"Killer" or "Slayer"? Language Lessons From Jack The Giant Flop

A last-minute change in title for the $190 million CGI fest "Jack The Giant Slayer" went by unnoticed. Now an algorithm reveals what changing a single word in the title can (and can't) do to win an audience.

Warner Bros.'s newest CGI-laden fantasy film, Jack The Giant Slayer, opened last week, and while it led the earnings among weekend competitors, its box office haul was far from Gargantuan. The film had a $190 million budget. It saw a return of $27.2 million for the weekend. The Los Angeles Times called it the "first big-budget disaster of 2013." And the New York Times called it a “fee, fi, fo, fizzle."

Blame it on a lack of star power that didn't extend far beyond Ewan McGregor or a premiere that came during the post-Oscar malaise. Consider the change in release date from June of 2012 to March of 2013, often the harbinger of a troubled project.

But one of the film's most revealing, last-minute alterations passed by mostly unnoticed. Sometime around last October, the title was changed from Jack the Giant Killer to Jack the Giant Slayer. A rep from Warner Bros. tells Fast Company via email that the name change was intended to make the movie—which draws from a mixture of two fairy tales, "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "Jack the Giant Killer"—more “family friendly.” In doing so, the studio seemed to assume the word “slayer” was more family friendly than “killer."

Or more parent friendly.

“The nuances of the title change will be lost on children,” explains Laurel Sutton, principal at Catchword Brand Name Development, a naming company that creates names for various things from products to companies. “Kids will call it the ‘Jack and the Beanstalk movie’ or ‘the giant movie.’” A studio’s concern about family friendliness stems from the belief that the movie will appeal to a young audience that relies on its parents for ticket purchasing and chauffeuring. If a parent feels that a movie has an objectionable title, or that the title suggests objectionable content in the film, they’re not going to be as inclined to facilitate a viewing.

From that perspective, the name switch appears to have been prudent. "The word 'slayer' has definite associations with fairy tales and knights and dragons, and seems much more at home in the world of fantasy," says Sutton. "'Killer' is far more realistic: There are killers in everyday life. We read about them in the paper. The word elicits a much more visceral response."

Enter The Bad Word Bot

That emotional response to the word “killer” could be enough to scare away wary parents. But can we use numbers to predict how words will make us feel? That's where Yejin Choi, an assistant professor of computer science at SUNY Stony Brook, comes in. She and a team of researchers put together an algorithm to teach machines how positive or negative a word is. Choi uses a set of words, or corpus, from Google, which includes sequences of words. Using those sequences, the research team put together an algorithm to build graphs, teaching machines how positive or negative words tend to be.

According to the algorithm, the word “slayer” possesses a moderately positive connotation, while killer is strongly negative, suggesting the studio was right. It seems likely that the word set is drawing on popular usage of the two words, as Sutton mentioned: ”Slayer” is fantasy, but “killer” is real. However, the data is complex, and can produce results that are commensurately difficult to interpret. For example, if Jack were a “giant hugger,” the algorithm says the phrase would have a less positive connotation than “giant slayer.” The challenge is illustrated by looking at a word like “execution,” which could refer to execution, as in putting someone to death (generally regarded as a negative event), or the execution of a task (a positive occurrence, especially in the eyes of employers). “[The algorithm] cannot figure out which sense of the word is being used,” Choi says. When one considers that a warden might remark on the execution of an execution, it’s clear how context can become confusing.

The Shawshank Distinction

What that confusion does is reinforce the larger point here: that focusing on just one word is never the best way to proceed. "It seems crazy, but a slight title change can make a big difference, mostly on the down side," says Brent Scarcliff, creative strategy director at Scarcliff Salvador Inc., which has helped studios such as MGM, Lucasfilm, and even Warner Bros. The title, Scarcliff says, is one of the five main tenets of theatrical marketing—the others being timing, trailer, talent, and tribe (aka built-in audience)—but is the one that studios spend the least time and money on, ”probably because there’s no award for a great title.”

(Arguably the best example of the short shrift titles receive—and the impact they can have—is The Shawshank Redemption, which kept the name of its source material, a short story by Stephen King, when it was released in 1994. The movie was a box office flop, initially grossing little more than $18 million in theaters—not even enough to recoup costs. But seven Oscar nominations, critical acclaim, and years of cult success later, Shawshank is ranked No. 1 on IMDB.com’s list of 250 top movies, as rated by users. Hope is a good thing; The Shawshank Redemption as a film title is not.)

It’s not that films don’t change titles on the fly, or shouldn’t. It happens fairly regularly for a number of reasons, such as rights and trademark issues. Last year’s Oscar-winning animated film Brave was initially The Bear and the Bow. Pretty Woman was Three Thousand. Even Drop Dead Gorgeous was Dairy Queens until just months before its release. But those were all significant changes, something Scarcliff says is necessary if any tweaking is going to be done. "When it comes to titles,” he says, “no change or complete change is often better than halfhearted change.”

In the case of Jack and his Giant noun, what the swapping of a single word accomplished was drawing attention to the change—which could be exactly what the studio is trying to avoid. That raises questions of why the switch was made, potentially eliciting cries of cheesiness or unnecessary political correctness. There’s also the risk of pissing off the purists—Jack the Giant Killer was the title of the source material. Can today’s audiences really not handle it?

But that’s all still making the assumption that a more family-friendly title is a better title. That assumption was a riskier one. As many reviewers noted this week, it's unclear why there would be such a desire to appeal to a family-friendly audience in the first place, given the rather violent trailers and PG-13 rating. And as it turns out, CinemaScore reports that 56% of the crowd this weekend was over the age of 25. Safe bet they bought their own tickets.

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4 Comments

  • Gideon

    Reminds me of John Carter. What was that about? Oh, right—a wild adventure on Mars. 

  • RobynBradley

    I seem to recall the same concern over the name Erin Brockovich. Julia Roberts' star power as well as (what I remember to be) some hardcore media buys around the pronunciation of the name (usually a clip of Julia saying the name as she stood in the infamous mini skirt and push-up bra) helped avoid the Shawshank issue.