Full Of Themselves

An analysis of title drops in movies

A title drop is when a character in a movie says the title of the movie they're in. Here's a large-scale analysis of 73,921 movies from the last 80 years on how often, when and maybe even why that happens.

Back to the Future 1985 ★ 8.5/10.0



I'm sure you all know the part of the movie where one of the characters says the actual title of the movie and you're like

The overall meta-ness of this is - of course - nothing new. And filmmakers and scriptwriters have been doing it since the dawn of the medium itself*. It's known in film speak as a title drop.

Consequently, there's tons of examples throughout movie history that range from the iconic (see Back to the Future's above)
via the eccentric,

the very much self-aware

to the downright cringe.

But how common are these title drops really? Has this phenomenon gained momentum over time with our postmodern culture becoming ever more meta? Can we predict anything about the quality of a film based on how many times its title is mentioned? And what does a movie title mean, anyway?

There have been analyses and oh so so many listicles of the title drop phenomenon before, but they are small and anecdotal. Here's the first extensive analysis of title drops for a dataset of 73,921 movies that amount to roughly 61% of movies on IMDb with at least 100 user votes*. I'm looking at movies released between 1940 and 2023. Special thanks go to my friends at OpenSubtitles.com for providing this data!

Let's talk data

I started out with two datasets: 89,242 (English) movie subtitles from OpenSubtitles.com and metadata for 121,797 movies from IMDb. After joining them and filtering them for broken subtitle files I was left with a total of 73,921 subtitled movies. With that out of the way, I realized that the tougher task was still ahead of me: answering the question what even was a title drop?

The naïve approach is - of course - to simply look for the movie's name anywhere in the subtitles. Which is a fantastic approach for movies like Back to the Future with a nice unique title:

Back to the Future 1985 ★ 8.5/10.0



But this quickly breaks down if we look at movies like E or I *, which lead to way too many matches.

We also run into problems with every movie that is a sequel (Rocky III, Hot Tub Time Machine 2) since none of the characters will add the sequel number to character names/oversized bathing equipment. Similarly, the rise of the colon in movie titles would make for some very awkward dialogue (LUKE: "Gosh Mr. Kenobi, it's almost like we're in the middle of some Star Wars Episode Four: A New Hope!"). (See also the He Didn't Say That meme.)

So I applied a few rules to my title matching in the dialogue. Leading 'The', 'An' and 'A's and special characters like dashes are ignored, sequel numbers both Arabic and Roman are dropped (along with 'Episode...', 'Part...' etc.) and titles containing a colon are split and either side counts as a title drop. So for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring either "Lord of the Rings" or "Fellowship of the Ring" would count as title drops (feel free to hover over the visualizations to explore the matches)!

With the data cleaning out of the way, let's get down to business!


Alright, so here's the number you've all been waiting for (drumroll):

36.5% - so about a third - of movies have at least one title drop during their runtime.

Also, there's a total of 277,668 title drops for all 26,965 title-dropping movies which means that there's an average of 10.3 title drops per movie that title drops. If they do it, they really go for it.

So who are the most excessive offenders in mentioning their titles over the course of the film? The overall star when it comes to fiction only came out last year: it's Barbie by Greta Gerwig with an impressive 267 title drops within its 1 hour and 54 minutes runtime, clocking in at a whopping 2.34 BPM (Barbies Per Minute).

On the non-fiction side of documentaries the winner is Mickey: The Story of a Mouse with 309 title drops in only 90 minutes, so 3.43 Mickeys Per Minute!

Top ten number of title drops in one movie

Fiction only

Fiction + Documentaries

What's interesting about the (Fiction) list here is that it's pretty international: only two of the top ten movies come from Hollywood, 6 are from India, one from Indonesia and one from Turkey. So it's definitely an international phenomenon.

Names in titles

Looking at the top ten list you might have noticed this little icon signifying a movie where the data says it's named after one of its characters*.

Unsurprisingly, movies named after one of their characters have an average of 24.7 title drops, more than twice as much as the usual 10.3. Protagonists have a tendency to pop up repeatedly in a film, so their names usually do the same.
Similarly, movies named after a protagonist have a title drop rate of 88.5% while only 34.2% of other movies drop their titles.

A note on the data here
This is the more experimental part of the analysis. To figure out if a movie was named after its protagonist I've used IMDb's Principals Dataset that lists character names for the first couple of actors and compared that to the movie's title.
This approach yields reliable results, but of course misses movies when the character the movie is named after does not appear on that list. So you might find movies that miss the 'Named' icon even though they're clearly named after a character.

