Poor Emily Blunt. Her last two movies should have made her a superstar. They are two of the most enjoyable thrillers I have seen in the last couple of years, with just the right amount of commercial appeal, action and smarts—and both made little to no impact at the box office. I think the movies’ titles were the biggest reason, and it’s something that happens quite often.
As a writer, I can tell you, titles are hard. It’s the thing we most gripe at editors about. But there’s no excuse for the films on this list.
13. Quantum of Solace
The what of what? Sure, this is the weakest of the Daniel Craig Bond movies, but this title surely helped make it the least popular. And unlike the other worst Bond title, Octopussy, there was no contractual excuse that all of Fleming’s titles had to be used up to account for this.
12. Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
Speaking of Edgar Rice Burroughs, this respectable effort to bring the Tarzan origin story back to that of the abandoned baby—an English lord with a genius IQ who grows up to be Lord of the Jungle—really blew it with a long title whose most common mispronunciation sounded like it might be about an aging Tarzan in a nursing home after a cerebral hemorrhage.
11. John Carter
It wasn’t a great movie, but it is actually really loopy fun and shouldn’t have almost bankrupted Disney. It doesn’t help that there isn’t a huge audience that remembers that author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ other huge series (besides Tarzan) almost a century ago was the “John Carter of Mars” series.
The book was called A Princess of Mars. Another book in the series was called John Carter of Mars. Either would have served better as a title than something that sounded like either Coach Carter or a Terminator sequel.
10. The Squid and the Whale
This searing art house movie about how a divorce affects a couple of teenagers probably wouldn’t have been a huge hit, regardless, but it’s not as grim as, say, Ordinary People. It was saddled with a title that sounded like a generic animated children’s film.
9. It Happened One Night
This Oscar winner is far and away my favorite Frank Capra movie, and perhaps my favorite Clark Gable film as well. For my money, Gable’s romantic pairing with the great Claudette Colbert has way more chemistry than his romance with Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind.
But even though I’ve seen this superb prototype of the bicker-till-you-fall-in-love flick ten times, I still can’t answer the question—what happened, which night?
I suspect that the vague title has something to do with this classic movie falling off the radar of current viewers more than other great comedies of the era, like Bringing Up Baby, My Man Godfrey or Arsenic and Old Lace.
8. The Day After Tomorrow
Okay, I really disliked this climate change screed, but the title still deserves mention. The Day after Tomorrow… Saturday? May 29, 2004… Say what? When?
7. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
This move uses a grueling dance contest in Depression-era Hollywood to make a commentary on wider America. And whether you consider it a prime example of what was great or awful about 1960s and 1970s filmmaking, the title makes it sound like an anti-Western. Admittedly, it was the name of the novel, but producers change good book titles all the time (see #3).
6. Secondhand Lions
I don’t think this “charming” family film, starring Robert Duvall and Michael Caine as a couple of old guys who tell tall tales to kids, is quite the family classic that others do. And it has a title that makes it sound like it’s a safari booked by the Salvation Army Thrift Store—or football players so bad even Detroit would cut them. The title, combined with an oblique movie poster, could not have helped its box office.
5. The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill, But Came Down a Mountain
Huh? A guy who was a hill becomes a mountain? What? He became a bigger pile of dirt? This movie came out when both Hugh Grant and English comedies that overdid the whimsy were all the rage, but the box office had to have been hampered by this film’s awful title.
4. Rambo: First Blood Part 2
Yes, I violated my rule this one time. This grammatically incoherent title actually accomplished its marketing purpose. The movie was a big hit, and Stallone was able to start another series identified by the title character and a number. But seriously, how about Second Blood? Then Third Blood, etc.? I guess then they wouldn’t have all been together in the video store…remember those?
3. The Edge of Tomorrow
Here’s a terrific movie that never had a chance at a good title, I suppose. This near-great alien invasion movie has Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt participating—because of a time warp—over and over again in a D-Day like invasion against some really nasty alien invaders until they get it right. It’s based on a book clumsily titled All You Need is Kill.
After only making back about a quarter of its production budget, it was released as Live Die Repeat on DVD. That’s more descriptive, but sounds like shampoo instructions for psychos. I still think Tom Cruise is an appealing action star, and this movie should have made him box office king again. That had to wait until the very enjoyable Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.
2. October Sky
Some studio genius thought it would be confusing to name a movie about boys who build rockets, Rocket Boys, despite the fact that it was the name of Homer Hickam’s popular memoir, which the film was based on.
Instead, they went with an anagram of the title that sounds like a Richard Gere romance. Genius.
Despite that, great word of mouth gave this family classic decent box office and enduring popularity as a staple on cable. It also launched Jake Gyllenhaal’s continually interesting career.
Emily Blunt. Again. This is her second appearance on this list in a superb thriller that should have been a huge commercial success, but was a box office disappointment.
A “sicario” is what Latin drug cartels call a hitman, but making this obscure word the title of a movie is just stupid. Sicario is not only a superb film, it tackles the hot button topics of the border and the war against Mexican drug cartels. This should have been a recipe for at least a modest hit.
Sicario earned back its production costs, but that’s about it. Maybe well-deserved Oscar nominations will put it on the public radar. It’s already out on DVD, so run out and rent it today.