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The Fascinating World of Test Screening
Balancing art and business.
The other day, I came across a snippet of a podcast that really drew me in. Film reviewer Sonny Bunch was talking to a man named Kevin Goetz, who has — in my view — an extremely interesting job.
Goetz is involved in the test-screening of films. His company receives completed films from directors and production companies, presents them to preview audiences, and solicits feedback and reactions from those viewers in hopes of forecasting how well each film will be received by paying audiences once it’s released in theaters.
In the snippet, Goetz told a test-screening story about a film most people reading this have probably seen: 1984’s Footloose, starring Kevin Bacon.
“What happens at the very end of the movie?” Goetz asked Bunch.
“Well, there’s a big dance party,” Bunch answered.
“That wasn’t in the first cut,” Goetz revealed. “The first cut was: they talked about the dance party. The whole movie leads up to this dance party, and in fact they never showed it. You can’t have a dance movie without showing the final number!”
The neglectful decision was so poorly received by test audiences, Goetz explained, that the filmmakers decided they needed to go back and actually shoot a dance scene to close out the film. The challenge was that the movie’s actors had already gone on to other acting projects. Thus, some had different hair styles and lengths, and had to wear wigs to get back into their parts. The scene was shot, the movie was re-edited, new test audiences were brought in, and film ranked much higher among them.
Footloose, as Goetz said, went on to become a classic.
A less consequential (but more well-known) story came out of the 1976 remake of King Kong. The life of the film’s greedy villain (masterfully played by Charles Grodin) was originally spared at the end of the movie — the character narrowly avoiding being stepped on by Kong. Preview audiences booed the decision, and wanted so adamantly for the character to meet his demise that the film’s creators did some creative editing to give the people exactly what they wanted.
Goetz has written a new book on test screening, that includes other such stories. It’s called Audience-ology: How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love, and I’m definitely going to check it out, since this topic has always fascinated me.
Part of the allure, since I was a child, is the aura of this lucky group of unnamed people who not only gets to see feature films months before others do, but also has the power to sometimes alter those films.
From a consumer standpoint, that feels really powerful (and enviable). But from an artistic perspective (as held by writers and directors), it almost seems like it crosses a line. After all, you’re taking some creative control away from the filmmakers and placing it in the hands of spectators.
There’s a very clear reason for it, of course: money. Those who’ve invested financially in a film understandably want a strong return on their investment. They want their movie to be as financially successful as possible, so if they’re tipped off early that audiences probably aren’t going to enjoy it, they can make adjustments and hopefully remedy the situation (or at least soften the blow).
This “common tension between art and commerce,” as Bunch describes it, is thoroughly explored in Goetz’s book, along with a detailing of some heavyweight directors in Hollywood who refuse to use test audiences at all (in large part to preserve their creative vision).
As a fiction writer, I certainly get the latter. While I’ve always valued the input of my editors, and have in the past solicited critiques from a writing group (during the writing process), the idea of turning over a finished book to a collective audience, and letting their feedback potentially change it, makes me cringe.
For example (and this is by no means a perfect comparison), I have an aunt who enjoys my books, but she’s been quite clear over the years that she’d rather my rough-around-the-edges protagonist, Sean Coleman, be nice and friendly to everyone he meets. She doesn’t understand why he isn’t that way, and no amount of character development (whether it be his abandonment and trust issues, problems with alcohol, or devalued self-worth) has rationalized to her why Sean shouldn’t have a Ned Flanders type personality.
Truth be told, there are lots of readers out there (maybe even a majority) who indeed want protagonists to be squeaky clean, decidedly good people. Why? Because such characters are immediately appealing, and thus easier to root for from the get-go.
If Sean Coleman were a saint, would more readers be interested in him and his adventures? Maybe. But as the artist who created him, I always intended for him to be a deeply flawed character. I think it makes him more interesting (though others may disagree), and of course gives him room to grow into a better version of himself. My book series is ultimately about redemption, and thankfully my publisher gets it.
Again, this isn’t a perfect comparison to movies, as the financial stakes in the world of cinema are typically far more serious than with book publishing. Regardless, I think this is a fascinating topic, and I’m excited to read Goetz’s book.
You can listen to Bunch’s full podcast episode with Goetz here. It’s very interesting, and Goetz makes a compelling case for how test-screening, far more often than not, brings a film-director’s vision closer to what he or she had intended prior to test audiences having their say.
Have you reserved your copy of RESTITUTION?
My new book “Restitution: A Sean Coleman Thriller” is almost here, and if you haven’t ordered it yet, now is a great time. You can get it on Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Books-A-Million, and wherever else books are sold!
Obligatory Dog Shot
Two-headed cuddle monster.
One 90’s era alternative rock group that has never quite gotten the recognition I think they deserve is I Mother Earth.
The Canadian band got some decent airplay on U.S. rock stations in 1993 with their debut album “Dig” (that spawned some great hard-hitting singles in “Rain Will Fall” and “Not Quite Sonic”), but I thought for sure, when their second album “Scenery and Fish” released in 1996, that their more radio-friendly first single “One More Astronaut” would propel them into mainstream status.
That didn’t quite happen, and the song ended up being an only a modest hit. Still, it’s a fantastic and memorable tune, with some pretty unique lyrics — a story of isolation as told from the perspective of a space explorer.
As part of its promotion, Capitol (the band’s label at the time) sent out clear 10-inch record singles of the song to music sellers and radio stations (something that was pretty rare in the mid 90s). That single is this week’s featured vinyl. Its B-side is an otherwise unreleased called “Wrong.”
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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Also, if you’re not caught up on my Sean Coleman Thrillers, you can pick the entire series up at a great price on Amazon. And if you’re interested in signed, personalized copies of my books, you can order them directly from my website.
Take care. And I’ll talk to you soon!