Are Virtual Test Screenings the Future of Movie Marketing?

While some streamers and TV producers are turning to at-home test screenings, the major film studios are waiting for cinemas to get back up and running again.

For decades, test screenings have been the source of elation, anxiety and even terror for filmmakers and studio executives — as the results can mean anything from extensive reshoots to heightened expectations and additional marketing dollars.

With cinemas closed during the pandemic, currently the only option for those who don't want to wait is to use a new service from Screen Engine/asi that allows movies to be tested in the home by an audience recruited from its database of millions of moviegoers. While many agree it's better than nothing, no major studio so far has enlisted the service for its tentpoles because of piracy concerns and the lack of a communal experience, according to numerous sources consulted by The Hollywood Reporter. But the longer theaters remain closed, the more the pressure grows.

"Early information is of value to filmmakers," says Screen Engine CEO and founder Kevin Goetz. "The audience may not experience the same scope, but you will get 90 percent of the information." While Screen Engine can't reveal its clients, Goetz says the service is being used extensively to test TV pilots and programming from streamers as well as smaller films. "Studios are becoming more cool with it," he says. "Tonight, we are testing a title from a major motion picture company. So they are slowly coming around."

Still, studios including Disney, Paramount and Universal are waiting for cinemas to reopen to test their big-budget movies slated for this year, even if it means staggered seating. The first batch of films set to open this summer, including Mulan and Wonder Woman 1984, were tested pre-pandemic. But many fall flicks, like 20th Century's Death on the Nile, which is set to open in October, weren't yet in the testing window when the industrywide shutdown hit in March. A movie's first test screening typically happens four to six months out. Studios often host research screenings in smaller towns and cities outside of entertainment hubs like Los Angeles and New York, opting for locales like Fresno, Sacramento or Dallas. "Nothing can replicate the collective experience, the oohs and the ahs," says one top marketing executive. "Digital testing will work for some films, but not all. At the end of the day, I think filmmakers want their movies to be experienced for the first time in the format in which it will be presented."

Hollywood veteran Terry Press, who most recently consulted on 1917, agrees. "A test screening is the first time you get to see if your product is connecting," she says. "1917 was a deeply theatrical experience." 

This story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.