James looks at tentative and fake titles, and what they say about your favourite movie. (Hint: nothing.)
Magnus Rex is about to have the biggest opening weekend of all time, and you’ve probably never even heard its name. That is, in fact, the working title for The Dark Knight Rises, even though it was never going to be a title Nolan and company kept. If you’re a movie nerd (and if you’re on this website, odds say you are), you may have noticed that many high profile movies go by a different name at various times in their production or exhibition. Perhaps while looking through an Internet Movie Database trivia page or the deep, probing investigative journalism of a free movie magazine at a theatre, you saw something like “Ocean’s 12 was originally titled Clowns Can’t Sleep” or “A Nightmare on Elm Street was shipped under the title Back Scratch.” As part of the MacGuffin Men’s Ongoing Film Education Public Service Initiative, I will explain the need for all these differing titles, why some titles were never meant to be used, and why some movies are intentionally disguised as others.
Titles that are used for a period of time and are ultimately changed fall into one of two categories: tentative titles or fake titles.
A tentative title is the name a project is given so people have something to call it when discussing the film. Sometimes this title is merely a placeholder that everyone understands will be changed if this movie ever gets made. When the script for American Pie was originally floating around Hollywood, it was titled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made For Under $10 Million That Your Reader Will Love But The Executive Will Hate. No one ever thought that if this movie got made, that title would stick, but there was nothing deceptive about it, as we will see with fake titles.
Often, a tentative titled isn’t even seen as such until it’s changed. In many cases the title has been with the project since its inception but a new one is deemed necessary for one reason or another. Perhaps somewhere on its journey from pitch to movie theatre, a project has to pass across the desk of someone who feels the name needs to be changed. Annie Hall was nearly titled It Had To Be Jew until someone thought Woody’s idea of a title was a bad one. John Carpenter’s Halloween was originally going to be called The Babysitter Murders. Changing this gave the horror film a better name and gave Gary Marshall one less holiday to make a shitty movie about.
With higher-profile movies, titles are often tested for focus groups to see how the public likes the sound of it. Other times it is someone in the studio who has an idea of what people will think of it. Disney changed the title of John Carter from John Carter of Mars because they feared the sci-fi sound of it would scare away the female audience, so instead they stole the title of the long-awaited crossover between Denzel Washington’s John Q and Samuel L. Jackson’s Coach Carter, which seemed to scare off all audiences entirely.
From the get-go, it seems like everyone involved in making Alien was ready to release it under the title Star Beast but that was eventually changed. Alien is a perfect title for that movie, not just because there is indeed an alien in it, but also because that movie explores theme of the Other, and fearing things that are different and foreign to us. Star Beast is the perfect name for a shitty arcade game in 1978 or this surely great book. Had Alien been released under the title of Star Beast, it probably still would have been received the same way, which would have led to the sequels Star Beasts, Star Beast Resurrection, Star Beast vs Predator, and this summer’s Starbeatheus.
As you see here, cultural sensitivity, chasing demographics and just plain taste can account for many name changes. Now let’s take a look at the darker side…
Fake titles have many varieties but they all exist for the same reason: to fool somebody. These somebodies can be different people with different motivations but it has been decided by the studio making the film in question that these people must be tricked. In my research a fake title used in this way was constantly referred to as a ‘title ruse,’ but since I’m not trying to grift property deeds from people in the 1920s I will not use that phrase, and will instead stick with ‘fake title’ like a modern gentleman should.
One of the most famous of all fake titles is Blue Harvest, which has reached a level of fame I will never achieve: having its own Wikipedia page. Blue Harvest was the fake title given to Return of the Jedi during filming, and the disguise had multiple benefits. Here’s what the film’s producer, Howard Kazanjian had to say about the fake title, how far they took it and why:
“When shooting Jedi in the United States we called the film Blue Harvest. Camera slates, invoices, hotel reservations, call sheets, production reports, and crew hats and T-shirts all read Blue Harvest. So when a visitor would ask, ‘what are you shooting’ and we said Blue Harvest, they went on their way. Can you imagine what would have happened if we had said, ‘We’re shooting the next film in the Star Wars trilogy’?”
I think perhaps the presence of Darth Vader and Chewbacca would have been a big clue for some people, but any less attention from the public would have been helpful to the crew. And it isn’t only an issue of people standing around watching or asking for autographs: onlookers aware of the importance of what they were seeing may be tempted to steal things from the set for later sale on eBay or, since it was the 1980s, just a straight swap for cocaine. Nosy* spectators also run the risk of seeing something vital to the ending of the film and unleashing a spoiler** on the world before the movie is even done filming.
*See what I did there?
**Spoiler: Ewoks are cute!
The ruse isn’t simply for civilians either, as some other professionals involved in the film necessitate a fake title as well. George Lucas discovered that caterers and other service providers increased their rates while he filmed The Empire Strikes Back because they assumed it would have a high budget. Everyone seemed to want in on some of the money floating around at Lucas’ mention of Star Wars 2 or 5 or V, depending on how much of a dick he was being.
Using a fake title on documentation and on set is now common practice on movies big enough to excite the public. The highly anticipated The Dark Knight operated under the name Rory’s First Kiss before its cover was quickly blown. Actors and costumes from the franchise were soon noticed on the set, and fanboys took to the Internet slyly pieced it together by guessing that seeing Christian Bale dressed as Batman in front of a camera meant they were on a Batman set. Soon after, a Rory’s First Kiss IMDb page was set up listing Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Christopher Nolan being involved and then everyone who cared knew, rendering Rory’s First Kiss pretty pointless except as a possible name for my next emo band*.
Sometimes a fake title is used not to trick people into staying away from the movie, but in order to get them to participate in its filming. Bill Maher’s movie Religulous operated under the name A Spiritual Journey for most of its production in order to convince interviewees. People would have been less likely to open up about their beliefs if they knew an insult about them was in the very title of the movie.
Even after the filming is done, a fake title’s work is not done. As I stated above, you often hear of movies being ‘shipped under a different name.’ This means that when the reels are transported to the theatres that will be showing them, they are listed under one of these fake titles. This is done to prevent someone from the stealing the reels before the release date and selling them to the highest bidder. I know this seems like a pretty intense crime just for a movie, and maybe you think all this deception is a little overboard for a silly thing like a movie, but please head over to The Dark Knight Rises message boards and you will understand the level of fanaticism studios are dealing with.