Screenwriting : Profanity in titles by Brandon Phillips

Brandon Phillips

Profanity in titles

I am currently working on a script, and in the title, I am considering either explicitly (or implicitly) using profanity. And, from a creative perspective, by the end of the script, the title will pretty much sum up what everyone should be thinking/feeling by the end of the movie. However, the only thing holding me back is its impact on selling or marketing. There isn't much profanity in the script itself.

So, what are your thoughts on profanity in a title? Do you think it can deter script readers and/or potential producers?

Pierre Langenegger

About five years back, the group I was in at the time, reviewed a script called "I want to ____ your sister". I could be wrong but I was pretty sure this was on the Blacklist as "I want to F**k your sister" and I was also pretty sure it was originally submitted as "I want to fuck your sister" and then cleaned up possibly by an agent. I think submit it the way you want and various bodies will clean up the title or if you think that will work against you then substitute some letters as per the titles above.

David E. Gates

Didn't do Inglourious Basterds any harm.

Elisabeth Meier

LOL. When "Dancing With Wolves" came into cinema years ago I didn't know what kind of movie it is, didn't read or hear anything about it before and didn't watch it because of the title. I thought it must be a boring documentary.

David E. Gates

Not heard of that one. Heard of Dances With Wolves starring Kevin Costner. Awesome film.

Caity FitzGerald

I think it depends on the audience. It's our first impression of the film and if there's not a lot of profanity in the script itself, is it necessary for the title? What is the genre? It could work if done very intentionally, I think...

David made a great point about Ingorious Basterds but that was not a title with profanity (to me) and we all sort of knew what we were getting with Quentin Tarantino already (one of my favorite movies by the way). Maybe we need more information here to really discuss it but when you said that we'll be thinking and feeling the title at the end of the movie it made me wonder "does that mean I'll be thinking 'aw bleep' at the end of the movie?" Because I don't like thinking anything like that.

If I'm thinking "****!" then I'm probably feeling like why didn't they finish the damn story or why did they just waste my time with their artsy "could have been made but doesn't mean it should have been made" movie? Anyway, I'm assuming that's not what you meant at all but this is an interesting question and I wanted to participate in the discussion. Sorry it got a bit long winded though! :)

Owen Mowatt

This profanity shit, really pisses me right off. We're all adults here, what's the fucking title already?

Dan MaxXx

play it safe. If you don't have a track record, 0 representation, why make it harder for a read request if the title is offensive?

Nikki Ackerman

Skip the profanity as a title. Give it a title that evokes that same feeling in a way that will grab attention, yet not want them to throw it in the bin.

Eric Christopherson

There was a NIcholl winner a couple years back with F*#K in the title. I'm not sure it matters (but I doubt the title stays if the script is produced).

Dan Guardino

I agree with Dan M. The odds of selling a spec are so great why take a chance of getting your script read. That one person that finds the title offensive might be the one that was willing to turn your screenplay into a movie. If you have representation you might get away with it but then your agent might be the one that is offended and not want to push that particular screenplay.

Chris Blair

Is the word "fuck?" You can always go the route of just using the letter "F" (like the podcast "F This Movie"). I've been doing an improv show for years called "Your Fucked Up Relationship," and we use the "Your F!#&ed Up Relationship" for whenever the name doesn't fly.

Doug Nelson

Basically... don't do that if you're trying to sell the script/story. Profanity in the title automatically limits your market to an R/X rating. You've lost more than half your potential market. Selling any spec script is hard enough to begin with - why tie your hands behind your back to begin with? As a Producer (speaking only for myself); I'll not produce any script that is loaded with profanity and/or violence. So right there, there is one Producer (e pluribus unum) who doesn't want to read your work.

Travis Calvert

I think it depends on the script. I recall last year, being at a seminar with Jessica Sharzer (writer of Nerve) and she said including profanity in the title was actually a great way to get noticed.

Erik A. Jacobson

If it's your first script in particular, it will limit your number of readers. It could also convey a sense of desperation, like the newbie actress who plans a deliberate wardrobe malfunction for her first red carpet trip. You can build a career based on shock value or on the quality of your writing. Your choice.

Danny Manus

execs and contests love profanity in titles, if its a comedy. go for it, if it matches the tone of your story.

Elisabeth Meier

David E. Gates Yup, but in German it had a different title. Hence, I think the universe will forgive me that I didn't remember the correct original title.

