PDA

View Full Version : Test screenings... why not at the script level?


Rantanplan
06-04-2014, 09:03 PM
I'm not exactly sure, as an industry outsider, how often movies are tested in front of an audience. I recall that flick with De Niro, where he was a producer for one of the studios, and the audience reacted so badly to a dog being shot that he was ordered to shoot a whole different ending.

Now, I understand that some of these test screenings have resulted in movies of lesser quality. However, the fact that studios are willing to loose thousands of dollars in re-shooting scenes or endings begs the question:

Why not test the product at an earlier level? BEFORE untold millions are spent? I mean, if the opinion of Average Joe counts so much, and if ultimately it's the public that decides the fate of a film, why not get that opinion a little earlier in the process...

What I do find absolutely mind-boggling, is that all these highly, highly paid professionals, still apparently don't trust their own instincts ...??

JoeBanks
06-04-2014, 09:07 PM
like Amazon Studios tried?

Rantanplan
06-04-2014, 09:30 PM
Maybe not at that level, but surely at a level that occurs before all that money is spent. Anyway, again, I'm not sure how often that actually happens, the test screenings. Would be interested in knowing from someone who knows.

jariax
06-04-2014, 10:05 PM
It's not like software testing and the SDLC if that's where you are coming from.

Test screenings are made up of average people, much like a jury.
With a film, they are seeing the finished product, and even though they are not experts, they can tell you whether they like it or not, which is all that is required.

At the script level, the average person is unable to understand how things will be translated to film, especially comedy. Watching some guy get bounced into the roof by an air bag may be hysterical on film but not that interesting to read. Similarly, a dialogue heavy script that is a great read may not translate that well visually.

So, rather than have average people read the scripts and vote, they have experts at the studio level that discern whether or not it would make a suitable film.

BurOak
06-05-2014, 01:55 PM
It's not like software testing and the SDLC if that's where you are coming from.

Test screenings are made up of average people, much like a jury.
With a film, they are seeing the finished product, and even though they are not experts, they can tell you whether they like it or not, which is all that is required.

At the script level, the average person is unable to understand how things will be translated to film, especially comedy. Watching some guy get bounced into the roof by an air bag may be hysterical on film but not that interesting to read. Similarly, something a dialogue heavy script that is a great read may not translate that well visually.

So, rather than have average people read the scripts and vote, they have experts at the studio level that discern whether or not it would make a suitable film.

Precisely.

Bunker
06-05-2014, 03:14 PM
If you can generate a script-preview system, you could make a lot of money. Studios always want a new way to remove doubt from their minds, and test screenings do exactly that.

The companies that run the test screenings make a fortune because they can generate a number from 0-100 that represents how well people will like the movie. Based on that score, a movie might get a huge marketing push, an expensive new third act, or a quiet death.

They like to pretend they're using scientific methodology, but they're not. The 100 volunteers they pull together, usually from Thousand Oaks, are hardly representative. That 0-100 score that's so cherished in the industry is only culled from a few Lickert scale questions - "Strongly Liked Movie... Strongly Disliked Movie". They're just assigning numeric value to each answer, not running deep statistical analysis.

Jariax accurately describes why a script-screening system wouldn't work. But I've worked in Feature Editorial for awhile, and I can say there are a lot of reasons why preview-screening systems don't work.

And yet, no one cares about the deficiencies in the system. They just want a score in the 90s.

castilleja32
06-05-2014, 04:00 PM
Would readings of a script before a live audience serve the same purpose?

A while back I set up some readings from scripts by local writers at a bookstore. Actors read scenes and then there was audience discussion. There was a great turnout and one of the projects got funded and made as a result of the support from the reading. (This was before Kickstarter.)

Ken Levine did a blog post recently about the benefits for writers of having scripts read by actors and hearing audience feedback: http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2014/06/an-invaluable-writing-tool.html

Local playwriting groups also often welcome screenwriters and can help you set up staged readings of your script.

Rantanplan
06-05-2014, 08:45 PM
These are all great comments, but still, I'm curious, how many studio films go through test screenings before the final version is released? Is a movie nothing more than a product that needs to be focus-group tested before it hits consumers?

My instinct is to think, not that many, but what do I know.

Incidentally, and this has nothing to do with it... there was this documentary about the making of GONE WITH THE WIND that I saw, and anyone familiar with the story will know what tremendous ups and downs the production went through, including some deaths I believe.

Anyway, according to the documentary, studio execs were ushered into a limo that drove several miles into the desert, to a small town where there was a double bill playing at the local movie theater. The movie theater was air conditioned and it was a sweltering summer day, so the place was packed.

The studio dudes got up on stage after the first feature, and said There's been a change in the program. If you have to make a call or anything else, do it know, because the doors will be locked and you won't be able to leave.

And then they started the film, which was a rough cut, with book pages opening in lieu of opening credits if I recall, which read, "Based on the bestselling novel by Margaret Mitchell...."

And the audience went bat sh!t crazy.

I have to admit, I found that moment kind of emotional. The country had been waiting for that film for YEARS, and to be among the first to view it... freaking cool.

