A few years ago I made a film that was to be called 'In Praise of Shadows', reflecting its debt to Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's essay of the same name.
The film's budget was around $150,000 (not the $10 million claimed on public sites). It was shot in less than two weeks with a small crew.
During editing, we changed the name to that of the main character, 'William Vincent', and this is how it premiered at Tribeca and Stockholm. This is the name for all audiences outside the US.
The US distributor changed the name, for domestic distribution, to 'Shadows and Lies'. I don't mind saying I strongly dislike this title. Very strongly.
When the director has finished their work - through a release print - their authority is, sometimes, then reduced. Any director would be arrogant to not recognize that distributors have their own concerns that might in some ways be separate from those of the filmmaker. This divergence of concerns can lead to disagreements, which too often are settled in favor of the distributor, as they have taken the lead in this last stage of the process - bringing the film to an audience. I don't think this favor should extend to renaming a film.
It was, however, as 'William Vincent' that it was reviewed, with unusual eloquence, in Variety.
Is it possible that this review would have been less appreciative had it been presented at that stage as 'Shadows and Lies'? Probably not, given the clarity of the review, but I do believe that the reviewer would have entered the film with slightly altered expectations. One virtue of the title 'William Vincent' is that it is so unassuming and modest, suggesting qualities like small, plain, quiet. That is probably why the distributor, whose job is to maximize the audience, chose to change it to a title that they deemed less modest, something at once reminiscent of previously successful films and also just dashing enough to suggest a big event of some sort. There is much at stake in (synthesized drum-roll) Shadows and Lies, and very little at stake in some guy named William Vincent.
That is the very point of this modest title, to orient the viewer toward whatever quiet qualities the film hopes to offer. While the responsible director assumes a real fiduciary responsibility in exchange for the producers' faith in the project (even if it is a micro-budget film), it is also true that there are films with ambitions other than the purely commercial. It's hard to describe those other ambitions, but they have something to do with exploring a subject rather than presenting it, trying something rather than executing a fixed idea.
Similarly, my next film, 'The Letter', was another micro-budget project (around $400k). The film is a fairly lanquid and composed study of a woman's imagination, dark corners and all. Well, mainly dark corners. It is, like 'William Vincent', a modest film, shot in less than two weeks, with a gifted cast and crew. It's less a drama than an essay, or some sort of hybrid essay-in-the-form-of-a-drama. Modest.
Yet the distributor, inspired, I'm guessing, more by the names in the cast than the film itself, chose to present the film as something entirely unlike what it is or ever would be: something Big. Their trailer promises a gripping, supernatural, horror-infused thriller. It attracts an audience that wants to see a supernatural horror film.
Likewise, the plain title ('The Letter') I had chosen to suggest both the simple design of the film as well as the literary impulse that drives the character, was changed by the distributor in England to 'Obsessed', which sounds dangerous and deranged but is, in fact, merely blunt and superficial, qualities I'd like to think are not found in the film.
I find this kind of tampering shortsighted from a marketing point of view, which is, admittedly, not my forte. I find it shortsighted for this reason: the right audience for this film is neglected (and I think we can all agree there are different audiences for different films). There is but a small audience for the kind of film 'The Letter' actually is, but it's sufficient to justify the investment of a micro-budget, and then some, hopefully. But distributors understandably aiming for a bigger audience try to attract that larger group of viewers who will be enticed with a menacing and virile trailer. The problem arises when viewers, attracted by this deceptive light, actually see the film and discover it is not at all as promised. They are sorely disappointed, and I can understand why - they wanted to see the film the trailer promised. That film is not 'The Letter'.
On the other hand, the smaller group of viewers that might appreciate the essay-like sketch will avoid this film entirely if they ever see the trailer. So, the distributor's attempt to pull in an audience has, instead, assured that those who would like it won't see it, while those who will likely not find much to admire in the film will have come to it with distorted expectations, those promised in the deceptive trailer.
I am humbled and grateful when investors finance a film of mine, and even moreso when a distributor chooses it from amongst the many other films seeking such endorsement. However, in an ideal world the filmmaker's commercial aims, in my case always modest, would be reflected in the marketing of the film, the better to actually find the audience for which it was made. That ideal world is probably not far away, given how inexpensive modest filmmaking can be, and given the possibilities for new modes of distribution.