Last night, I finally got around to watching “Edge of Tomorrow” – or, as it’s been retitled for home video, “Live. Die. Repeat.” (Much more on that in a minute.) I had heard good things from friends and fellow critics, several of whom called it their favorite film of this past summer, and it was as they promised: funny and clever and absolutely kick-ass, with great performances from Emily Blunt and Bill Paxton, and a very wise pivot of the usual Tom Cruise persona to acknowledge that many of us would probably enjoy seeing him humiliated, injured and killed as often as possible in a big-budget movie.
How, I wondered, had a big-budget sci-fi action film with a star as relatively big as Cruise still is, and as well-made as this was, have been such a box office disappointment?
I went on Twitter to ask for theories, and while a few admitted to not going because they’re sick of Cruise, most people blamed the title and the marketing, both of which positioned it as a generic sci-fi shoot-em-up, rather than the fun ride that it actually was. Even the ads that explained the premise of Cruise repeating the same day over and over again didn’t come close to conveying how amusing the movie was, how entertaining Paxton and Blunt were, or any of the film’s other charms.
As I got up this morning, still thinking about various moments I loved in the movie – not least of which is the best use of Cruise’s famous smile in forever – and feeling frustrated that it wasn’t sold better. I don’t think the title of the book it was adapted from, “All You Need Is Kill,” would have worked, but you don’t get more bland or forgettable than “Edge of Tomorrow.” (Hence the name change for the home video release.) The ads, meanwhile, did such a terrible job of capturing the spirit of the movie that everyone would have been better served by a black screen with the words, “It’s ‘Groundhog Day’ meets ‘Aliens.’ And Tom Cruise spends an hour being humiliated and/or killed. What more do you need to know?”
That frustration eventually got me thinking about TV shows that have suffered similar failures of titling and/or marketing.
The most glaring is FX’s great private eye drama “Terriers.” It’s apples and oranges to compare a low-budget basic cable drama with obscure leads to an expensive summer action movie with Tom Cruise, but you still had a title, a poster, and an ad campaign that all suggested a very entertaining project was something that it wasn’t. I have the “Terriers” poster on the wall of my office, and visitors always ask if it was a show about dog fighting and/or dog breeding. I don’t know that the show would have become a smash hit with a different name and ad campaign – ultimately, it was a show without an obvious hook, and saying “It’s a familiar genre piece elevated by fantastic execution and chemistry between the leads” isn’t an obvious sell – but you could have tried virtually any other name and campaign and had more success with it.
Then you have the recent stretch of badly and/or ironically-titled ABC sitcoms, which Fienberg wrote about at length in the summer. “Black-ish” is a hit so far, and “Cougar Town” will have had a six-season run (albeit with a shift of networks midway through), but “Trophy Wife” and “Selfie” were done no favors by their titles in their short lifespans, and we’ll see about “Fresh Off the Boat” at midseason.
Sometimes, a name is a thing a show outgrows. “Cougar Town” applied to the bad sitcom that it was for the first half-dozen episodes (and later turned into a running joke in the opening credits), just as “The Good Wife” fit when the hook was “What’s it like to be the humiliated wife of the scandalized politician?” But “Good Wife” is so many more things now, and even if the audience ceiling is limited for what’s ultimately a traditional legal drama that’s just very well-made, I do wonder if the Kings regret not having gone for something more representative of what the show would become.
Then there are the titles that may have been off-putting but also fit the show to which they were applied. Yes, the name “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is always going to chase away a good chunk of the audience, but those who tuned in got a show whose tone and breadth was conveyed perfectly in those four words. The ’00s “Battlestar Galactica” might have had broader appeal if it wasn’t reminding some of the audience of the cheesy ’70s version, but it was taking (and improving on) so much of the original material that it would have made no sense to call it anything else.
Obviously, there are many more examples of bad titles, bad posters, and/or bad ad campaigns for TV shows and movies that you loved, so fire away and tell me some of the most maddening ones you can remember.