There is a two way flow of information between producers of films and the audiences that they target. Producers gain feedback from audiences about their films through audience research. This is often done through test screenings but increasingly through internet research to see the responses of bloggers and opinion makers to early marketing and news surrounding the films. On the other hand producers use a huge range of marketing techniques to deliver information about films to their target audience and beyond.
Test Screenings are the most common form of audience research used by Hollywood and the film industry as a whole. Often long in advance of the release of a film, a small audience will be invited to a secret preview. Effects may not be completed, the soundtrack may be temporary and the film will sometimes have barely left the edit suite before it is screened to a few people to gain feedback from the audience. Questionnaires or focus groups are used after the film and the audience asked to participate. The audience will be responsible for giving the filmmakers feedback on what does and doesn’t work and the responses could lead to drastic changes in the film or the marketing strategy before it is finally released.
Silent film star Harold Lloyd and producer Hal Roach are considered to be the pioneers of test screenings. The pair would take early cuts of films to a theatre to gauge audience response. Directors (and stars) in the early days of the Hollywood studio system were contracted to work on films the studio wanted them to and almost certainly had no say over the final cut of the films. In the case of Should Sailors Marry? (1925), the ‘director/writer Jess Robbins washed his hands of the picture’ (Sinnott, 2005) after test screenings produced negative responses. Producer Hal Roach got a replacement director in to re-shoot some scenes and the film was salvaged.
However sometimes it can be the director who wants test screenings and invites feedback from audiences. Billy Wilder screened an early cut of his classic Sunset Boulevard (1950) for an audience and was told by a woman in attendance that "I never saw such a pile of shit in all my life" (Hennigan, 2003). After attending this test screening, he chopped the opening and closing scenes due to the audience’s responses.
Test screenings can be responsible for a huge range of changes made to a film from a complete re-shooting of the ending all the way down to just a title change. For example the title of the Bond film Licence to Kill (1989) ‘was initially… Licence Revoked, but this was changed after test screenings revealed that US crowds associated the term with driving’ (Radford, 2008).
Many films have had drastic changes made to them at huge costs. Little Shop of Horrors (1986) was test screened in front of an audience of families and as a result had a completely new ending created. Seven (1995), David Fincher’s bleak serial killer masterpiece, ends with (SPOILER!) the hero’s wife’s severed head delivered to the hero in a box. The film shows the graphic, gory aftermath of several severely sickening slayings and was tested in front of an audience told they would be seeing the new Brad Pitt/Morgan Freeman movie. ‘At the time Freeman was best known for being in Driving Miss Daisy and Pitt for Legends of the Fall. As a result ‘one older woman who walked out halfway through the movie said, "Whoever made this piece of filth should be shot"...directly to David Fincher’ (http://www.everything2.org/index.pl?node_id=1316247). Fortunately Pitt and Fincher fought for the depressing ending and the studio kept it intact, resulting in the film becoming a classic of the crime genre.
Bleak, uncertain or open endings are often the casualties of test screenings. Blade Runner (1982), Fatal Attraction (1987) and Australia (2008) all had different endings to those originally scribbled by the writers and shot by the directors. Monahan (2008) argues the studio executives require directors to shoot new endings so that filmgoers will be left ‘with a collective smile on their faces and therefore, so the logic goes, render the film more lucrative.’
Some films have benefited greatly from test screenings including Paranormal Activity (2007). The footage from audience test screenings was used in the trailer to show how people were reacting to the film. See below.
Some critics are fearful that test screenings are damaging as they can lead to piracy and leaks. Others are concerned about the demographic that are targeted by the major studios. ‘‘’Typical'' American moviegoers get to tell the Hollywood bigs how to improve their products before they're released. Test-audience members are often white males, 16 to 32 years old, who are recruited in L.A. suburbs, usually from colleges and shopping malls’ (Vaughn, 1991). As this demographic is considered to be the biggest cinema-going audience, studios pay more attention to what young white males have to say. Therefore films aimed at different ethnicities, gender and age groups may be affected by the desire to appeal to the widest audience with the most disposable income.
So, is it fair that audiences and profit-hungry executives get the final say after filmmakers shed blood, sweat and tears creating the films? Just remember if you get into a test screening; the power to change the movies could be in your hands.
An extended version of this article first appeared in MediaMagazine.
Part 2 on Marketing coming soon.
What do you think of test screenings? Necessary evil, sensible, fair, terrible, cruel and unusual?