Most major film releases in the United States go through a process of test screenings that are supposed to help predict what the audience's reaction will be after the film's actual release. A diverse group of people are invited to watch the movie, and afterwards are given cards so that they can answer some questions which range from general personal information, such as favorite television show, to specific inquiries directly related to the film, such as whether it was exciting or thought provoking. The question of whether the test screening process is actually a good thing for filmmakers and audiences is a favorite topic of debate in Hollywood.
The first major audience research directing firm ever employed by Hollywood was Audience Research Inc. (ARI), run by pollster George Gallup. ARI organized test screenings for the rough cuts of films such as Casablanca (which completely bombed in its test screening), and was often successful in its predictions. Gallup’s techniques of estimating audience reaction varied. One method was a test known as "televoting." Every audience member was given a matchbox-sized electronic device that was wired to a control box at the back of the theater. If the particular audience member liked the film, he or she would turn the dial to either "Like Very much," or "Like." Otherwise, the only other two options would be "Dull" or "Very dull." The opinions were then charted on a graph. ARI provided another service called "audience penetration" which calculated the audience-reaching effects of the publicity surrounding the film. After judging the results, the ad campaigns were often altered accordingly.
Most of the time, these results didn't have any bearing on the actual film itself, just on how much effort the studio gave to marketing it. If a movie was scored poorly, it was released right away without wasting too much money on publicity. If it scored well, the studio took its time and planned an appropriate means of publicizing it. Of course this ended up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, obviously a film with a big marketing push is going to do better than one that the studio just dumps off. There are some notable exceptions to this rule, most famously Orson Welles’ film The Magnificent Ambersons. After the financial failure of Citizen Kane, which was not test screened, the studio decided they wanted to have a test screening for The Magnificent Ambersons, and it was a disaster. The studio took control of the film and essentially cut 50 minutes out of the movie and added a happy ending. The cut footage was supposedly destroyed, and is now considered one of the Holy Grails of film history. Thanks to Linca for reminding me of poor Orson.
The current leader in the test marketing biz is the National Research Group (NRG), but instead of electronics they use a simple questionnaire and a #2 pencil. The way an NRG screening works today is like this: Workers for NRG will approach people in a shopping mall and ask them “Would you like to see a new movie starring XXX?” If they say yes, they will be given passes for a screening later on that day at a local theatre. Even at this early stage problems begin to creep in. In 1995, people were approached asking if they wanted to see a new movie starring Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt. At the time Freeman was best known for being in Driving Miss Daisy and Pitt for Legends of the Fall. What movie did the test audience end up seeing? Se7en!! This type of questioning totally misled the potential audience as to what type of film they were going to see and the screening was disastrous. One older woman who walked out halfway through the movie said, “Whoever made this piece of filth should be shot”…directly to David Fincher. Most of the time these are held in California, but if the studio is looking to see how the movie will play in “Middle America” they might hold one all the way out in (*gasp*) Arizona.
After the movie is over all of the audience members fill out multiple-choice cards gauging their reactions to various aspects of the movie. They are asked to rate the story, the actors, the running time, the ending, anything is up for grabs. But the most important question of all is: “Would you recommend this movie to friends?” After this, a small portion of the audience is selected to participate in a focus group. They are asked more detailed questions and are invited to talk in detail about how they felt about the movie and what they would like to see changed. The director of the film is usually present for all of this, usually behind a two-way mirror, or even sitting with the focus group if he is unlikely to be recognized.
Based on the audience reactions, the studio might demand that certain changes be made to the film. This is where all of the idiocy begins. Scenes might be cut, characters might be expanded or dropped, and even the ending might be changed, all simply based on the reactions of a bunch of random shoppers. There are countless anecdotes about movies that were unnecessarily changed or even completely gutted thanks to the test screening process. The 1990 film Darkman originally had a scene where one of the evil characters strips naked and writhes in ecstasy on a bed of gold coins, obviously meant to show what a creep he was. Many people in the test audience said that the scene “made them uncomfortable” and the studio demanded it be cut, even though that was the whole point of the scene in the first place. The same problem came up in the test screenings for The Sum of All Fears, test audiences said that scenes of the President and his staff being frightened and unsure of what to do also made them scared. Paramount Pictures chose not to cut the scenes, but instead created an ad campaign that revealed exactly what happens in the movie so audiences would know exactly what to expect going in. To me, ruining the surprise seems just as bad as removing it altogether.
Opinions in Hollywood are currently very divided over the subject of test screenings. Most studio executives and marketroids support the system and feel that it gives them an inside look at what audiences really want and helps ensure a bigger box office return. There are a few directors who support the system, most notably James L. Brooks (who is also co-creator of “The Simpsons”). His 1994 comedy I’ll Do Anything was originally meant to be a musical, but a series of test screenings convinced him to cut all of the musical numbers. The resulting film was an incoherent mess, and even though the offending musical numbers were cut, the movie was a complete bomb. Ironically enough, part of the movie’s plot is directly concerned with test marketing.
Most directors seem to view the test screening process as, at best, a necessary evil. They don’t seem to have a problem with the idea of showing their film to a potential audience and getting feedback, but with the way the studio forces them to make sweeping changes to their film as a result of a few offhand comments. Several directors, most particularly Terry Gilliam and Steven Spielberg, actively loathe the process. But then again, Spielberg can afford to hate it, he has enough clout that none of his films have ever been test screened.
From what I have seen, the test screening process seems absolutely worthless. Hundreds of movies that come out every year are box office busts even though they went through all of the screenings and focus groups. All the test screening process seems to succeed in doing is corrupting a director’s vision and reducing their film to the lowest common denominator. I shudder to think what would have happened to Memento if it went through this.
For a closer look at this whole process, there are excellent documentaries on the DVD’s for Final Destination and 12 Monkeys.
Final Question: What movie has the highest test screening score in the history of Orion Pictures?
Answer: Weird Al Yankovic’s UHF
Final box office gross: $6.1 million
But I really like UHF!!