Special characters in the title and character name are also challenging: for example, Tosun Pasa which actually has a ş character in its title - wrong on IMDb (Pasa) as well as the subtitles (Pasha) - or WALL·E with the challenging · in the middle: Even though there are mentions of "Wall-E" in the subtitles, the script - looking for "WALL·E" - wouldn't detect it. (I've fixed both of these films manually - but there might be more!)

Titles or surnames also usually prevent being counted as title drops according to our definitions. Michael The Brave, King Lear or Barry Lyndon might mention a character's name ('Michael', 'Lear', 'Barry') but leave out the title or surname - so zero drops.

Nevertheless, there do exist named films where you would expect a title drop which doesn't come! Examples are: Anyway - back to the analysis!

An interesting category are movies named after a character that only have a single title drop - making it all the more meaningful?

Movies named after a character with single title drops

"Real" title drops

Title-drop connoisseurs might sneer at this point and well-actually us that a "real" title drop should only happen once in a film. That there's this one memorable (or cringe-y) scene where the protagonist looks directly at the camera and declares the title of the film with as much pathos as they can muster. Or as a nice send-off in the last spoken line.

Such single drops happen surprisingly often:
11.3% of all movies do EXACTLY ONE title drop during their runtime.

Which means that there's about twice as many movies having multiple title drops than single ones.

In the single drop case it is more likely that the filmmakers were adding a title drop very consciously.

Highest rated single drop movies

Fiction only

Fiction + Documentaries

Single drops often happen in a key scene and explain the movie's title: what mysterious fellowship the first Lord of the Rings is named after. Or that the audience waiting for some dark knight to show up must simply accept that it's been the Batman all along.

Title drops over the years

One suspicion I had was that the very meta act of having a character speak the name of the movie they're in would be something gaining more and more traction over the last two or three decades.

And indeed, if we look at the average number of movies with title drops over the decades we can see that there's a certain upwards trend. The 1960s and 1970s seemed to be most averse to mentioning their title in the film, while it's become more common-place over the last years.

Highest title drops by decade

Most drops

Best rated (at least 1 drop)

If we dig deeper, this growth over the decades comes with a clearer explanation: splitting up movies by single- and multi-title drops shows that while the tendency of movies to drop their title exactly once keeps more or less steady, the number of multi-drop films is on the rise.

Your explanation for this (More movies are being named after their protagonists? Movies are more productified so brand recognition becomes an important concern?) is probably as good as mine 🤷

A sign of quality?

Another question I wanted to answer was if a high number of title drops was a sign of a bad movie. Think of all the trashy slasher and horror movies about Meth Marmots and Killer Ballerinas - wouldn't their characters in the sparse dialogues constantly mention the title for brand recognition and all that?

Interestingly though, there's no strong connection between film quality (expressed as IMDb rating (YMMV)) and the probability of title-dropping.

Genres and title drops

An aspect that certainly does have an impact on the probability of a title drop though is the genre of a film.

If you think back to the discussion about names in titles from earlier, genres like Biography and other non-fiction genres like Sport and History - almost by definition - mention their subject in both the title and throughout the film.

Accordingly, the probability of a title drop varies wildly by genre. Non-fiction films have a strong tendency towards title-dropping, while more fiction-oriented genres like Crime, Romance and War don't.

What does a movie title mean?

Finally, we can ask the question: what even is a movie title?

I couldn't find a complete classification in the scientific literature ("What's in a name? The art of movie titling" by Ingrid Haidegger comes the closest). Movie titles are an interesting case, since they have to work as a description of a product, a marketing instrument, but also as the title of a piece of art.
Consequently, it's a field ripe with opinions, science and experimentation and listicles.

The most extensive classification of media titles in general I could find is TVTropes' Title Tropes list which lists over 180 (!) different types of tropes alone. Some of those tropes are:

While naming a movie is a very creative task and pretty successfully defies classification, we can still look at the overall shape of movie titles and see if that has any impact on the number of title drops.

One such simple aspect is the length of the title itself. As you would expect there's a negative correlation (if only a slight one*) between the length of a title and the number of title drops it does.

Still, there are some fun examples for reaaaaally long movie titles that nevertheless do at least one title drop:

And while these previous examples only drops parts from before or after the colon, this next specimen actually does an impressive full title drop: