Does a Film’s Title Have a Role in its Box Office Success?

A few months back, while watching the promotional interview of Madanolsavam hosted by The Cue, writer Ratheesh Balakrishna Poduval was quizzed about why the film was named so. Ratheesh went on to elucidate why the title was apt for this film, and he concluded by highlighting how, after all, the title is an easy marketing tool if used well. I found this to be a pretty interesting statement. Usually, when we think of film promotions, we visualize posters on huge billboards, trailers, teasers, songs, interviews, college visits and so on. The film’s promotional budget is, in most cases, utilized for the aforementioned activities. Then, could a film’s title – a seemingly harmless, passable feature of any film – actually help in making it a success? 

We’ve always heard of filmmakers obsessing over getting the ‘perfect title’. Mani Ratnam has often mentioned that when his team goes through a creative block in the scripting process, they take a break to ideate on the film’s title. However, I believe that the role of the title in a film’s success has become more significant in recent times. Let me illustrate this through a marketing concept: the AIDA model. If we think of film as a product, there are four steps to generate revenue (i.e., ticket sales) from any viewer:

Capture their Attention -> Pique their Interest -> Instil a Desire to watch the film -> Get them to actually buy the ticket and watch the film

Traditionally, when the roster of current films was published in the ‘Innathe Cinema’ column of newspapers, the attention step was fairly sorted. Films had it easier to grab eyeballs, given they were releasing in limited numbers on any given day. Titles, then, played more of a role in Interest Generation (step #2). And therefore, it was good to have smart and quirky titles. If you knew Meesha Madhavan and Kaiyethum Doorath were releasing on two parallel screens, you may have intrinsically been inclined to Meesha Madhavan because it formed a quirky picture in your head. 

But today, with the OTT boom as well as people’s lower attention spans, the organic discovery of films is a lot more complex. Less-marketed films tend to get lost in the sea of star-studded and well-promoted content. Hence, titles become an important factor in capturing people’s attention these days. While designing the title, makers must assume conservatively that the viewer has no previous context of the film, and the title is going to be the first line of communication about the film. This title must then give a very clear picture of what the film entails and what the viewer can expect. It’s not about random, catchy and quirky titles anymore – it’s about clarity. 

Here’s what we think can be the best bet: short but emotive titles.

Short, because:

  • They’re easier to recall, pronounce and discuss
  • They have an edge when it comes to easy readability in online booking

Emotive, because:

  • The title should be able to elicit some reaction from the audience, whatever their reaction may be. Film author Kevin Goetz opines that a good title is something that’s “provocative for the right reasons.”

Just take a look at the films that have worked in recent times. Almost every title is short and immediately evokes a reaction – could be intrigue (Romancham, Kurup, Kannur Squad), devotion (Maalikapuram), a cultural reference (Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey, Jana Gana Mana), among many other things. 

Once you have a short and emotive title, there is a simple way to test its chances of success. It’s something I found on the internet, called the Saturday Night Test

The hypothesis here is that you are planning to go out to a movie with your partner, and you are to pitch the plan. So you say, “Hey, honey. Do you want to watch the movie <insert title> on Saturday night?”

While this may sound lame, I do think at least some filmmakers could have brought in a higher opening if they had tried this at home. Would anyone possibly have said, “Hey honey, let’s go watch Valliyum Thetti Pulliyum Thetti on Saturday night“, Or “Hey honey, let’s go watch Kadina Kadoramee Andakadaham on Saturday night” and gotten away with it? 

Malayalam cinema may have bigger problems at the moment (we need more writers!), but poor marketing is oftentimes the reason for a film’s failure at the box office. The above theory is just a pitch that’s trying to solve one of the marketing problems, and we’d love to hear your thoughts on whether this theory makes sense to you. Let’s discuss this in the comments!

Navaneethakrishnan Unnikrishnan
When I'm not working or sleeping, I'm mostly observing people and making notes on my phone for content. (Hope to be) Your go-to man for laughs, good music and useless trivia around movies.

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