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June 19, 2008

Movie Naming: Oh, the Horror - The Horror!

indiana-jones-crystal-skull.pngThe most profitable summer movie so far may come as shock to you. It is not Indiana Jones or Iron Man or Sex and the City.

It’s The Strangers, a horror film made from a trifling $9 million dollar budget. Since it’s opening release on May 30, the film has grossed over $45 million dollars as of June 15.

Dr. Jones, Carrie Bradshaw, and Tony Stark might have seen higher grosses this summer, but their initial budgets ($185 million, $65 million, and $140 million respectively) have kept them in the red.

That is, red in terms of Hollywood’s rule of thumb for a film’s profitability: the final gross must be greater than or equal to three times the initial budget.

Another rule of thumb in Hollywood, though this is subconscious, is that successful horror films must have short names. Preferably two words or less.

Check out these classics: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Blob, The Fly, Psycho, Carrie, Halloween, The Thing, The Shining, Misery, Scream, Saw, Hostel, Alien, Jaws, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, Freaks, Poltergeist, Evil Dead, and countless others.

Now, of course there are the exceptions: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, House on Haunted Hill, The Blair Witch Project, and The Silence of the Lambs.

But it’s more the exception than the rule that a profitable horror film’s title surpasses two words.

One of the reasons why horror films usually do not have long names is because their budgets are very low, which includes miniscule funds for marketing.

Therefore, a horror film’s title must have a short, graphic name to leave the audience with an instant tone and image.

If you’re asking yourself why, just think about a movie theatre’s marquee, or a newspaper ad. These are the best chances for a smaller-budgeted film to garner audiences. A movie’s name that has stopping power, clarity, and brevity will optimize their chances of profitability.

Moreover, the more descriptive the name in fewer letters, the better. It’s as if a horror film can uniformly integrate an ad’s basic requirements (name, tagline, logo) into one title.

After all, who can dispute the success of that strategy with the following (in order of profitability):

Saw (original budget: $1.2 mill; final domestic gross: $55.1 million)
Psycho (original budget: $806, 947; final domestic gross: $32 million)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (original budget: $1.8 million; final domestic gross: $10.8)

The fewer the letters, the greater the percentage of return.

I’m sure one will find many examples to refute the theory above; however, when it comes to this summer’s grosses, nothing could be closer to the truth.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Original Budget: $185 million
Domestic Gross as of June 15: $276.5 million
Profit Percentage: 150%
Number of Letters in Title: 42
Profit Percentage per Letter: 3.6%

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Original Budget: $200 million
Domestic Gross as of June 15: $131.9 million
Profit Percentage: -34%
Number of Letters in Title: 35
Profit Percentage per Letter: -.97%
Sex and the City

Original Budget: $65 million
Domestic Gross as of June 15: $119.5
Profit Percentage: 184%
Number of Letters in Title: 13
Profit Percentage per Letter: 14.2%

The Strangers

Original Budget: $9 million
Domestic Gross as of June 15: $45.3 million
Profit Percentage: 503%
Number of Letters in Title: 12
Profit Percentage per Letter: 41.9%

Horror films are a great example of where descriptive names make sense!

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Posted by William Lozito at June 19, 2008 9:12 AM
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