What's in a name? Rather a lot, to judge by the man-hours the producers of Mission: Impossible IV have no doubt spent on excruciating deliberations concerning the new film's moniker. For it now appears that the fourth adventure to star Tom Cruise as the all-action IMF agent Ethan Hunt is to be referred to as Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol.
Filming in Dubai, Cruise told a press conference this week: "I've never done sequels to films and I never thought of these films as sequels... all I wanted is not to have a number." Perhaps that's tacit acceptance that he doesn't want the new movie to be tarnished by what went before. But it's hard to imagine, with the colon where it is, what the title could refer to. Are we about to be introduced to the strange protocols of an impossible ghost, while Cruise hangs off the side of the Burj Khalifa? Who knows.
Whatever the answer, Cruise's work-in-progress is not the first film with tortuous naming issues. Perhaps the sheer quirkiness of The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night might have enticed people into the cinema to wonder at John Travolta's dance moves, but we shall never know. Perhaps wisely, the producers of Saturday Night Fever opted for something a little punchier than the title of the 1976 New Yorker magazine that inspired the plot and characters.
In a similar vein, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? might have enticed diehard fans of the dystopian author Philip K Dick to buy a ticket for the film based on his novel. But Blade Runner was far more mysterious, striking and futuristic. It was certainly better than plain old Android, Mechanismo or the rather bombastic Dangerous Days - other names the studio toyed with.
Both those names were changed for sound reasons, but sometimes such decisions can seem completely arbitrary. One can only assume that a boxing movie called The Contender was renamed Rocky because the original title might have suggested Sly Stallone's character was not a born winner. But The Contender still works as an evocation of a boxer dreaming of being a hero. And would we have laughed any less at Cameron Diaz's character in There's Something About Mary if she'd been called Sarah, as initially intended? Of course not.
But it really does seem that studios believe people make their viewing choices based purely on the name of the film. What else can explain the title chosen for a new Disney fairy tale animation out early next year, about a girl with impossibly long hair trapped in a castle? It's not called Rapunzel any more, because, as Ed Catmull, the president of Disney Animation Studios, told the Los Angeles Times: "Some people might assume it's a fairy tale for girls when it's not." So instead, Rapunzel features in the desperately bland-sounding Tangled.
The real reason for the name change was Disney's bitter experience with The Princess and the Frog. It was not the huge hit the studio was expecting - and the blame fell on the "princess" in the title for putting off boys.
Sound ridiculous? Snakes on a Plane is a classic example of a film that probably wouldn't even have been greenlighted were it not for its hilariously high-concept name causing an internet sensation. And when the producers decided to change it to the dull Pacific Flight 121 - its lead Samuel L Jackson went ballistic. "The title was what got my attention in the first place," he told USA Today at the time. "I got on the set one day and heard they changed it, and I said, 'What are you doing here? It's not Gone with the Wind. It's not On the Waterfront. It's Snakes on a Plane!' When audiences hear it, they say, 'We are there!'"
In the end, it wasn't a great film, but that didn't matter. That memorable title alone essentially made New Line Cinema a US$30 million (Dh110m) profit.
So if movie titles are so important, you do wonder how any Hollywood films clunkily translated into different languages ever make any money. The beauty of Thelma and Louise is that it slowly builds to a shocking and unexpected ending. But Mexican cinemas clearly held no truck with such empathetic filmmaking and renamed it An Unexpected Ending. Which kind of ruins the effect.
The Chinese are serial offenders at bad translations - to the extent one suspects they're poking fun at the whole film-naming game. John Woo's 1997 thriller Face/Off, for example, brilliantly mutated into Who Is Face Belonging To? I Kill You Again, Harder! Can't wait to see what they make of Ghost Protocol...
* Ben East