The Name Game

Studios put a lot into choosing just the right name for their movies. Starting with the writer naming the script, great effort goes into finding just the right title. It's the tip of the marketing spear after all. Nobody would have run out to see A Long Night At Camp Blood, but Friday the 13th did pretty well. Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night sounds like an unfocused documentary, but Saturday Night Fever sparkled on the poster. Dave Peoples wrote a wonderful screenplay called The Cut Whore Killings. Clint Eastwood suggested renaming it Unforgiven.

In the case of most of the shorts we made at Pixar in the old days the names came easily. Luxo, Jr., Red's Dream, Knickknack, and Tin Toy practically named themselves. Our first feature, about toys that came to life when people were out of the room, named itself too. We called it ToysPerfect, no?

Then we heard that Barry Levinson had sniped the title for a Robin Williams movie. Yes, that Barry Levinson.

Well, we had a movie to make. Surely we'd come up with another title — just as snappy —eventually. Meanwhile, we needed to get to work, so Toy Story was slapped on it as a working title. We all hated it. At least it was temporary.

Eventually the deadline for picking a final title loomed. We were desperate. A list (which I dearly wish I could find) of proposed titles floated around the studio hoping that one would stick. They sucked.

Don't believe me? Here are a few that I do remember: [Update: I'm also adding titles that other Pixareans are remembering and sending to me.]

  • The Cowboy and the Space Man
  • Spurs and Rockets
  • Buzz Off
  • Did Not, Did Too
  • I'm With Stupid
  • Pull-String Heroes

Now you believe me.

I'm half surprised we never got to Buzz, Buzz, Bo-Buzz, Bananafana Fo-Fuzz but I wouldn't bet folding money that it crossed nobody's mind. Eventually the ticking clock put the whole exercise out of its misery.

I remember being at my desk in the old Layout Pod on Cutting Blvd. when a downcast John Lasseter slouched into my cubicle and informed me that we had run out of time: We were stuck with the name Toy Story. We both took a moment to sulk. Oh, well. Who knows how many people were going to see it anyway? I remember hoping right up to the release for it to just not tank. Maybe gross a respectable $85-90 million so we could stay in business and make another movie.


It eventually worked out OK, and nobody else seemed particularly bothered by the title. We even got used to it. But during the struggle for a title, just to make us feel better, Joe Ranft shared something that happened while he was at Disney.

In 1986 the studio was finishing production on a "Sherlock Holmes with mice" film that had the delightful title, Basil of Baker Street. At the last minute the decision was made to change it to the stupefyingly lame The Great Mouse Detective. How much that title contributed to its being a box office flop is purely a matter of conjecture. What was sure was that most of the animators and story people agreed it was dreadful.

Out of nowhere a memo appeared, typed on official letterhead and apparently from the office of Peter Schneider, a top production executive at the time. In the days before the internet things went viral via Xerox machines. And boy howdy did this one go viral, appearing soon all over the studio. It became famous, or infamous depending on who you were, all over the animation world. Joe had some copies and shared them with us.

The other day I was going through some old boxes, and look what I found.

Basil of Baker Street Joe Ranft Memo.jpg

Schneider (who is actually a very nice guy) was reportedly furious, and tried for years to uncover who created the memo. Nobody squealed.

The author unmasked himself to us nearly a decade later, at Pixar. You probably guessed already.

I really miss Joe.