Test Screening 101: Or, How Hollywood Tries to Meet Audience Expectations

I've been very fortunate in my life to be able to enjoy many opportunities just by sheer chance. One of the most frustrating is living close enough to NYC to be invited to advanced screenings of Hollywood films.

So, you want to learn how a big budget Hollywood film can go from the director's vision to what lands in our laps every weekend? Simple: test screenings. Production studios, distributors, and filmmakers will either rent out a place themselves or hire a company to handle screening the first almost complete cut of a film to an audience of people they hope know nothing about it. They'll approach you with bright colorful fliers at street corners, parking lots, and shopping malls so long as they are a stone's throw away from a big multiplex or run down independent movie theater. Your excitement is palpable: here stands a clean, cheerful man or woman offering you a golden (normally magenta or lime green) ticket to a film no one else has seen yet. All you have to do is call a phone number to confirm if you are going by yourself or with someone else and write down a code to get in. On the night of the screening, you hand in your form, receive a ticket, and get to go in, right?

Wrong. Imagine the booking agents for a major American airplane company. On any given flight, they attempt to overbook the plane to ensure that there are no empty seats on lift off. This is only a problem when everyone who bought a ticket shows up demanding to get on their flight. There will be fighting, there will be tears, and there will be disappointment.

Now, magnify that scenario to the size of a movie theater. The size of the film is proportional to the size of the theater. A presumed blockbuster will have the largest theater in a multiplex; a small untested film with a bunch of unknowns involved in all aspects of the production will have a much smaller theater. I'm not sure of the exact number of fliers that are handed out for any given screening, but it's fair to say that these researchers do anything to fill that theater.

The nice man or woman will inform you that you should arrive at least 30 minutes before the designated screening time to get a seat. This is a lie. In NYC, these lines start forming hours before the research company has even set up camp. Outside of a major city, you can probably get away with showing up an hour in advance of the screening.

You're standing in line, waiting to get into the theater. Simple as that, right? Wrong. As soon as you turn over that flier with the confirmation code, you are controlled by the studio or filmmaker running the screening. One person will ask you your age; another, your highest level of education. Another group of people will parade up and down the line with a list of descriptors for the film's target demographic and ask even more questions: What's your job; How did you hear about the film; Why did you come; Do you know anything about the film; etc. You think they would want to discover that maybe the film could be marketed towards accountants in their mid-thirties because every accountant they speak to is a huge fan of [director/original film/novel/puppy dogs], but you would be mistaken. For the most part, the researchers are charged with finding people that know nothing about the project to give unbiased feedback to the studio. It makes sense, but then it doesn't. We'll get to that.

Once you're asked these questions (or were mentally ticked off like Empress Nympho choosing dates for the orgy - no, no, no, no, yes "Excuse me, sir, may I ask how you heard about tonight's screening?"), you have to fill out an information card. Sometimes they demand pencil, other times, pen is permissible. Either way, you will be giving the researchers some combination of your name, your age, your occupation, your hometown, your phone number, your e-mail address, and your assurance that you are not involved in the entertainment industry (always clarified as: you can't work in film; theater, music, TV, books, video games, and freelancers are permitted). You then sign your right to say a word about the screening away through a very brief Non-Disclosure Agreement* and then you wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

See, they don't want to start filling the theater if they don't know they have enough people for a screening. God forbid they have a 400 seat theater and can only fit 350 people into it for an advanced screening. The employees will wander around the area, handing out tickets to people who were never previously invited to a screening to come on in and watch a movie. They don't even force these people to fill out the full NDA* if that's what it takes to get their butts in the seats. Only when it looks like there will be a sufficient amount of people to fill the theater do they let you pick a seat.

Groups of 20-40 people are led in a single file line to the theater, where a "security guard" (often an intern) will make sure everyone has their fluorescent theater ticket. If you're in that first group: congratulations, you'll be able to see the film in a desirable seat. You will quickly notice that a number of seats and aisles are taped off with employees informing you no one is to sit there. Depending on the company, the rhetoric changes, but these are essential the VIP seats. For a big screening, you can expect a producer or two to show up; for a dinky low budget film or action/horror/sci-fi/comedy, the VIPs will be the children and relatives of the executives who may or may not have influenced the decision to hold a screening so early for a film they want to see. Systematically, the theater is filled up, as frustrated employees work harder and harder to find out where people are actually sitting, and where that snotty fake blond decided that she didn't want anyone sitting next to her and blocked off all neighboring seats with her personal belongings.

