How to pick a title for your filmNov 15, 2022
How to pick a title for your film
Huzzah! You’ve made it to an exciting part of the ‘How to make a documentary film’ series which is all about having fun and maximising your creativity.
Yes, you read that correctly– fun. I promise, this week there’s nothing about ‘finance’ or ‘budget’ or even ‘planning’. I won’t be chatting to you about your production schedule, your shot list or your release date.
And while I may reference the term ‘legal’ and ‘copyright’ once or twice, it’s purely for a bit of background insight. There’s nothing you need to think too seriously about. Because today, I want to help you get into the creative zone and ensure your film gets the attention it deserves – instantly.
Yes, fellow filmmakers it’s finally time to lock in your film’s title.
So switch the right side of your brain on, grab your script or screenplay, fire up the thesaurus and let’s name your movie!
How much does the title even matter?
Yes, yes, yes, that title matters. A memorable title can take a good movie to great because it will intrigue or catch the attention of your ideal audience. Once it grabs their attention they’ll be much more likely to want to see your film. A great title will mean the audience doesn’t have to think too much about it - it will lodge in their memory, which makes it easy to recall ready to share with friends, family and co-workers whenever an opportune moment arises (honestly your audience can be more valuable to you than your entire marketing team).
Do you think Dirty Dancing would be such a cult hit if it was called something like Learning the Mumbo or Summer Romance?
Probably not. But let’s steer the focus back to documentary film titles for the time being.
Take a moment to think about some of your favourite docos. What piqued your interest? Sure, the subject matter no doubt played a big role but I’m fairly confident the title fuelled your curiosity too.
Sometimes a documentary title can be so catchy it becomes part of our everyday lexicon, like 2010’s Catfish, which has been credited with coining the term catfishing: The act of creating a false identity on social media to lure somebody into a relationship.
That being said, a title doesn’t need to be particularly complicated or clever. As I’m writing this, my mind keeps wandering to Asif’s Kapadia’s 2015 documentary Amy about the legendary British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse.
It’s a haunting depiction of Amy’s life, and as a viewer you really felt like you got to know and understand her. The title Amy is obvious but it’s also elegant in its brevity. It brings it right back to Amy the individual, not ‘Amy Winehouse’ the mistreated, gone-too-soon superstar.
How do you land on the right title?
When it comes down to it, a strong documentary film title will reflect your story, indicate its genre and set the tone.
It’s sounds like a cake walk in theory, but trust me – don’t expect to come up with your title on the fly.
Ugh. I’m suddenly having a major flashback to the endless hours I spent working
on the title for my 2016 impact film Take Heart: The Quest to Rid Australasia from Rheumatic Heart Disease
The film is about a preventable childhood illness called Rheumatic Heart Disease (RHD), which causes long term health problems and premature death. It’s a heavy topic, but the film is quite hopeful in its delivery.
As RHD causes damage to the heart, I wanted the title to reference ‘heart’ and the severity of the issue, but also feel optimistic at the same time.
After burying myself in research, I finally landed on the phrase ‘take heart’ – which means to gain courage, or to have confidence that things will get better.
Suddenly, everything clicked. It seems so simple in hindsight but it really did have a huge amount of iterations before I landed on it.
A few tips for coming up with your documentary’s title
To start developing your documentary’s title, I always recommend looking at your film from several perspectives.
Who are the key participants? Where is it set? What’s the main topic area? Are there any quotes or music lyrics that relate to your story and can be referenced in the title?
From there …
Make a long list of options – put anything that comes to mind down. Only you have to look at it, so don’t try to be too critical at this stage.
Then, cull the list. Get rid of any titles that don’t resonate with you or you don’t think quite capture your message. Try to narrow it down to three or five options that you believe are the best.
Share your options with your team
Filmmaking is a team sport after all. This includes any partners you’re working with to finance the film as well. Get their input and see what’s speaking to others the most.
You might be surprised (or delighted!) and they may bring new ideas to the table that will help you land on an even better title.
If this is a solo endeavour for you, share your title options with a few people you trust and whose opinions you respect. Just be sure to share your synopsis with them too so they have a greater understanding of what your documentary is about.
One more tip …
In most instances, shorter is better. In fact, I’m struggling to think of any documentaries or even feature films that have more than 5 words in the title. Shorter titles are easier to remember and pronounce, which will make spreading word about your film far more efficient.
Once you’ve found a title that feels right, check Google and make sure no one else is using it
And this doesn’t just go for other films. Make sure no big name brands of companies are operating under that name. It will get way too confusing for your audience and make your film much harder to search for.
If you plan on having a presence online, it’s also a good idea to suss out if you can secure social media handles and a website URL in your film’s name. Namecheckr is an excellent resource for this.
Do you need to make sure you can legally use the title?
Ah, here come those confusing legal terms I alluded to in the intro.
The good news is that while the content of a film can be copyrighted, as a general rule, movies titles cannot. So you don’t need to worry yourself too much about infringing on anybody’s IP with the title you choose.
Of course, I suspect you don’t want to use a tired film title that has already been around the block a few times. So how do you figure out if the title you want to use has been taken?
A basic Google search will suffice - you could also check out IMDB, the world’s largest database of movies. And if you want to be sure to dot all your Is and cross al your Ts, you could engage a lawyer or title search company to do a thorough sweep.
Got your title?
Bravo! I’d love to hear what you landed on and I cannot wait to see your documentary once it makes its way out into the world.
If you’re searching for a few more documentary development tips and tricks, please check out a few earlier posts in this series where I covered:
Conquering Imposter Syndrome
And if you’d like to learn more about why I’m making this series at all, you can jump over to last week’s post over here.
Otherwise, stay tuned for next week’s instalment where I’ll be diving deep on pre-interviews.
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