The Strange, Frustrating Reason Why Matthew Weiner’s Feature Film Debut, ‘You Are Here,’ Was Retitled ‘Are You Here’

This Friday, the feature film debut of Mad Man mastermind Matthew Weiner will open in select cities, but it’s not exactly the same film that premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. It’s not that just that the writer/director re-edited the Owen Wilson/Zach Galifianakis/Amy Poehler comedy/drama, changing some music and expanding the running time. The film’s title has also been altered, from the definitive You Are Here to the questioning Are You Here (and don’t even get me started on that missing question mark). The flip-flopping of those three words isn’t just a tactic to hide the picture’s mixed festival reception. There’s a much simpler explanation: Are You Here is also debuting On Demand this week, and the new title’s placement is much more desirable on alphabetical VOD menus. And this kind of thing happens all the time.

In another case of location-based titling, the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival featured a Kate Bosworth drama called While We Were Here; its distributor slapped an “And” on the front of that, to create And While We Were Here. At last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Naomi Watts and Robin Wright appeared in a drama called Two Mothers; by the time it hit VOD, it had been rebranded Adore. Think of Me, a 2011 Toronto film starring Lauren Ambrose, was redubbed About Sunny when it finally hit VOD last year. (“About” is a big one for re-titlers. Also popular: “American.”) The Dream of the Romans became The Answer Man. The Incident became Asylum Blackout. And so on.

Posters for Kate Bosworth's "And While We Were Here"

And such menus place alpha-numeric characters and symbols even higher, so Twenty-Eight Hotel Rooms became 28 Hotel Rooms, Five Star Day became 5 Star Day, Plus One became +1, and Frankie Go Boom became 3, 2, 1… Frankie Go Boom. It’s not just indie movies, either; a Forbes profile of the Sharknado and “mockbuster” factory Asylum notes, “since VOD menus list offerings alphabetically, many Asylum movie titles now start with numbers, symbols or the letter A. One of their highest-grossing VOD hits is #1 Cheerleader Camp. Instead of Two-Headed Shark Attack they went with 2-Headed Shark Attack.”

Once you become aware of the practice, it’s impossible not to notice — and no one’s even trying to hide it. “If you talk to anybody in the business, they’ll tell you that having an A or a B or a number in the title will get you 20% more hits,” Chris McGurk, chairman and CEO of Cinedigm, told Indiewire. “It’s shocking, but if you’ve got an early letter in the alphabet, it’s a huge advantage.”

Poster for "Adore"

But as is so often the case with movie-making formulas, filmmakers themselves aren’t so sure. Back in 2010, Ted Loscalzo produced a low-budget horror movie titled Fetch. When the time came to make a distribution deal, Loscalzo told me, “Our sales agents demanded that we change the name to something with an A so that it appeared at the top of the VOD list.” And so Fetch became American Maniacs, a move that Loscalzo still regrets. “It was absolutely the worst thing we could have done,” he says. “We lost all momentum with the fans that we had already created, and the title really did not represent the work at all.”

Twitch Film quotes Adore producer Troy Lum explaining that film’s title change at a panel discussion:

When we were talking to the American buyers, we got an American sale [and] we were going through title changes and every single title they came up with started with the letter ‘A’. And I was like, I don’t get it – there’s all these other titles we can choose from. And it was because they wanted it to come first on the VOD catalog list. So call your next film Aardvark.

And with that, I’ll take this opportunity to announce that I’m leaving Flavorwire to go make my surefire VOD hit, a moody, emo, kid-friendly action movie called 1 Aardvark Alone. No, wait, gotta make that title a little more social-media friendly: #1 Aardvark Alone, or #1AardvarkAlone on Twitter. (Kickstarter coming soon.)