How and Why to Test Screen your Film ☛
I recently cut a comedy sketch for my friend and colleague Gavin Boyter and the question arose should we show this to other people to get feedback? The piece was shot for fun to be put up on the internet – the fate of Warner Bros. didn’t exactly hang in the balance – even so my advice was “let’s do it.”
Many directors hate test screenings and I can understand why – the feedback it can generate can confusing or downright misleading and you can end up spending ages puzzling over a problem that was brought up by the guy who didn’t hear a vital line because he coughed at the wrong time. Mike Figgis tells a story about the studio screen-testing Mr Jones, in which Richard Gere plays a manic-depressive. The studio presented Figgis with the results of the questionnaire: the audience thought the scenes where Gere was manic were a hoot. The scenes where he was depressed however, they just found those a bit of a downer. They asked Figgis to cut the depressive scenes. To be fair, it’s not difficult to lose perspective in the face of the graphs and tables screen testing companies provide – it looks a lot like scientific proof.
Whether you’re working with a screen testing company like NRG or just getting a few mates round to watch your short, there are pitfalls to avoid. Do it right and you’ll avoid embarrassing misunderstandings; your film might even improve beyond your expectations. Do it wrong and you can get so confused that you’ll turn your story into baby food. So how’s it done?
- Make sure your film is ready. Is the cut more or less as good as you think you can make it? If your audience suggests changes that you have already planned, it’s a bit of a waste of time. Give the film as much ‘polish’ as you can reasonably manage too; while we who lurk in cutting rooms are practiced at looking past technical imperfections, chances are your test audience are not. Make sure you have any sound FX necessary for the story and that the grading isn’t distractingly wrong. You may need to add temp music too – I’ll write more about this in another posting. Make the film as self-explanatory as possible.
- Choose your audience. Don’t show your zombie gore-fest to your gran or lure your anarchist friend off the roof of the Ritz to watch your answer to The King’s Speech. You’ll only get reliable feedback from your target audience. One feature on which I worked sent a runner out to gather an audience from the street. Not a bad idea in itself, except the street in question was in the middle of Soho. The gathered audience consisted of other runners and media types who were not the right demographic for the film. Some of your audience may well be your friends or friends of cast and crew; but try to have someone there who knows little or nothing about the film.
- Venue. How is your film eventually going to be seen on release? Try to replicate those conditions. If it’s only going to be seen online: easy – whack it up on Vimeo or similar with password protection. If, however, your film is likely to be seen in a cinema then try to recreate those conditions. Apart from anything else seeing your film on a big screen will give you a more accurate sense of how the edit plays. The ideal option is to rent out a screening room, like the Soho Screening Rooms. If your budget doesn’t stretch to that, a room above a pub or even a group of friends in a living room is the next best thing.
- Technical checks. You wouldn’t believe the number of screenings I’ve attended where the sound levels are way off, the picture’s too dark or the disc just doesn’t play. Save yourself the embarrassment – check the disc / tape / file before you take it to the venue and check it at the venue before the audience take their seats.
- Introduce the film. Thank the audience for coming, tell them where you’re at with the cut – early days or almost done. Warn them of any technical imperfections (unfinished effects shots, missing dialogue) but keep it short. Tell them what you want from them and how you’re going to get their feedback afterwards. The best introduction I’ve had came from Terry Gilliam.“I’ve got bad news for you” he told us, “you’re not here to enjoy the movie. You’re here to tell us what’s wrong with it”. Laying yourself open like that takes guts and you’ve got to be able to take the criticism that you’ve invited. However, anything that makes the audience feel that they can voice their doubts or dislikes big or small – that honesty isn’t only allowed: it’s required – can only be a good thing. Oh, and get them to turn their phones off.
- Get the feedback. For a big screening in a cinema you may want to prepare questionnaires. Transform a smaller audience into an instant focus group. Have questions ready, but get people’s instant responses first. Remember that everyone will be aware that they’re talking to a creative person about their work that they’ve just seen for free – most people will be nice. But, like Gilliam, you’ve got to get them past that if this process is to be of any use. One way is to let them get the politeness out of their system: ask for “one thing you liked and one thing you didn’t like?” This is likely to throw up at least one surprise, something that you didn’t think to be problematic – chase it, did anyone else have that problem? Finally you can get round to the questions your really want to ask, maybe something on which you and your editor couldn’t agree. Don’t ask leading questions. If your editor feels that the opening is too long, ask how it felt like the film was paced? Did any areas feel too long or too short? Okay, which bits? Don’t look to the focus group for solutions – that’s your job.
If your film is a comedy and you don’t hear people laughing – don’t despair! Smaller audiences are much less inclined to laugh out loud than big ones. The audience may well be amused; they’re just shy of showing it.
The aim of all this is to throw rocks at your film to see if it will break. If it doesn’t: great! If it does: you know what needs fixing. If you can’t fix it, you at least know that you need to hide the problem or distract attention away from it. Know that some of the feedback you get will be unhelpful: why didn’t you make it ‘this’ sort of film rather than ‘that’ sort of film? I thought the lead actor was wrong. I just thought it was a bit dull, dunno why. Smile, nod, say thank you and forget it.
On the positive side, I know of a British feature where one of the post-production crew invited the members of their book group to the test screening; they had read the novel on which the film was based. One of them argued vociferously that the opening had been better in the book. In fact, they argued their case so persuasively that the opening was reshot as per the novel, in which form it can be seen today. The film went on to win many international prizes and was nominated for three Oscars.
Of course you don’t have to act on the feedback you get, hell you don’t even have to put yourself through the whole process. Remember though: your film will be seen by an audience sooner or later, and you’re likely to find out what they think whether through reviews, feedback from festivals or online comments. Why not get criticism soon enough to do something about it?
Copyright Guy Ducker © 2011