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How do you rename an American film for its French release?

Sex Friendswhich comes out this Wednesday, February 16, 2011, was called No Strings Attached upon its American release. An American film renamed in English for its French release, this is an opportunity to update our not insignificant list, published at the end of summer 2010: we had Be Bad (Youth in Revolt upon its release in the United States); date night which was transformed into crazy nightand Knight and Day (“Knight and Day”, Knight also being the name of the hero) in Night and Day (“Night and Day”), or Step-Up 3D became Sexy Dance 3D Where The Expendables presented in France under the name of Expendables: Special Unit.

In addition to these titles in English readapted for France in English, there are all the American films which keep their original title, and those whose titles are translated into French, literally (The Last House on the Left became The last house on the leftWhere Wall Street: Money never sleeps became Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), or with more or less freedom (It’s complicated is Not that easy with us, Role Models released under the title of The Big Brothers).

In total, 57% of the 200 American films released in France between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2010 by seven distributors (SND, Wild Bunch Distribution, Sony Pictures Releasing France, Universal Pictures International France, Twentieth Fox Century France, Paramount Pictures France , Metropolitan FilmExport) have been renamed in French. 43% had an English title (35% their original title, 8% renamed in English, as Sex Friends / No strings attached):

Click the (+) to see figures from January 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010

The distributors are not all equal in front of the titles: Wild Bunch does not retitle in English, but has kept 5 out of 7 times the original English title. Sony does not retitle either but is the champion of translation (75% of its titles), followed by Metropolitan (7 titles out of 10 translated) and Paramount (6 titles out of 10). On the contrary, Universal, SND and Fox have an English title for more than half of their films.

Click the (+) to see figures from January 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010

How do we choose the titles of American films released in France? Why translate some and not others, and rename the third… but back to English?

Each film being treated as a particular case, there is no recipe that distributors apply to this or that category of film. Even if we can identify some main principles, there will always be exceptions that will confirm the following rules:

  • we translate the titles of children’s films (exception: Toy Story)
  • we change or translate titles that mean nothing to French people (exception: Repos men)
  • we translate or change if the title in English is too complicated to pronounce and/or memorize (exception: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
  • we keep the original title of genre films (exception: 30 days of night for 30 days of night)
  • we keep the French title of the book that inspired an adaptation (exception: The Reader).

The creative circuit

Retitling is an art that is practiced within all film distribution boxes. Employees engage in more or less informal brainstorming (even if distributors sometimes call on outside freelancers, journalists or advertising agencies, most of the negotiations are done internally). Discussions can last from two days to several months depending on the film, before the final decision is made by the marketing director and, if necessary, the distribution director.

The circuit stops there in the independent companies which buy their foreign films, like SND, which simply sends its choice to the American distributor to keep it informed.

But the process is a little different at the French subsidiaries of the big American majors: at Universal Pictures International France, for example, once the new title has been approved internally, it is sent to the headquarters of Universal Pictures International (with, as a result, its literal translation from French to English!) for final approval.

The head office can send directives for certain films, asking for example to stick to the original title as much as possible at the request of the directors or producers. The positive counterpart of this occasional constraint being that the head office can also group together all the titles chosen by the other countries and send them to the French subsidiary for inspiration.

A marketing product like any other

When there is doubt or disagreement between the marketing director and the distribution director, SND carries out tests. That’s what happened with The Reader, for example. Logic would have wanted to take the title of the book in France, The Reader, but the team feared that this too “nerdy” title did not convey the emotion and the dramatic tension of the film. A test organization showed 500 people “The Reader” poster and 500 people “Le Liseur” poster, and concluded that The Reader tended to push back, unlike The Reader.

The title is part of the film’s marketing strategy, like the poster, trailer and advertising campaign. It is already necessary to decide the target for which the product is intended (young audience? elderly? CSP+? Students? Cinephiles or not?), and suddenly the image that we want to give of it, then its positioning: a film is often found on the border between two genres, do we want to sell it as a comedy? A drama? A fantasy horror or action movie?

English for “small” films…

funny people Where The invention of Lying were “technical” releases for Universal Pictures International France, films released on a very small number of prints. Not translating the title helps to minimize release costs, especially since the audience of Judd Appatow and Ricky Gervais (the directors of the two films) are the type to go to the cinema in original version.

The same goes for films that the distributor doesn’t really want to promote. Sometimes, in order to buy a film, a distributor has to buy other smaller ones, or a distributor buys a film based on a great script, which turns out to be a failure when it is shot, in which case he will not look to make a big outing either. For those, therefore, no great brainstorming: we will keep the original title.

… And French for the general public…

Translating a title into French can therefore, on the contrary, be a way of launching the film on the “general public”, “popular” market, especially since most copies of foreign films are in VF, the VO subtitled mainly limited to Paris and other large cities.

For its French release, the SND team decided to rename The Hurt Lockerbig winner at the 2010 Oscars, in Minesweepers. An integral part of its marketing campaign: films on Iraq not doing very well in France, the team also completely changed its poster and reassembled its trailer. Everything to sell it as a spectacular war film, focused on the originality of the work of deminers compared to traditional soldiers.

In a completely different style, the team transformed In Brugge in Kisses from Bruges: the original title was understandable, but it did not reflect the offbeat side of the film. Hence the “Good kisses…” to make the film stand out more among the 15 weekly releases.

… except for teenagers!

But English can become a selling point when addressing a teenage audience. From where Sexy Dance 3D (which also belongs to the great tradition of titles made sexier), or even American Tripthe French title of Get him to the Greek. “The Greek” referring to a theater in Los Angeles, it would not evoke anything to the French public. So renamed, but renamed in English, with “American”, a cool guarantee, and “Trip”, which will perhaps evoke the success that was in 2009 very bad trip?

Because the distribution teams do not hesitate to surf on the success of other films in the same vein: in addition toAmerican Tripwe saw arriving in October Very Bad Copsat the base The Other Guys. As for the inspiration very bad trip(original title: The Hangover), the site Ecrans.fr estimated that he was probably trying to recall very bad thingswhich also took place after a bachelor party in Las Vegas.

The process can sometimes go too far: SND began by renaming Band Slam High School Rock Stars to take advantage of the phenomenon High School Musical (Vanessa Hudgens, heroine of HSM, stars in band slam), before finally fearing that it would be considered parasitism, and finally opting for College Rock Stars.

The French distributor can also decide to keep the American title to benefit from the success of the film in the United States: this is what Wild Bunch did with Paranormal Activity. The target age group could both understand the original title without problem and remember having read it in the foreign or French press after the film’s surprise success in the United States, a few weeks before its French release.

Six months later, The Fourth Kind was released in France, renamed Paranormal phenomenons. Either a retitle in French aimed at recalling the success of a film with an American title left as is for its release in France… the circle is complete!

Cecile Dehesdin

The explanation thanks Sylvie Forestier, at Universal Pictures International France, Sébastien Careil, at SND, and Romain Dat, at Wild Bunch Distribution.

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Article updated on February 15, 2011 (release of Sex Friends).

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