N: There were changes imposed on the
film due to early test screenings. Do test screenings work? If you
take a film that is aimed at a certain group of people and show
it to a general audience, surely it is obvious you are going to
get a large chunk of the audience saying they don't get it? If you
try to make a film for such a general audience, do you not end up
with the homogenized and empty films that dominate Hollywood?
PS: Absolutely. But you have to understand the studio mindset
and a few other variables.
Occasionally you will hear a studio exec state otherwise but believe
me, the vast majority of them do not give the tiniest of shits about
the quality of the films they release. Good, bad, mediocre - who
cares? Just so long as it's marketable, and profitable. That observation
comes from someone who worked within the studio system for well
over a decade, by the way. In fact, I distinctly remember that the
first shock I had when I initially started in the system was how
so very, very few upper echelon studio execs really cared about
movies. Or even knew much about them. It was like working alongside
a corporation of plumbers, you know? It was just another job to
Here's another example. I was talking with a good friend of mine,
an indie film director, not too long ago; we were basically sitting
around swapping war stories. Then he mentioned a mutual acquaintance,
another director whose overriding desire had always been to work
within the studio system. And this guy had gotten his wish;
he's been working on studio films for nearly 25 years now. Anyway,
my friend said he'd once asked this acquaintance what he thought
the two most important things a director working on a studio film
could do to make his position as comfortable as possible. Number
one, this guy replied, was to make sure your first day's dailies
looked good; that way, the studio would assume you were doing what
they were paying you for, and turn their attention elsewhere. The
second most important thing was to always remember that the studios
didn't care about how hard you were working or how hard you were
trying to make a good film. All they wanted was a marketable
Therefore, test screenings are very important to the studios, since
they're convinced that these events are the first indicator as to
whether you've created that product. But these screenings are inherently
flawed. As you just said, if you test a film that's specifically
targeted at a certain group - let's say young women - what do you
think the response is going to be from the young men in the test
audience who had no idea that they were going to see a romantic
comedy? That's the first flaw; often, test audiences have little
to no idea of what kind of movie they're going to be previewing.
So you've already skewed your results.
Furthermore, I know of very few directors who like test screenings.
Some of them will put on an agreeable public face about the experience
and say, "Yes, these screenings help us weed out what audiences
don't like." Privately, though, they loathe the process. I
mean, some studios and directors first decide to make a film based
on the quality of its script. So why fuck with that after the fact?
The answer, of course, is to try to find a way to squeeze a few
more bucks out of your pocket. But the end result often slices away
at the very qualities that got the film made in the first place;
the first things to go are the little details and connective tissue
that gave that script its unique voice. And god help the film that
confuses a test audience.
A good example of that one would be - well, how do you think Ridley
Scott felt after all those 18 year olds turned in their response
cards following BR's initial test screenings in Denver and
Dallas? I mean, here was an audience that knew very little about
the kind of film they were going to see; they'd just assumed, because
Harrison Ford was in it, that Blade Runner was another action
picture ala Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Which it most definitely is not. So it's no wonder that that audience
said they were depressed and confused by the film, especially by
its ambiguous ending. A response that led to that ridiculous, ride-into-the-sunset
climax being grafted onto BR at the last moment.
Now, maybe if test screenings were more generalized - do you like
or dislike this film? - I'd be more forgiving of the process. At
least that single question would give you an early indication as
to how your movie was going to be received. Even if the response
might have been tainted by the fact that you simply drew in a bored
or inappropriate audience that was pissed off because the theater's
air conditioning wasn't working that night.
To be completely even-handed, though, sometimes test screenings
actually do work to a film's advantage. RoboCop, for instance.
That movie originally ended with a little montage of scenes showing
that the Nancy Allen character had survived her wounds and was recuperating
in a hospital, followed by another MediaBreak about the arrest of
the obnoxious TV comic who keeps saying, "I'd buy that for
a dollar!", followed by a shot of Robo sitting in his TurboCruiser
prowling the streets of Detroit. Well, all that was dropped after
Robo's test audience said they felt the film should end right
after Robo's asked his name by Dan O'Herlihy, and Peter Weller replies,
"Murphy." That test audience was right; it was a better
ending. But that sort of helpfulness is rare. Test screenings can
now result in so many changes - deletions, additions, new endings
- that you have to wonder why they made the original film in the