Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, where faces are made of plastic and plastic pays for faces, I worked in the movie business. Well, close enough to see the carnage, anyway.
Market research companies are hired by big fancy studios and production companies to test their movie trailers and TV commercials, as well as screen entire films before they're released to the general public. I worked for one of those companies. At times it was cool, but decidedly non-glamorous, to have the chance to see a film for free a year before it's released. Not nearly as much fun when you're required to see it four or five times though, especially if it sucks.
But I'm not here to talk about my former job. I'm not stupid. Studios are large beasts with layers of legal bloodhounds. And there's a small chance that I'll want to eat lunch in that town again someday. The Ivy may be obnoxious, but the crab cakes are pretty good. What I want to write about is my opinion of test screenings for movies.
If you live in L.A. or Orange County, you've probably been stalked, err, approached by the people with clipboards at the mall, the Third Street Promenade, or in front of the Arclight, asking if you'd like to see, I don't know, "a buddy comedy starring Mel Gibson and Michael Richards."
I won't go too deep into what happens next. Caryn James wrote an article for the New York Times wayyyyyyy back in 1988 that does some of that, there's an in-depth piece by Brooks Marlin on Everything2 that was penned in 2002, and Stephen Galloway of The Hollywood Reporter has his take too.
The process itself hasn't evolved much. Try to fill up an L.A. or Orange County movie theater with about 400 viewers, give them a survey to fill out after the movie, take 20 or 30 of them to the front of the theater for a focus group after everyone else leaves. My main problems with the process are the "L.A. or Orange County" part, and how easy it is to completely fuck up a movie based on a bad audience or two.
Okay, sure. The screenings aren't always in southern California, but as these articles mentioned, they typically are. My guess is that it's easier for a marketing exec and his team to drive over to a multiplex in Burbank than it is for them to board a plane and test a movie deep in the heart of Texas. Plus, doing it locally would obviously cost less. And they could claim it's environmentally friendly.
If logic holds, this means that the ending of my favorite book, The Time Traveler's Wife, was probably butchered because of the prevailing opinion of about 400 L.A. or O.C. mallrats. If they're anything like the ones you've seen on TV, which many of them are, then great call.
When are studios going to wake up and listen to Ferras? If they're going to do test screenings at all, why not more often consider the opinions of, I don't know, someone other than a gaggle of Valley Girls who only read Vogue when they're considering scrapping the ending of a beloved best-selling novel?
So, when will this change? Hmm...did you hear me mention that one of the process articles was written in 1988?!?! Looks like there needs to be some sort of jolt. A big bang, if you will. Here are some possible solutions.
- Stop doing research screenings altogether. Assume that the filmmaker knows best. I'm not advocating that this is always the right decision, but it's an option.
- Conduct a MUCH higher number of test screenings in other cities. It’s going to cost more and be a pain in the ass, but the research methodology is better. Not that anyone cares about that.
- Start a rumor that if a studio tests only in southern California that it means they don't care about the movie. Somehow make it spread like wildfire, causing powerful diva actors and directors to demand that their movies be tested elsewhere.
I guess the only positive thing I can say about the ending change of The Time Traveler's Wife is at least it wasn't as drastic as this. Seriously? You're going to kill off a DIFFERENT character at the end? Personally, I think both of those endings were weak. You can't blame test screenings for that.