The Confusion of Titles and Taglines

A new Sony Pictures story.
By  · Published on September 26th, 2018

This week, the internet is all aflutter about the retitling of The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Now the movie, which is adapted from the fourth book in the “Millennium” series of novels that began with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” is called The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story. I haven’t seen any official announcement, and the synopsis on its website retains the original shorter title. However, the latest posters have that subtitle underneath the main title. But does that mean it’s truly a subtitle or just an explanatory tagline?

Outrage took a while, as the first sign of the subtitle appeared on artwork released as early as September 9th, when Sony reminded us all that we had just two months until The Girl in the Spider’s Web‘s release. The words “A New Dragon Tattoo” replaced the tagline “The Past Never Forgets,” which itself was an alternative to “Discover What Made Her The Girl.” One of the posters even doubled down by adding the new tagline plus, at the top, the words “Claire Foy is the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” In the week’s since then, the marketing language has continued with the true title followed by a simple modifier phrase designating the movie “a new Dragon Tattoo story.”

So when did the branded tagline become the actual subtitle? On September 25th, Sony Publicity released the latest draft of its official info sheet on the movie — the reference for movie theaters, movie ticket outlets, box office reporting firms and publications, etc. — and there the full title is The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story. Websites such as Box Office Mojo and that of AMC Theatres have already made the change. The rest will likely follow suit shortly.

The response from those frustrated by the title isn’t merely to point out how dumb it is or that Sony doesn’t trust the public to get that The Girl in the Spider’s Nest is associated with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the Hollywood version of which wasn’t all that successful anyway. The cast is different, and it’s based on a book that’s third in line following “Dragon Tattoo” and not part of the original trilogy and is written by a different author, all of which can add to the confusion. But so what? Just sell your separate movie as a separate thriller without the need for branding, right? The movie bloggers won’t have any of it. They won’t write it all out in full in their continued articles about trailers and posters and other items that make them extensions of the marketing!

What I always find ironic about lengthy titles is the public barely registers anything but the base information. And that’s what movie theater chains do, as well, because nobody is fitting The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story on a marquee or a ticket, mostly because there’s just not room for all that text. Most places, we’ll just see the first part of the title, or more likely simply “The Girl” or “Spider’s Web.” If there was a clearer film series chronology, theaters might designate this as “Dragon Tattoo 2” or “Dragon Tattoo 4.” And you can bet nobody is going to be speaking the full title aloud when buying tickets.

Remember the last time Sony confused everyone with a tagline becoming a subtitle? There is still a refusal by most people, as far as I can tell, to call the 2016 Ghostbusters movie Ghostbusters: Answer the Call. When the remake was in theaters, Sony Publicity kept officially referring to the release as Ghostbusters. “Answer the Call” was merely a tagline, often featured at the top of the poster where it shouldn’t be mistaken as part of the title. But then “Answer the Call” showed up in the end credits as part of the full name. And for the home video release, Sony officially designated the movie Ghostbusters: Answer the Call.

There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to what is used as branding in a title or merely in marketing as a tagline these days. Sony’s decision here seems inspired by Lucasfilm’s use of “A Star Wars Story” after its non-Skywalker Saga titles, not that it helped much with Solo: A Star Wars Story. Of course, Lucasfilm is also the company (or maybe Paramount is to blame?) that retroactively titled Raiders of the Lost Ark as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark in later home video releases.

Why not go the extra measure and title it “Millennium 4: The Girl in the Spider’s Nest – A New Dragon Tattoo Story“? Some franchises are getting so large that there’s some limit to what will be done, thankfully. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald could just be “Fantastic Beasts 2” or just “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” but at least Warner Bros. doesn’t feel the need to put “Wizarding World” in the title, too. Marvel fortunately doesn’t really need to put “Marvel’s” before every one of their cinematic universe titles, a la the official titling of Marvel’s The Avengers.

It’s not the length of titles that’s annoying. Solo: A Star Wars Story isn’t even that long a name. And we all love the title Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. And The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. We all got a chuckle out of The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain. And even though we just say, “Dr. Strangelove,” who doesn’t enjoy writing out Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb?

Most long titles wind up in shorthand version when spoken or written out a lot. Borat is just “Borat,” really, not Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The Phantom Menace is just “The Phantom Menace,” not Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. In certain company, we can just say “Raiders” or “Last Crusade” and people know what we’re talking about. We used to be able to say “Empire” and “Jedi,” too, but the latter now could be either of two movies. Again, it’s a situation of franchises getting too big.

You think mainstream movie titles are frustrating when writing about them, though, try covering most documentaries, the main titles of which are often just a subject’s name followed by the true title as the subtitle. This can be confusing to viewers who might mistake Joan Rivers: Don’t Get Me Started for Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Or Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case with Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. This is especially apparent with music docs, such as Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and Madonna: Truth or Dare, the former of which gets more confusing given that it’s unofficial sequel is titled differently: Justin Bieber’s Believe. We can shorthand the first as “Never Say Never” but can the second just be called “Believe“?

Docs tend to have crazy titles because a lot of them can be like academic papers. Remember how you always wanted to write out your entire thesis as the title of your papers so they would catch the professor’s eye and full understanding? Yeah, we in the press struggle with the idea in our headlines, too. But doesn’t movie marketing have enough room to explain their product without need for explanation in titles? Can’t the posters and the trailers just tell us it’s a new Dragon Tattoo or Star Wars story?

This all comes down to what the public is aware of and when. Advertise all you want, but at the end of the day, you need the whole shebang right there for the moviegoers when they’re looking at what’s out and when they’re buying tickets. The extended title is helpful for AMC Theatres’ website and probably soon Fandango, when sometimes all you’ve got is the title to be clear with browsers. It helps in a theater’s ticketing kiosk or even at the box office to have it written out in full for the wanderers — though even then, the ticket seller will often be asked “what’s a Dragon Tattoo movie?” as often as they’d be asked “what’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web?” It’s even more necessary with the home video release, so customers don’t accidentally order the wrong thing from Amazon.

Hollywood can benefit from being more clever, even when it’s nonsensical. We love saying and writing stuff like 2 Fast 2 Furious. Better yet, as a great new example that’s slightly more reasonable, is Happy Death Day 2U. Be unique but simple with the subtitle and moviegoers will remember it enough that you don’t even need the main brand title. The Last Crusade will always be known by all as an Indiana Jones movie.

Now, what if we just use the subtitle without the branding? Think The Dark Knight, which isn’t “Batman: The Dark Knight.” Or Dawn of the Dead, which isn’t “Night of the Living Dead: Dawn of the Dead.” Or The Road Warrior, which at least initially in America wasn’t “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.” The key is to make the movie clear and memorably titled enough as what it is through marketing and then, obviously, deliver a great movie that people will remember, too. Finding Dory and Jurassic World made all the money without needing more clarification than a single shared word that they’re respectively a Finding Nemo and Jurassic Park sequel.

We’ll know when the industry gives up completely when we see the condescension of titling extend to the James Bond franchise. The Bond movies have been titled uniquely and independently for more than half a century. No need for numbering or roman numerals or subtitles. But with Bond 25 being known as just “Bond 25” for so long, and the fact that the 25th installment is a special milestone occasion, I wouldn’t put it past MGM and EON to go there.

Being the studio that’s bringing us The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story, Sony Pictures, if they still had the Bond rights, definitely would have stooped to giving us “Shatterhand: The 25th James Bond Story” or something to that effect. Hopefully, new distributor Universal — home of the upcoming sequel simply titled the same as the original, Halloween (which is its own titling issue) — won’t do anything so upsetting to the fans and the tradition.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.