Force Majeure is a critically acclaimed Swedish film about the tense few days on a family ski trip after a father runs away from his wife and children in a panicky moment during an avalanche. Force Majeure is also, improbably, a meme on Twitter, where a clip from the movie’s crucial scene has become a prompt for all kinds of relatable one-liners (“Me waiting til last minute to finish all my assignments”). The movie was released in 68 theaters in the U.S., and likely sold fewer than 100,000 tickets. The viral clip has been viewed 13.6 million times.
A clip from a critically acclaimed but little-seen foreign film becoming a viral meme isn’t exactly unprecedented: A scene from the 2005 German movie Downfall, which depicts Hitler’s final days, is among the most recognizable memes on the internet.
But what’s interesting about the Force Majeure meme to me is that the premise that makes the meme so popular — “What if you fail to act quickly or bravely in the face of a disaster befalling you and your family?” — is the exact premise that animates the movie, as well. Which makes me think: Maybe the distributors of Force Majeure missed a big opportunity here, titling the film after a somewhat obscure clause in contracts (a French phrase, no less!), rather than something that made the movie’s premise immediately apprehensible — something, well, meme-y. What I’m saying is, maybe the English title of Force Majeure should have been If This Was Your Man What Would You Do?
Yes, there are many reasons that Force Majeure the meme has so extensively outperformed Force Majeure the movie, not least of which is the fact that the meme is 30 seconds long and free to watch, while the movie is neither of those things. (It is on Amazon Prime, if you’re a subscriber, and at 119 minutes not overlong.) But if the meme can reach several million views in a week, surely the funny and intelligent foreign film on which it’s based could have done a bit better, if only people had known it had an extremely (to borrow the language of memes) “relatable” premise. I all but guarantee you that This Is What Every Day at Work Is Like for Me would have done better at the box office than Force Majeure.
I’m joking here, but only a little. Three times as many movies are being made now than were 20 years ago, and they’re increasingly being consumed from streaming platforms and set-top boxes where people can choose from whole galaxies of content to stream. In that context, what your movie is called matters way more than it would if it was just one of three or four titles on a marquee at a small theater. Netflix already customizes the thumbnail photographs with which it advertises its various streaming offerings based on its understanding of what you, the individual viewer, is more likely to click on — a darker, scarier photograph for Riverdale if you choose to watch thrillers more often; a brighter, happier one if you tend to click through on romances. Why shouldn’t the industry — producers, distributors, and platforms alike — make movie titles similarly personal, customizable, and clickable?
Any industry in which businesses find customers through a platform to which many competitors also have access will tend toward bottom-of-the-barrel clickbait and search-engine-optimization tactics. I’ve heard stories about delivery-only restaurants called things like “Thai Thai Thai Thai” or “Best Breakfast Sandwich,” because it’s far more important to come up near the top of search results for those terms on delivery sites like Seamless than it is to have a cool name. Digital journalists are intimately familiar with this dynamic: In order for your article to stand out in a social-media feed, it needs a title that compels potential readers to click on it. “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” is out, “You’ll Never Believe What Drug This Toddler Ingested” is in. Writers and editors at most publications will write several different titles for an article: one personal and colloquial title designed to improve its placement in a social feed, one stilted and keyword-heavy title designed to improve its ranking in Google search, and one straightforward title to appear on the page itself.
Perhaps this is the strategy film distributors should take. Force Majeure for the cineastes of Film Forum; OMG I Can’t Believe This Dude Did That for the feed-like Netflix scroll; and Avalanche Movie Meme Swedish Tormund Ski Trip for the Apple TV search engine. Can that save cinema? Well, no. But I got you to click, didn’t I?