Staircaseghost
06-05-2014, 09:27 PM
I can see it now. Production interns prowling the food court at the Beverly Center, interrupting people mid-Sbarro's with "pardon me sir, would you like 2 free movie tickets in exchange for reading this 120 page document with formatting and vocabulary utterly alien to you and giving some feedback?"

That sounds like an absolute goldmine of useful marketing data.

Bunker
06-06-2014, 12:04 AM
These are all great comments, but still, I'm curious, how many studio films go through test screenings before the final version is released? Is a movie nothing more than a product that needs to be focus-group tested before it hits consumers?

My instinct is to think, not that many, but what do I know.


I've worked on several low-budget studio films, but they all go through previews and focus groups. Unless the director is really powerful, almost every studio film will get previewed.

By necessity, the studios have needed to take a bit of an assembly line approach to making movies. The post-supervisor automatically schedules it in.

They do temp mixes, temp scores, and temp VFX, all for the preview. There's a whole month of post production that is dedicated not to finishing the movie, but varnishing the movie for those 100 people.

graybooks
06-06-2014, 06:36 AM
I can see it now. Production interns prowling the food court at the Beverly Center, interrupting people mid-Sbarro's with "pardon me sir, would you like 2 free movie tickets in exchange for reading this 120 page document with formatting and vocabulary utterly alien to you and giving some feedback?"

That sounds like an absolute goldmine of useful marketing data.

That actually might work well. But you'd want to hand out one of these instead:

Trigger Warning: Semi-shameless plug here.
http://aisleseatbooks.com/front/

emily blake
06-06-2014, 08:26 AM
I definitely want more people giving me notes. Bonus points if said people know nothing about the movie business.

Ronaldinho
06-06-2014, 10:19 AM
Would readings of a script before a live audience serve the same purpose?


You mean, the purpose of being a total nightmare for creatives?

I don't know if that's fair. I think comedy guys generally like (within reason) test audiences. It helps them spot where the film is a little slack, there will be a few jokes that don't work, and so on.

And I also know of projects that have done table reads, not for an audience of randoms, but for an audience of selected writers and creatives, who the producers trust, to help them find any weak spots.

But there are a bunch of traps here:

First of all, you're not going to have your real full cast. Your stars may be off on other projects. So you're filling in with whomever. And let's assume you get some actors who are good at cold reading (some actors are great, but terrible cold) and let's say they kill it.

Okay, where was the joke? Was the script great? Was it a synergy between the actor and the words? Did the cold-reading actor make a great choice that sold a so-so joke? (And is a star, later, going to want to hear, "Do it the way that day-player did it?)

There are just so many moving parts that the laughs in the room aren't going to tell you very much.

This is totally different from having a cut of the film, saying, "Oh, that joke didn't work ... what else did we get in that scene?" or "Let's go reshoot that." (The latter is what sitcom writers are doing when something tanks in front of a live audience. They huddle, rewrite on the fly, and reshoot).

Beyond comedy, though, where you have the acid test of laughter, I don't know why everyone is in such a rush to substitute someone else's judgement for their own.

castilleja32
06-06-2014, 12:50 PM
Actually I don't think I caught what OP was really asking, read this late last night and thought of the reading idea. I see she's referring to a film already made or in process.

I've found staged readings/table reads very useful for audience feedback, especially for a work in progress. Of course you want to get decent actors who are right for the roles. But beyond even jokes or funny lines, as a writer I get so much from hearing whether a character comes across, what the audience responds to (or doesn't), etc.

Of course it works best for scenes with plenty of dialogue. But I think it's a boost to connect with an audience of some kind when you think a script is ready for it.

Rantanplan
06-06-2014, 01:34 PM
Beyond comedy, though, where you have the acid test of laughter, I don't know why everyone is in such a rush to substitute someone else's judgement for their own.

So if the film tanks they can run to their boss with a stack of positive comments from the test audience in a desperate effort to save their job and cover their ass?

keithcalder
06-06-2014, 03:41 PM
Test screenings are an amazing tool when put in the hands of filmmakers who know how to use them. They can also be a destructive weapon in the wrong hands. Like basically everything else in the filmmaking process.

We do informal and formal test screenings for all of my movies, for a variety of reasons. Primarily, it's to help regain objectivity. It's incredibly hard to make the switch between making creative decisions and evaluating how those creative decisions are received by a fresh film viewer. Sitting in an audience of fresh film viewers is a great way to get a jolt of freshness, and a way to gauge how people other than you might respond to the film.

It's depressing how unscientific the data-collecting and data-processing side of things are when you do a formal test screening, but it can still be very useful if you know how to interpret the data.

Studios can also easily use the data from a test screening to advocate their own unintentionally destructive agenda if they want to, and that's the shitty side of test screenings.

So, yeah, I think test screenings are great and terrible. It just depends on the person in charge of making decisions based on the test screening.

keithcalder
06-06-2014, 03:44 PM
Oh, to answer the original question, I think test screenings of screenplays is a terrible idea.

The experience of watching a film is that of absorbing a finished creative product. The experience of reading a screenplay is that of interpreting a work document to picture an idealized finished creative product.

This is a process that I don't believe comes easily to most people, and to be honest I don't think most professionals in the film business even have that skill. But that's another (more controversial) topic…