I will not reveal the movie title or any of the contents, details, or plot points. They made it very clear that if I was a member of the press or even a blogger, I could have some serious legal problems. What I will discuss with you is the experience of the test screening.
I have always been fascinated by the test screening or the test audience process. I have heard stories about Alfred Hitchcock’s movies being substituted for another and shown to people, that Weird Al Yankovic’s UHF tested off the charts for Universal only to be one of the biggest flops of the 1989 summer, and that even The Simpson’s Movie (according to the DVD commentary) was basically re-written by the test audience. I have been curious about what goes on before and after these screenings? What does the audience see? Who are these people?
I was on my lunch break and walked by the movie theater to check out the latest posters; just a quick look as movie posters are an obsession of mine and then back to work. Two young people, overly dressed for two in the afternoon, had a sign that said “free movie”. I went up to them and said, “I’ll bite. What do I have to do?” They asked me if I was in the entertainment industry and I said, “No” (those 5 years of acting classes really have paid off). They promptly handed me a flyer that instructed me to go online and fill out a quick survey that would get me two tickets to see the upcoming release. After I got home and a quick survey later, I had tickets for the film. Apparently, there is no secret club and no certain amount of people from one sex, race, or religious background. They just take anyone that comes up to them on the street and wants to know how to see a free movie.
The night of the screening:
I thought it was odd that they asked us to be there an hour before it started. I thought I would just hand over my pass and walk into the theater. The ticket did say first come; first serve so there was a chance that I wasn’t going to get in. I wanted to not only have this experience but actually see the film, too. I arrived early and was shocked to see the line. It was literally wrapped around the block. Many of the businesses in the mall wanted to know what was going on. There were tons of people (480 total) and since it was a weeknight, it was strange that so many were lined up at the theater. I was instructed to fill out another survey (race, age, did I work in the industry…) and then I was told to get rid of my phone. No cell phones that take pictures or record video or audio would be allowed into the theater. Now, who doesn’t have a phone that can do those things? I was told to get my ticket first and then take my phone back to the car (a good 20 minute walk back a fourth).
When I finally did get my ticket, five minutes before I walked in, I grabbed the wife’s phone and ran back to the car. She would get our seats; I would then return and get us popcorn and soda. When I returned she was sitting 4 rows from the front and off on the wings (see image above). Apparently several of the rows were roped off for bigwigs pushing the little people to the sides. We are the center of the theater, middle of the aisle people, so the premonition of getting sick was already running through our minds. Since we were sitting close to the studio ushers (the people in charge of the screening) we heard a lot of what was going on. Audience members either lost their seats due to having to run back to their car, using the bathroom or getting snacks. Others saved seats for those in the back of the line, who might not even be getting in anyway. All this created a cluster fuck on trying to get people to either move or sit by themselves. What baffled me was that if we were there to do the studio a favor, why not make us as comfortable as possible? Why should I have to get rid of my cell phone? I’ve been to Hall H at Comic-Con with 7,000 (yeah, you read that right) people in one room and we weren’t made to check our cell phones. In Hall H you’ll see footage weeks if not months ahead of when everyone else will see it. The cell phone thing seemed like BS to me. I also thought it was cheap on the studio’s behalf not to hook us up with a small popcorn and soda. Butter or no butter. Diet Coke or regular Coke. It’s free and if we don’t like it, well then we’ll go buy something else. If you want people to enjoy your product (film, business, or whatever) make them happy from the get go. Many restaurants do this; it’s called free bread. Already you had a room full of pissed people who were going to sit and watch a film you (the studio) wanted their opinion on. Perhaps a sense of professionalism and courtesy was too much to expect. This was obvious when one of the studio usher’s phones went off 3 minutes into the movie (it was the Mamba ring).
Finally, after the agonizing process of seating, a woman in her mid-forties trying to look ten years younger told us that this was a work in progress. We might see a stunt wire here or there and that all the effects weren’t finished yet. She told us to rest assured that the top effects men in the business would be completing the film before it came out. The music would be all temp tracks and not the score for the film. Above all, we were to enjoy ourselves (I guess this is when we were supposed to start that) and remain seated after the picture.
A two-page questionnaire and a pen found its way into my hand and again I was asked my name, race, age and well you know. The heart of the questionnaire was packed with questions like this:
What did you enjoy about the film?
What part of the beginning, middle, and end dragged?
Had you heard of the film?
What were your thoughts on the protagonist, villain, comic relief, and the damsel?
At the bottom, there were boxes to check off in regards to the actors themselves (overall performance), the special effects, the story, and the music. The music question was one I thought was odd because they literally played Hans Zimmer and John Williams. How could you possibly go wrong with those two guys?
After the film, I overheard a very disturbing conversation in the lobby. There were two girls who were talking to each other and saying “Yo, why did they show us da movie unfinished? For real!” These two girls got me thinking. How many other nitwits and morons in the past have ruined films because of test screenings? It was stated right before the film began that this was “a work in progress and not the finished product”. I would have loved to have read their questionnaires.
On our way out I totally expected to get some sort of swag for the film. There was nothing; no, t-shirt, coffee mug, or even a pass to see the finished film. I am not saying this is essential or even required, but again it works in the studio’s favor. A t-shirt for the film worn so early before it comes out sparks the conversation. Where did you get that shirt? I saw it at a sneak preview. What did you think? I bring this up because at Comic-Con they do this for hundreds if not thousands of people.
The music is something else that lingered with me. The Hans Zimmer and John Williams’ tracks were downright perfect. While I am all for a new and interesting score to listen to I was reminded of the music for Inglourious Basterds. Quentin Tarantino used several different tracks from other films and it worked brilliantly. Obviously, you can’t have the Star Wars theme being used in other sci-fi films, but there are other more subtle pieces that set a perfect mood. The Artist did do this by using some of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score. Even Star Wars has some Bernard Herrmann music in it, as well.
The test screening, despite its lackluster planning, was fun. Many of effects were actually creative. In comparison to what I have seen in the past, they were a major improvement. What I saw, unfinished effects and temp music was enough for me to recommend the film to someone else. Now if only I could be asked to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.