Olaojoyegbe Bolarinwa

I will advise you to come up with a title that is pretty hard to detect by the viewers. There is going to always be a less interest in watching a movie which you can predict. So, I will advise you , profanity or not, make the title of the movie hard to find out and gain a lot of viewers in the process.

Floyd Marshall Jr.

Do you plan on pitching this script for a possible movie deal, then having it advertised? If so the profanity has to be something that passes the smell test. Inglorious Bastards. Profanity, but acceptable. You don't want people thinking it's a porn movie so be very careful and very selective. I speak from experience, had to change a title of my first feature film. Good luck.

Timothy Linnomme

Profanity shouldn't be used for its own sake. If your material is Grimdark, that would be justification for profanity in the title but be advised that will provide one more barrier for your work.

Stephanie Acon

Please... Please don't.

Donna M. Carbone

I've always felt that if a person needs to use profanity in a title to get attention (or for whatever reason), then the material must be lacking. I don't read/watch anything that starts off with vulgarity. However, if the personalities of certain characters in the script require the use of foul language, then write accordingly.

Mark Heartford

what is your story about? what happens to the characters? what is it gene?

Beth Fox Heisinger

It depends on context and creative intent—of course—but, personally, I find it utterly boring. Lackluster. Meh. It seems gimmicky. It's distracting. Now, right at the title, the script seems all about some loaded, perhaps offensive word instead of a concept, instead of a story. So to me, I just don't find it effective, rather than consider it some sort of right or wrong ethical thing—to use or not to use is clearly a choice. Of course, more than likely, a profanity-laced title will be changed anyway, certainly if the film is marketed to the general public/general audiences. Advertising in print publications, movie trailers shown on cable networks, banner ads, radio spots, etc, most of those media outlets have language restrictions. As an audience member/reader, if I see profanity in a title I automatically assume the film/script is a comedy or has some comedic elements of some sort. Or I assume it's not very creative at all—profanity is sometimes considered a creative low branch, is it not? Lol! But... don't get me wrong, I appreciate and love a well-placed F-bomb. A well-placed F-bomb is a beautiful thing! LOL! When profanity is appropriate, it's appropriate. ;) I dunno... for me, I think profanity is best used within the dialogue and action of a script. But to each their own!

Rutger Oosterhoff

"However, the only thing holding me back is its impact on selling or marketing" How I see it... If your original story is good than for me "profanity" IS your marketing tool to sell. But not the sort of "profanity" you're thinking of. It is about societies 'perception' of what is 'right' or 'wrong'. It's about the biggest mindfuck you can come up with stil keeping the story believable and telling a SUBJECTIVE truth you know a lot of people are going to 'dicuss'. It's about the side of the coin most people do not dare to see. But, BUT, profanity should NOT be the given you 'build' your story on. It can only be a 'natural' part of it. But then again, production companies probably will not have the guts to shock the world and will choose to make an other "Full House".

Beth Fox Heisinger

About marketing a product... It's not so much about having the "guts" but rather having to navigate real, logistical facts and issues: there are restrictions for certain media outlets. So it truly depends on the marketing campaign and the target audience. Sure, some publications and websites have no issue with profanity. But if an F-bomb title is to be marketed on a broad scale, where the title will be seen and heard by general audiences (kids), then the title will have to change. R-rated films have trailers that are edited so they can be shown to general audiences, right? Hard to do that with an F-bomb title. So even if a production company decides to go ahead with an F-bomb title it will probably be modified or softened somehow.

Now if a screenwriter is using shock value, or some gimmick to get attention, or whatever to get an exec or particular production company to read her/his script, that's a different thing entirely. That's not dealing with marketing.

And just a funny example... The raunchy and profanity-laced Showtime series SHAMELESS certainly has no need for profanity in its fantastic title. Lol! It's marketed to adult audiences, and yet can be advertised in any general audience setting as well. The latest marketing campaign—shown only late at night on Showtime—has all the characters giving the camera the finger. That's it. Pretty effective, and pretty much captures the show. Lol! ;)

Beth Fox Heisinger

Whoops, mixed up networks... It's Showtime. Lol! I'll fix my comment.

Beth Fox Heisinger

And just because I find this a little funny... when I checked the website for SHAMELESS, they have a link to the "Middle Finger Teaser" (Get Ready For an All New Season!), and on the link image, they blurred or grayed-out William H. Macy's character giving the finger. But when you click and play the trailer, of course, it's middle fingers all around. Haha! ;) Oh, censoring...

Chris Blair

It seems like if the naughty word in the title gets an executive's attention, then it doesn't really matter. If he or she thinks it's more marketable to change the title to something without an f bomb, then I assume that's an easy fix (unless the writer is a stubborn mother f-bomber), and hey, it got that person's attention.

Christopher Joseph

Definitely go with Beth! I concur lol.

Dan Guardino

Anyone can swear. I use very little profanity in my screenplays and never in my titles or synopsis. Why do anything that might keep someone from reading your screenplay. If your odds of selling one are one in 5,000 why lose half your readers because if you do then your odds are one in 10,000.

Pierre Langenegger

You can't cater to every reader. People write for different markets and that's okay. A sci-fi script will not be read by those who are not into sci-fi just as an ultra-violent story, profanity aside, will not be read by those who are not interested in those types of stories. The faith-based market is growing all the time but I'm pretty sure those producers and readers wouldn't touch most of the scripts out there. You should write what you would like to see on the screen regardless of the language used by your characters and if that carries through to the title, then so be it. It shouldn't be your aim to try to cater to every reader, just write a great story so those who will read it, will like it.

Dan Guardino

Pierre. It is still a numbers game. The more people willing to read your screenplays the better your chances. There are probably 150,000 unsold feature film script floating around Hollywood on any given day and out of those maybe 150 will be optioned in a good year. I knew that so when I was starting out I wanted to get as many people as i could to read my screenplays so I wrote in a lot of different genres and budgets. I am not against profanity if needed in my screenplay but a lot of people consider too much is lazy writing so why would anyone want to do it the title. Of course that is just my opinion and people should do whatever they want with their screenplays. However I do have an agent and I am pretty picky what I put my name on and I am sure she feels the same way.

Brandon Phillips

Thanks for all the great feedback! It seems that the majority of the feedback is to avoid it so as to not limit the scripts ability to be read. And, since I do plan to pitch and sell this script to a larger customer than I have in the past, then I don't want to limit its potential because of a single word. So, I will leave it out (although I really want it in).

For those curious, it is not a comedy. It is a sci-fi thriller that I was going to call "Fuck the Space Program". So, instead, I will call it "The Space Program". In one of the most pressurized/tense scenes in the script, the protagonist is asked "what about the space program?" and he replies "fuck the space program". It adds a bit of humor to an otherwise serious scene, but anyone who's paid attention up to that point is also thinking the same thing about the space program and all its false promises, secrets, and lies that are exposed.

So, even if it doesn't make it in the title, it still has its moment in the script, and I'm OK with that. Thanks for all the good feedback!

Rob Jones

'F the space program' is essentially the same thing and appropriate enough.

Chris Blair

I agree with Rob. "F the Space Program" has way more bite and is more inline with what you want.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Hi, Brandon. I'm happy to hear this profanity-laced discussion has indeed been helpful to you! Lol! Great post thread, BTW. Thanks for posting. ;) ...Just my two cents, I have no knowledge of your story, of course, but for a sci-fi thriller that is not a comedy, I think omitting the profanity entirely from the title is a good idea. Let that line of dialogue be what it is in the script. You could even name the script "The Program." Or does the space program/mission in your story have some sort of specific name, a code name? Just pondering... For example, one of the US space programs to return to the moon in 2020 that started way back in the Bush Administration was called "Constellation." But... you know your story; what would work best. Anyway, I do wish you the best, and good luck with your screenplay! ;)

Janet Elizabeth Swainston

There was "Young People Fucking" ... that seemed to do well, though I think it was indie!

Richard Gustason

I think if it for an indie project, sure a curse word in the title may not hurt. But for mainstream distribution, probably work on the side of caution. Yet who knows, I mean this business can be goofy at times.

Regina Lee

Be careful of the bait and switch. If the title suggests a certain tone or style, and the script doesn't match up with expectation, you could disappoint readers.

Brandon Phillips

That's a good point! I guess I would wonder why people assume profanity implies comedy. Every time an f-bomb is dropped, it isn't always funny.

Regina Lee

I never said comedy. I said "suggests a certain tone or style," and that could be one of many, e.g. violent, funny, provoking, etc.

Brandon Phillips

Fair enough. I get your point. Thanks again!

Regina Lee

When you said, "There isn't much profanity in the script itself," that is what concerns me about a title that suggests profanity, but a script that doesn't actually seem to match up well with what the title suggests. If you are marketing profanity, then I think the book should match its cover to avoid the bait and switch.

Chris Blair

The word itself does not necessarily imply comedy; however, when a title to something is an insult, it's automatically a little funny. Saying the space program sucks isn't really funny, but if that was the title of the movie, it for sure would be.

Regina Lee

I used to go to a Mexican restaurant called The Wicked Burrito: Kick-Ass Mexican Food." Their emblem had a donkey/ass on it. With a name like that, I expected strong flavors. If the place was bland and boring, I'd have been supremely disappointed given its name.

Chris Blair

I think restaurants should have a golden rule: don't put the name "ass" in your title.

Kevin Carothers

The trick about profanity is it punctuates a moment.... Maybe a title is not "THAT" moment.

Dan MaxXx

that is a terrible title for a sci-fi thriller, "Fuck the Space Program."

Owen Mowatt

I agree. More disappointed than offended, if truth be known.

As a working title, to keep you focused, it is fine, but boy does it need to go.

Brandon Phillips

Well, Dan MaxXx I think it is terrible to give an opinion with minimal information; it aligns perfectly with the story, which you don't know, regardless of your feelings about it. I was asking for opinions about profanity in titles...not to critique the title I chose. At any rate, thanks for your unsolicited opinion.

Brandon Phillips

Owen Mowatt - Similarly, if you have any feedback on profanity in titles, which is the focus of this post, it is welcomed. Otherwise, I can recommend a great therapist for your disappointment.

Brandon Phillips

Good point Kevin Carothers !

Owen Mowatt

I can recommend a great therapist for your disappointment.

You really cant afford to be this sensitive and ask these types of questions, Brandon.

I thought the use was going to convey some sort of double meaning, which would have been clever and something to discuss. Fuck the Space Program, just isn't....In my opinion.

Arguing that the title "aligns perfectly with your story" and is therefore somehow justified, is almost circular in its reasoning. Good luck explaining that on your poster.

Bill Costantini

I went to a psychiatrist last week. I told him I was feeling depressed. He told me I should slow down on my drinking. I replied that I don't drink. He told me I should stop taking drugs. I replied that I don't use drugs. He told me that I should cut down on my womanizing. I told him I'm not a womanizer, either.

He then told me that I should get myself a drink, do some drugs, and find a couple girlfriends.

W Keith Sewell

Brandon, I wouldn't. Right now, I struggle with using profanity in my pitch. Totally removed it from the logline. But the tone and style of the script is carefully laden with a MF here and a MF there, but it's for a specific effect and character generated. I'm concerned about the offensive side of it, both in its theme and language - but it fits. But it won't fit with a some potential buyers.

So, you've got a choice to make. Some profanity is less offensive and part of our normal speech, it could be fine to use. Try it out on a few folks and watch the initial response you get. Don't do the click and bait. I was called out by a producer for doing that.

I don't have much interaction with industry people as some writers here, but in that limited experience - they curse like sailors!!

Brandon Phillips

Bill Costantini - Hilarious!

Owen Mowatt - The questions were "So, what are your thoughts on profanity in a title? Do you think it can deter script readers and/or potential producers?". You've failed to answer either question in two responses.

@W - Great points!

Kelley Christene Watson

Brandon, I agree with W. Keith. Everyone is sooo sensitive these days. I don't think you should include profanity in the title as that may be interpreted as a way of getting attention and detract from the creative and intellectual nature of your work. You don't need to.

Brandon Phillips

Great feedback! I’ve since committed to a title without profanity, but going forward, this type of feedback will be useful and hopefully help to others who might consider profanity in their titles too!

A R Mavero.

If the profanity in the title seems appropriate to the tone of the overall screenplay, or otherwise legitimately justified, then I wouldn't necessarily object to it. However, it is probably advisable to imply the profanity, rather than spelling it out expressly. For instance, substitute a blank (_____) for the profane word or an asterisk (*) or other punctuation or symbol for some of the letters in the profane words. Or maybe use a more refined phrase or term that essentially shares the same meaning with the phrase that is considered profane.

Marisa Torre

Sh*t My Father Says ... made to network TV, ya gotta be discrete

Steven Michael

If possible, it may be more palatable to everyone if you misspell the profanity word, or spell phonetically. Inglorious Basterds comes to mind.

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