Give Us Our Iconic Movie Taglines Back, Hollywood!

Loglines are used by screenwriters to sell their movie ideas to studios and production companies, whereas taglines are one-liner set-ups for the finished movie, designed by marketing teams to sell the film to audiences. In both cases, their purpose is to pitch the movie and get people excited. Over a century of cinema, this necessity has given the world some taglines that have become almost as memorable as the movies themselves. Iconic taglines such as “In space, no one can hear you scream” (Ridley Scott‘s Alien) and “You’ll never go in the water again” (Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws) are still synonymous with their relevant movies today. Even their respective sequels relished the art form of the tagline, for instance, Alien vs Predator‘s “Whoever wins, we lose” and Jaws 2‘s “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…”. But why aren’t iconic movie taglines necessary for promoting modern blockbusters?

Despite enduring to the present day, the use of movie taglines has declined overall. This is due in part to the new methods by which studios make their money. Mid-budget movies are loosely defined as costing $5 million and $75 million dollars to make and usually feature a Hollywood movie star or two in a story based on an original screenplay. These make up the majority of exciting ’70s espionage thrillers, nostalgic ’80s comedies, and your favorite ’90s rom-coms. It’s understandable that these star-driven vehicles would require some extra context as to the content of the story, and so they required taglines; “Can the most famous film star in the world fall for just an ordinary guy?” being the tagline for Notting Hill, for example. With the death of the mid-budget movie came the decline of the tagline, and here’s why it happened.

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What Killed the Mid-Budget Movie?

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark about to snap his fingers in Avengers: Endgame
Image via Marvel Studios

In its simplest form, the power of a movie star in getting a film made was that their name and notoriety self-marketed the film to an extent. Knowing that Leonardo DiCaprio‘s leading roles have earned studios over $6.6 billion over 23 films meant the $20 million he charged to star in a movie was often a wise investment for the company, and that by casting him, his enormous fanbase was likely to buy millions of dollars’ worth of tickets. Today, however, as fewer and fewer people flock to the theaters or buy DVDs, studios have been forced to become safer with their investments. “The movies that we used to make, you could afford to not make all of your money when it played in the theater because you knew you had the DVD coming behind the release,” Matt Damon told Hot Ones. “When that went away, that changed the type of movies that we could make. […] That’s suddenly a massive gamble in a way that it wasn’t in the 1990s when they were making all those kinds of movies.”

Today, studios focus their attention on franchise films with a proven track record of earning the amount of money it would cost, instead of championing as many original ideas as they used to. Franchises such as The Avengers may have saturated the range of the cinematic landscape over the past decade, but as its star Anthony Mackie admitted, “There are no movie stars anymore. Like, Anthony Mackie isn’t a movie star. [His character] the Falcon is a movie star.” The ‘death of the movie star’ and the rise of I.P. have been credited with the recent decline in originality, with studios only pushing for a limited number of mid-budget movies anymore. These are often films that are likely to do well at the Academy Awards, thus garnering the studio a different kind of success. As a result, the movie tagline has become less important in marketing films to a potential audience, since the films themselves are already established entities. Seeing the words Transformers or Fast and Furious tells the audience everything they need to know about an upcoming installment, thus making the tagline redundant.

What Makes a Movie Tagline Effective?

Bill Murray as Peter Venkman in 'Ghostbusters.'
Image via Columbia Pictures

The genius of the tagline is best expressed when exemplified. “Who You Gonna Call?” Not only does this question (with its specific spelling and phrasing) trigger an automatic response in the reader’s head, but we’ve been trained to answer with excitement and exclamation. Ghostbusters‘ marketing was paramount given its original and frankly bizarre premise. Four New Yorkers team up to open a pest control company for eradicating ghosts from the city. Before the movie had entered the zeitgeist, one might imagine this to be a horror movie or a macabre children’s mystery like Scooby-Doo. But with its question-and-answer tagline, powered by Ray Parker Jr‘s No. 1 hit in which its slogan was repeated, Ghostbusters‘ unique tone and absurd comedy became clear in as few as four words.

The recent shift towards prioritizing franchise cinema and movies based on I.P. is not a sustainable practice, as obviously, every known entity needed to be pitched and marketed in the first place to gain its current status. Every now and again, the modern-day movie star will be hired by a studio to promote their rare mid-budget movie, at which point a tagline’s power become paramount. Part of the reason the new Jennifer Lawrence R-rated comedy No Hard Feelings feels like somewhat of a throwback is due to its clever title (using “hard feelings” to allude to its promiscuous humor and its inevitable apologetic final act). This is then enforced by the poster’s tagline “Pretty. Awkward.” with the first word printed above Lawrence’s face and the second above her co-star Andrew Barth Feldman‘s adolescent nerd character.

Why Bringing Back the Movie Tagline Matters

Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow
Image via Warner Bros.

Other recent examples of a tagline’s power include 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow. This Tom Cruise sci-fi action movie includes such a convoluted premise and an often-confusing plot, that even after seeing the film, you’d be excused for forgetting its seemingly irrelevant title. Its tagline, however, “Live. Die. Repeat.” tells audiences everything they need to know about the film, and even gets confused for the title itself after its marketing team decided to plaster the words over the poster in much larger print than the title. In 2016, Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart starred in the action-comedy Central Intelligence which is, again, an easily-forgettable title. Its tagline however expertly sold people on its comedic tone, referencing the actors’ anatomical surnames. “Saving the World Takes s Little Hart and a Big Johnson”!

The decline of the tagline is a shame for multiple reasons. A great title and beautiful poster can only do so much, but the specific tone of the film’s writing can only really be represented by a perfectly composed tagline. Comedies, horror movies, and rom-coms alike can all vary extraordinarily in terms of tone, but reading its brand of humor or seriousness in a short sentence about the plot can truly make or break a movie’s success. In short, nurturing the art of great taglines can be the answer to bringing back the mid-budget movie, not to mention that knowing which movie matches which tagline has always made for fun trivia if nothing else!

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