I recently received a phone call from a new client. He had just finished a new screenplay and was worried that someone would release a movie with the same title before he did. So he wanted me to try to trademark the film’s title so no one else could use it.
This is a common situation and one which I know many screenwriters struggle with. They struggle for days to find the perfect title for their film and then lay awake in fear over someone else using it. So let me put your minds at ease. Stop worrying!
First of all, as a general rule, you cannot trademark the title of a single work, whether it is a movie or a book. You can only trademark a series of movies, which is why Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Friday the 13th are registered trademarks and Transcendence is not. Are there exceptions to this rule? Yes. If a film has become so famous that basically everyone knows that the film comes from a certain source, then a single film might have some protection. Some examples of this would be Gone With The Wind, or Casablanca. And Disney was recently able to stop the release of a knockoff film originally called The Legend of Sarila but which changed the title to Frozen Land to capitalize on the Disney hit. But films like these are few and far between.
But really, the reason you need to stop worrying about your title is that you are forgetting what the purpose of the title is and who it is for. Your job is not to come up with a movie title that will look good on a poster or a theater marquee. Your job is to come up with a title that will help get your script sold!
The title of your script gives you the first occasion to speak directly to the potential buyer, before they have been tainted by anything else. Use this opportunity to grab their attention and make them want to know more about your screenplay. It’s the one time you are not bound by any rules so use this opportunity creatively.
One of the best examples of a writer using the title to send a creative message is Adam Herz, writer of American Pie. When Adam sent the script to producers, he called it this:
Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made For Under $10 Million That Most Readers Will Probably Hate But I Think You Will Love
Adam knew that his script was not something that the average script reader would necessarily want to give high marks, so he used the title as an opportunity to send a message to the producer. And he made the sale.
Another good example is Elizabeth Meriwether’s (creator of New Girl) screenplay for the 2011 film No Strings Attached with Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. I think most people would agree that No Strings Attached is a fairly bland, boring title. And maybe Ms. Meriwether would agree. When she submitted the script, it was called Fuck Buddies. Now I’m sure that Liz knew that there was no chance in hell any studio would release a movie called Fuck Buddies. But she also knew that what was important was having a title that got immediate attention. Think about it. If you were an agent or a producer and had a choice of reading two scripts, one called No Strings Attached and the other titled Fuck Buddies, which would you choose? I don’t think it’s even a close call.
So stop worrying about protecting your title and start thinking of coming up with a title that will get your script sold. Because that’s what it’s about.