When the theater is full and the riot of outraged people in line subsides, a charismatic man or woman will walk to the front of the theater, cup their hands, and explain the condition of the film. It's often "the sound isn't completely finished" or "the color isn't fully adjusted yet" or even "they're still playing around with some edits and transitions." If you're lucky, you'll hear something like this: "The studio is very early in the process on this film, but they wanted feedback as soon as they could get it.** The filming is done, but they haven't picked a final edit.** The music is only filling in for what will be added later.** And, this is important to know, the effects aren't finished.** Text will come up on the screen describing what is going to happen.** Some of the effects just need polish, others are stand-ins for the real thing.**" That means the film is nowhere near watchable yet and the studio is hemorrhaging money at a project that isn't coming together. Whatever the introduction, the lights go down, the film starts (no trailers, sadly), and you're immersed in a world of cinematic wonder.

Or you wish you were. The researchers/filmmaker try to choose average people that may not know how to behave in a theater. I experienced a screening recently where a pair of snotty rich girls spoke throughout the entire film trying to guess what would happen next. The gentleman in front of me - an amateur filmmaker, as he introduced himself to everyone who would listen - announced he would laugh at the film wherever he thought it would suck. The researchers, at this point, have a 90+ minute break to sort through their paperwork outside, get off their feet, and pray nothing goes wrong. No one is there to enforce proper theater behavior because they want as much feedback as possible.

The film is done and it's survey time. It's a bubble form, so enjoy the flashbacks to standardized tests, only without the pressure to make your marks heavy and dark. You once again provide your age, occupation, how you found out about the screening, and like information before going into the film itself. To get this out of the way: if you don't rate an element "Excellent," you will have to defend yourself. So this recent film I rated "Very Good" required an explanation as to what stopped me from calling it the next Citizen Cane. You then are given groupings of elements, like performances, music, editing, pace, gore, comedy, suspense, fun, and are asked to rate them on a scale of "Poor" to "Excellent." When that's done, you flip the page over to another set of words. These are descriptions of the film that you "Agree with," "Somewhat Agree with," or "Disagree with." Then there are many blank fill-ins for favorite/least favorite [x] and a space requiring you to describe your movie-going habits. Pay attention: this is essential. If you do not meet the requirements on the form (saw [x] number of the following [y] films), your research is most likely not counted and you have just wasted many, many hours of your time.

If you were selected from the Nympo line-up, you are chased down with a name tag and brought to the front of the theater. You then answer the exact same questions on the survey, only out loud so the studio can hear your answers on a recording. Your verbal feedback is always described as more valuable than the surveys, partly because the interactive element depends on the sample audience's feedback. The moderator will say, for example, "So what performances do you remember the most?" and anyone can raise their hand to say a name. As soon as the first name is said, the moderator asks everyone to lower their hands and asks a series of prepared questions for a given element of the film (acting, editing, directing, pacing, etc.) to everyone. So, who remembers what role [x] played; Did you like their performance; Did you dislike their performance; What was good about their performance; etc. If the film polled poorly from a cursory look at the survey: congratulations! I hope you brought your car with you, because otherwise you will miss your bus or train back home. These surveys can take 15 minutes, or they can take well over an hour. It all depends on how the audience responded.

Now you know why so many films get a director's cut on DVD. Average people, some film going, some not, are invited to see a film you may or may not know about long before a release date is established and get to decide how the film will be finished. Characters will be edited out, scenes will be expanded, effects will be dropped, and actors will be called back in for re-shoots to fix a very bad scene.

*I'm not sure how legally binding a two-line NDA is, especially when the people working the line have to keep clarifying that it doesn't apply to just what's written on the paper but any other condition they come up with on the spot (ie: no texting about how hot that lead actor is or you've broken the NDA).

**DANGER! DANGER! This film is in trouble. Buckle your seat belts, it's going to be a crappy ride.