Test screenings

Looking to shore up boxoffice returns, studios have become increasingly dependent on findings from research screenings -- whether filmmakers like it or not.

When New Line opens its tween comedy "How to Eat Fried Worms" on Aug. 25, moviegoers will see a film that is slightly different from the one an audience watched earlier this summer. That's because producer Mark Johnson and writer-director Bob Dolman modified their first edit after a test screening held some four months ago delivered less-than-stellar results. "You felt where it wasn't working," Johnson says.

The changes they made -- tweaking certain scenes and adding a sequence involving a character to whom viewers had responded -- must have done the trick. When a second test screening took place a month ago, the results were sensational. "The second screening came across as much funnier," Johnson says. "It confirmed we did the right work."

Whereas test screenings once were widely reviled by filmmakers, who resented how studio executives would use early audience reaction to exact changes to their visions, producers and directors now seem to find comfort in them. Perhaps it's a matter of accepting the inevitable or attempting to predict an unpredictable public, but during the past few years, test screenings have become an integral part of moviemaking -- not only by the major studios but also by independents.

NRG (owned by Valcon Acquisition B.V., parent company of The Hollywood Reporter) once dominated the test-screening business, but a handful of companies -- including OTX Research, MarketCast and Dubin Market Research -- have emerged during the past few years to compete in screenings and research. NRG recently launched a specialty division, the New York-based NRGi, that is devoted to independent film. Howard Ballon, president of NRG parent Nielsen Film and Home Entertainment, declined comment for this report.

As more players have come on the scene, testing methods have become more sophisticated, with market research often beginning before a film has received a green light. In such cases, a studio might survey moviegoers to determine interest in a potential franchise title. "Most studios build into their budgets some kind of stipend so that it is just part of the whole production," one executive says.

As production continues, audiences are tested for their responses to marketing material such as trailers and commercials, with test screenings usually beginning as soon a rough cut of a film is in place -- often with a temporary score and no credit sequences. At a cost of $10,000-$20,000 for each screening, one source says, "It is the best money you could spend."

After the initial screening, the audience -- usually 300-500 persons -- fills out forms that contain questions, some open-ended (whether they like a performance or the ending, what they think should change) and others more categorical.

"The two key measures are your ratings and your recommendation score," OTX managing director and executive vp Kevin Goetz says. "Rating is excellent/very good/good/fair/poor, and recommend is: I will definitely recommend it to a friend/probably recommend it/probably not/definitely not. We only look at the definite-recommend because in the real world, if you are not committing to 'definite,' then chances are you are not going to recommend it."

Researchers also show films to focus groups of 20 or so viewers who discuss them in detail, usually with the filmmakers present.

Los Angeles is a favorite location for test screenings because of its proximity to studios, but Arizona and Las Vegas also are preferred for their access to nonindustry audiences. "You pick the place you think will work best," former Sony marketing chief Geoffrey Ammer says.

In recruiting an audience, filmmakers and marketing executives do their best to target those who have an interest in that particular type of film. "We are now planning a research screening of a film called 'Killshot,'" says its producer, Richard Gladstein, referring to John Madden's upcoming Weinstein Co. release based on an Elmore Leonard novel. "You are setting expectations, and you are looking toward your result. If you recruited for (1999's) 'Eyes Wide Shut' by mentioning (1996's) 'Mission: Impossible,' you would be setting a level of expectation that is not going to be met. With 'Killshot,' we used (2000's) 'Traffic' and (2004's) 'Collateral.'"

But studios don't use test screenings merely to generate ideas about how moviegoers might respond to a film: The screenings also play an important role in developing marketing campaigns. "We did a test screening for 'A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints' in New York after we bought it," says First Look president Ruth Vitale, referring to Dito Montiel's Sundance Film Festival entry starring Robert Downey Jr. "But that was not to change the film; it was to have a conversation about: Who's the primary audience? How do we reach them?"

Although First Look screened "Saints" only once, most studios hold three to five screenings for each film -- though one market research executive recalls going through 19 screenings for a single movie.

Surprisingly, a select group of major-studio releases opt out of the test-screening process. Sony did not hold professional screenings of Ron Howard's "The Da Vinci Code," largely to keep the film under wraps before its world premiere at May's Festival de Cannes, and Fox did not test-screen any of the films in its popular "X-Men" franchise.

"None of them had test screenings," "X-Men" producer Lauren Shuler Donner says. "Our effects were never ready on time, and we always had a shorter (postproduction period) than would be ideal. That was the No. 1 reason; the No. 2 reason was the danger of the Internet and having comments coming out before our movie was ready to be seen."

Concern about negative fan reaction spreading online has prompted some auteurs to avoid screening their films. M. Night Shyamalan decided not to hold test screenings for Warner Bros. Pictures' "Lady in the Water," according to one insider, and master audience-pleaser Steven Spielberg eschews screenings, preferring to show rough cuts of his films to friends and other persons he trusts.

For the most part, though, less-experienced producers and directors embrace the test-screening process. Warner Independent Pictures' planned 2007 release "In the Land of Women," starring Adam Brody and Meg Ryan and directed by first time feature-filmmaker Jon Kasdan (son of Lawrence), underwent major changes after screenings WIP organized last year: Trims were made, sequences were added, and the ending was changed. WIP spent about $750,000 for reshoots on the $10.5 million-budgeted picture, a romantic comedy about a young man who finds himself the object of several women's affections.

"What always worked in the movie was that (Brody's character) impacted (the women's) lives for the better," a source close to the film says. "But what wasn't working at all was how they impacted his life, so we reshot for four or five days, adding seven or eight scenes to show them impacting him. The movie improved by 30 points."

The process can be even more important when dealing with thrillers or comedies, in which timing can be essential. "The more I test comedy, the better I get a sense of what's playing and what's not, and that's where it has value," says David Friendly, who produced Fox Searchlight's Sundance acquisition "Little Miss Sunshine."

For "Sunshine," Friendly adds, "We ended up using a small research screening, but it was vastly different than the typical studio screening in that it was a much smaller sample group -- around 50 people, as opposed to maybe 400 -- and there was a focus group afterward, but it was a little less corporate and traditional in its approach."

Based on the screening and focus-group suggestions, Friendly and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris tweaked the movie -- ensuring, among other things, that the road trip at the heart of the film's story was more clear in terms of its geography.

In the end, though, Friendly and others note that information gleaned from test screenings can really only be used as a rough indicator of how audiences might react to a film. "You use this information as just that -- information," WIP marketing chief Laura Kim says. "But most of all, you have to use your gut."