How to perplex a moviegoer in the game of the name

Ever found yourself confused between Crash and Crash? It's hardly surprising. Leigh Singer wonders who benefits when films are released with overfamiliar titles

You're intrigued to see that new documentary incorporating hundreds of YouTube clips but can't quite remember its name. "Life" something? Dah-dah-dah "Day"? You browse the titles of new and upcoming films. Is it One Day? Or perhaps One Life? Sadly, you'd be wrong on both counts – they're a beloved novel adaptation and BBC nature film respectively – and you could easily spend far too much of your own "Life in a Day" (the actual YouTube documentary title) trying to figure out which film is which.

The pile-up of current films with similar titles is uncanny. Released recently and within a matter of weeks were Terrence Malick's acclaimed The Tree of Life (8 July), the Australian drama The Tree (29 July) and the Italian comedy The Salt of Life (12 August). You may want to see last year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner, but are you seeking A Better Life (29 July) or In a Better World (out 19 August)? Better be sure.

Such potential perplexity isn't unique to this summer. Two years ago, cinemas screened in turn South African sci-fi District 9, animated adventure 9, then inanimate musical Nine. Between November 2009 and May 2010, those awaiting the latest Coen Brothers effort, Colin Firth's Oscar-worthy star turn or a Michael Douglas comeback vehicle would've had to navigate a "Man" either "Serious", "Single" or "Solitary", which, given the multiple choice, seems almost wilfully perverse.

And it's not merely about such nomenclatural clusters. Increasingly, we're alerted to imminent releases with titles we'd swear we've heard before. This summer alone offers a Keira Knightley infidelity drama Last Night (formerly the title of a lo-fi 1990s apocalyptic indie), French actioner Point Blank (1960s existential Lee Marvin thriller), or identity-crisis thriller The Big Picture (Christopher Guest's 1989 cult comedy).

Each pair of films – plus other recent / upcoming repeat title offenders, Priest, Trust, Villain, Powder – share nothing in common but their names. Yet a title, the very first identifier of any creative work, supposedly the first step to carving out its own identity, is surely less effective if it's already associated with some other, earlier entity? If your USP isn't so unique, perhaps neither is your selling point.

"Ultimately, a title is dependent on the genre and target audience," contests Spencer Pollard, the CEO of Kaleidoscope Films, distributor of One Life, "it's very easy to separate." Pollard cites his film's U-certificate and "cuddly animals" as marking it out from similar sounding releases.

"Although," Pollard allows, "we released a film called The Horseman for Halloween 2009 and Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a Dennis Quaid movie, came out on DVD three weeks before. Both were 18-certificate movies and some reviews actually got muddled. Plus, Horsemen of the Apocalypse was a bad movie so those reviews may not have helped."

For distributors, a film's name is usually already settled. But what about for the film-maker? The British writer-director Andrew Haigh's experience on his forthcoming independent feature, Weekend, is a fascinating example of jockeying for position in the title sweepstakes. "We actually called it Weekender when I was writing the script," Haigh explains, "but we were told that was the name of another, bigger movie about UK rave culture."

With the other Weekender scheduled to open before his, Haigh reluctantly compromised, dropping his title's last two letters. "We already had a Facebook page," he says ruefully.

His new title, however, now echoed Jean-Luc Godard's celebrated 1967 film, a connection he hesitated over before going ahead. "It wasn't like I'd chosen a title like You've Got Mail," he smiles. "If there's an association, at least it's a good one!"

Haigh then discovered one final, ironic twist: his Weekend's US release shares the same date as a re-release of Godard's. "I thought, that's going to be a disaster," he shrugs, "but then, 'Well, maybe a few Godard fans will come by chance...'"

While Haigh light-heartedly jokes about his situation, other film-makers have taken great offence that their work might be misidentified, notably the director David Cronenberg, who adapted J G Ballard's controversial novel Crash in 1996. When Paul Haggis gave his Oscar-winning racism tract the same name just nine years later, the usually mild-mannered Cronenberg branded it "very disrespectful".

"In France, they refuse to call [Haggis's movie] Crash," he lamented, "because they have reverence for that book and for my movie. They call it Collision. I think their argument that they couldn't think of another title, is a little bit bogus... Functionally, it's stupid. Once they're both on the DVD shelves, there's going to be confusion."

Whether Haggis intended this or not, such manoeuvring is often deliberate. "From a home entertainment perspective we do look as a distributor to draft against studio movies," admits Kaleidoscope's Pollard. "We're releasing a direct-to-video Three Musketeers in October against the new theatrical version starring Orlando Bloom. That's an opportunity where consumers have a huge awareness of The Three Musketeers as a film and a brand and you can exploit that awareness."

The dreaded "brand recognition" has a lot to answer for. It's why every other old TV show, minor comic-book superhero or even board game can be developed into a movie – if we know the name, it's a safer bet. Here, familiarity breeds content and contentment, the inverse of Cronenberg's unease.

Yet should those like Cronenberg, aggrieved by title "theft", wish to take legal action, they'd very quickly crash into solid legislative barriers. UK law, for example, states that copyrights "do not apply to items such as names and titles that may be duplicated coincidentally, or that may be legitimately used in unrelated instances". Provided that content isn't copied, "no infringement has occurred," whatever your feelings of artistic violation.

Time and emotional distance can help in these cases, so too transposing between art forms. When you hear The Big Chill do you first envisage a 1980s ensemble comedy or a modern music festival? Does Blue Valentine conjure up a 1978 Tom Waits album or last year's marriage-on-the-rocks indie film? Perhaps it's a generational thing. Younger fans of the late rapper Notorious BIG and his biopic Notorious may not even know of Alfred Hitchcock, let alone his classic 1946 thriller of the same name. And why should they?

With so many film titles already in play, those wishing to use, say, a simple noun or adjective (Heat, Spellbound) or generic phrase (Far North, Kicking and Screaming) shouldn't be surprised to see it reappear elsewhere – or get lost in the shuffle. "The bigger problem with so many similar titles," says Haigh, "is that it can be hard for people who want to search for your film. But you can send yourself completely crazy worrying about these things."

So either relax with your knowingly "borrowed" / eminently poachable moniker, or try coming up with something demonstrably unique. Though if anyone swears artists instinctively name their work the best, remind them that F Scott Fitzgerald's original title for The Great Gatsby was the somewhat less catchy Trimalchio in West Egg.

Ultimately, if a work of art works, it will be remembered, be it a film with a title as unwieldy as The Shawshank Redemption, or a painting called simply Untitled. But who can deny the advantage if its name stands by – and speaks for – itself?

'One Life', 'The Tree of Life', 'The Tree', 'The Salt of Life' and 'A Better Life' are out in cinemas now. 'One Day' opens on 24 August, 'Weekender' opens on 2 September and 'Weekend' opens on 4 November. 'Life in a Day' will be available on DVD on 10 October

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