.

However, I still think you can say "they chose the title Mars Attacks!, for example, even if the property was not an original screenplay, because sometimes the name does change in order to try to appeal to a movie audience rather than a literary one. For example, the excellent Wristcutters: A Love Story was given the title it was instead of Kamikaze Pizza (the name of the graphic novel) and Kneller's Happy Campers (the name of the original short story on which the graphic novel was based, I believe). Probably helped the box office for that movie, such as it was.

I will be standing by to see Daniel Boone vs. The Zombies. Please let me know when it's at a theater near me. :-)

Travis McClain said...

Right now, I'm two chapters into writing a prose story about a guy who writes Daniel Boone vs. Zombies (though I'm also considering the title Zombie Siege at Fort Boonesborough). If I ever finish that, then my hope is to create a comic book version of the Boone story within the prose story (make sense?). If that should wind up happening, I think the odds are much greater of the comic finding an audience and that being the path to Hollywood.

The best part is, the movie could have virtually no production values and still live up to your expectations and hopes, I think. Ideally, what I'd like to do is retell the Siege of Boonesborough that took place in September, 1778--it was the Shawnee, rather than zombies, in reality. In my version, though, a zombie infestation would interrupt the peace talks and ultimately pit pioneers and Shawnee together against zombies. Basically, I'd like to call attention to one of my favorite historical figures while shamelessly exploiting him as an impetus to have black powder muskets and tomahawks used against zombies.

I suspect my history professors will be sorely disappointed at what I want to do with the skills they taught me.

Travis McClain said...

Incidentally, while its word count exceeds your criterion, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle has to be the greatest "tells you what it's about" title of all time.