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Although little is said and known about it, in the cinema i test screening they are widespread and often decisive. In a nutshell, they are the preliminary projections for a sample of spectators before the release (in some cases before the actual completion) of a film, to understand what they like and what not, to whom, and what reactions it generates, something very similar to the tests that are done to understand whether certain consumers like new commercial products. THE test screenings cinemas are almost as old as cinema, and over the years they have developed above all in the Hollywood film industry, characterized by great attention to marketing and viewer profiling, but in a small way it also exists in Italy.
“One way or another“, he wrote Nicholas Barber on BBC«Most of the movies mainstream it has been touched in some way ”. As well as many others in the past few weeks, Barber has been dealing with test screenings films following the publication, at the end of 2021, of Audience-ologythe book-report by Kevin Goetz, founder and CEO of Screen Engine / ASIa major US film analysis company.
In the book, Goetz argues that the first to think about showing films to test audiences was Harold Lloyd, an actor, director and producer who was very active especially in the period of silent cinema. Goetz recounts how already in the early 1920s Lloyd began to test certain scenes to understand what reaction they generated, which Buster Keaton soon began to do, and then many others.
Many films have lost track or memory of what and why it was removed or added later to some test screening, but for others there are reports or anecdotes of rather influential changes. Barber cites the first scene of La La Land (the one with people dancing and singing in traffic), the last of My best friend’s wedding (the one with the Julia Roberts and Rupert Everett dance), the last of Fatal Attraction (that of gunshot) and this scene from the Shark.
“They are all beloved parts of beloved films, and they have in common the fact that they ended up there thanks to you, or at least to someone like you. In their initial montages, the directors hadn’t put them there: they were shot, or recovered from the cut ones, after the audience of the test screenings they had their say “.
In the case of La La Land, the scene had been shot and then cut, but it was restored because thanks to the preliminary projections it became clear that it was necessary to reveal, very quickly, that the film was a musical, one in which all of a sudden people start singing and to dance. In the case of the Shark instead, it was director Steven Spielberg who understood that a scene like that (shot in a swimming pool after a preliminary screening) could, for a modest investment of time and money (which he put out of his own pocket), offer a nice extra scare .
Other examples concern Blade Runner, 007 – Private Vengeance, Titanic, The Wings of Freedom, Goodfellas, Sunset Boulevard And Pretty Woman, I’m legend And Rambowhose ending initially shown in the test screenings it would have simply precluded, due to the death of the protagonist, any sequel. In fact, for every film of which two or more endings have been shot, or of which relevant scenes have been removed or added, there is a good chance that viewers of the films contributed to the final selection. test screenings expressing opinions then taken into consideration by directors, producers and film distribution experts.
Now, nearly a century after Lloyd’s first test screenings, things continue to work roughly the same way. Spectators who are thought to be representative of others are invited to certain theaters without knowing which film will be on the screen, and at the end of the screening they are invited to offer votes and opinions and answer a few questions about the film. Barber wrote that the determining questions are usually the first two, both with five possible answers. The first is: “What was your general reaction to the film?”; the second is: “Would you recommend it to your friends?”. In the first case the scale of the answers goes from “excellent” to “poor”, in the second from “absolutely yes” to “absolutely no”.
The ways in which viewers are chosen for these screenings can vary widely. On the internet there are some US sites to which you can register to be eventually chosen and, on Reddit, a couple of reports in first person. A few years ago a user wrote that in Los Angeles it could happen to be approached in a shopping center and to be asked if you were interested in seeing a film for free, and in case invited to a screening. He added: «I once happened to participate in a screening at the end of which the director asked, with a show of hands, what we thought of certain things. Then I saw the film after its release and it actually integrated some of the views, which made it better. ‘
Interviewed by BBC about his book, Goetz said that very few directors who refuse to do test screenings are “a rarity”, and that according to the information available to him in 2021, 90 per cent of the great films distributed in all United States has gone from one or more test screenings. “On average there are three, but sometimes it even reaches ten or fifteen.”
Goetz wrote that in his professional life he had to deal with several thousand test screenings and that over time the attention in choosing viewers belonging to certain demographic groups has grown a lot. The questions then became longer and more complicated, any discussions following the projections include more and more details and it also happens that different projections are organized in an attempt to find answers to different questions. “You can’t solve everything in one go,” she told her to BBC: “The first screening can help you understand what to remove, the second allows you to understand how to fix an unsatisfactory ending or characters that don’t work well”. According to Goetz, the thing for which test projections are most useful, however, is to understand if and how much something makes you laugh.
Of him, Sacha Baron Cohen said: «the analyzes [della società] Kevin’s have had an incalculable value for me ». Ben Stiller said that “attending the focus group of your film is like hiding in the bathroom in high school and hearing what others say about you.”
In Italy, among those who test the films before their release is the Milanese company Ergo Research, through the Movie Clinic, the name with which it refers to the activities of measuring and profiling the potential of films but also of series and television programs of every type. A couple of years ago Michele Casula, one of the partners of Ergo Research, had spoken interviewed by Rolling Stone of a practical case he had dealt with, relating to Fast as the wind2016 film with Stefano Accorsi:
Initially the film was proposed with the title Italian Racein the belief that the racing part could be the key element for its positioning, with all that could be achieved in terms of packaging of the material, that is the search for a mood Fast & Furious. In the testing phase, the film showed to have a very high potential even on a target that was not expected, that is a female audience under 24. At that point it made more sense to dress the film so that that identity element would pass. And the poster with which the film was released responds to this awareness.
Always a BBCGoetz said that it often happens that films with many special effects are subjected to tests before many scenes are even finished and that therefore it has happened to “test The invisible man when there was still no invisible man, The Planet of the Apes when the monkey was still Andy Serkis e The beauty and the Beast, which did as well as a few other films, when it was still only five percent animated, and the rest were sketches in black and white. ‘ But there was already music and history. Sometimes the tests are only used to change the title, other times it happens instead that a film stops before the end so as to ask viewers how they would like it to end.
Obviously, it is not known how many, among the directors whose films are tested, are really convinced of the usefulness of the tests and how many instead tolerate it reluctantly interpreting it as something that ruins the films by bending them in advance to the tastes of the public.
In Audience-ology director Ang Lee is quoted as saying: «Picasso has never had his paintings tested by the public». Goetz, on the other hand, thinks that “if someone honks the horn and is angry with you, maybe he’s just an asshole; but if there are three or four of them playing, you are the asshole. It’s the same in movies: if 30 or 40 people tell you that something is wrong, you have to listen to them and think that maybe they are not communicating as you would like. I like to say that i test screenings they do not ruin the director’s vision, but make it concrete ».
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