Theatre of the absurd

ON ANY GIVEN NIGHT IN MULTI-plexes across America, film directors, producers, studio executives and baseball cap-wearing actors can be found hovering around the backs of cinema auditoriums, nervously watching the reactions of a crowd of demographically representative citizens recruited from movie queues and shopping malls to pass judgment on their new, not-quite-finished film.

As it unspools, this rarefied group will analyse the crowd's every laugh, every cry, every groan and every sigh to get a sense of how the movie "plays". When it finishes, the questionnaires the audience have been asked to complete will be analysed for signs of a hit or a flop. And if these Hollywood power-players are feeling particularly masochistic, they might hang around to listen to a focus group of 20 or so members of Joe Public as they reflect upon how the film they've just watched might be improved in their (non) expert opinion.

This cinematic hell is, of course, better known as a test screening, and while sometimes it can improve a film, increasingly it can leave anyone who longs to be confronted with original cinema fearful for its continued existence.

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"I remember being at a dinner once with Marty Scorsese," says Art Linson, producer of The Untouchables, Heat and Fight Club, among many other films. "Goodfellas was being previewed in a movie theatre up in Seattle. Marty had just flown down to this dinner and was sitting next to a director friend of all of ours who asked him, 'How did it go?' And he said: "A third of the people walked out and the cards were disastrous.'"

Such experiences are at the heart of Linson's latest film, What Just Happened?, a fictionalised adaptation of his own acerbic memoir of the same name. The film, which opens with his screen alter-ego (played by Robert De Niro) testing an edgy action film starring Sean Penn, provides an insight into the brutal implications for the creative process when test screen reactions aren't good. And the reactions certainly aren't good here, with people walking out, colleagues talking only in euphemisms and offended audiences scrawling abusive messages on the test cards in protest at a scene featuring a dog being brutally shot. If What Just Happened? occasionally seems over the top, it's not.

At the first test screening for Seven, for instance, audiences who'd been coerced into the preview on the promise of a new film starring "Morgan Freeman from Driving Miss Daisy and Legends of the Fall's Brad Pitt" were so horrified by what they saw that director David Fincher recalls overhearing one woman say to her friends upon exiting the screening: "The people who made that movie should be killed."

"You couldn't have had a worse response," chuckles Fincher over the phone from LA. "I think that movie tested in the 50s or something, which is borderline unreleasable. I do think you have to be very careful about the kinds of audiences you're recruiting and what you're asking of them. People get very upset by certain kinds of content. That was definitely the case with Seven. I think they were morally outraged more than they didn't like it. They felt they'd been attacked."

The truth is, when it comes to test screenings, William Goldman's old adage about the movie business still holds true: nobody knows anything. William Friedkin attributes some of the success of his Oscar-winning film The French Connection (1971) to the fact that the studio (which was in the process of a take-over) was in such chaos that it dumped the film in cinemas without testing it. "If we'd had to ask the audience to write comments on cards, it would have been back in the cutting room for months, maybe years," says the director. Ridley Scott wasn't quite so fortunate with Blade Runner (1982). After disastrous previews, he was forced to capitulate to notes from clueless executives based on the reactions of clueless test audiences.

Such horror stories suggest the whole process should be scrapped, but it's not as simple as that. "It depends on what kind of movie it is," says What Just Happened? star De Niro. "I know directors who take them really seriously and they should, (but] more for comedies. I'm impressed by how they gauge certain things."

Borat director Larry Charles, a veteran of TV hits Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, confirms the latter. Though initially resistant to the test screening process, on Borat he found it to be "very instructional. Ultimately, if you want raucous laughter in the house, it's not a bad idea to take it out there and see what's working and what's not working." Indeed, when he tested his new comedy documentary, Religulous, he quickly realised something was amiss. "We were able to analyse what that was and change the structure a little bit. After that it played great."

Though test screenings have been prevalent in Hollywood since the silent era, like everything else in the blockbuster age, its current empirical incarnation can be traced back to Jaws (1975) and the precedent Steven Spielberg set when he analysed the through-the-roof results of its first preview and set about modifying it to get an additional big scream. It was Fatal Attraction (1987), however, that ended up doing the most damage. When the original cut ended with Glenn Close's sexual aggressor committing suicide, framing Michael Douglas's cheating husband for her murder, test audiences screamed "kill the bitch" at the screen and the film's producer (and future boss of Paramount) Sherry Lansing obliged, forcing director Adrian Lyne to film a new ending in which the bunny boiler was shot and killed. Never mind that the suicide in the original cut was truer to the character's psychological state or chimed with Lyne's Madame Butterfly motifs. The test audience didn't want uncertainty, and after the end result grossed $320 million, neither did the studio. It validated the whole process.

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Unfortunately, it has been thoroughly entrenched ever since, with Baz Luhrmann's Australia apparently its latest victim. After test audiences reportedly found the Nicole Kidman/Hugh Jackman-starring epic's tragic ending a little upsetting (well, duh!), panic-stricken executives reportedly insisted Luhrmann change it to make it more upbeat.

Naturally, Luhrmann has been on the offensive, telling the Los Angeles Times that he originally wrote six endings, shot three, and that the one in the final film – which opens in the US this coming week – is neither the "happy one" nor the "sad one" but something "quite surprising" that "found itself".

It's to be hoped that really was the case. But considering that Australia cost an estimated $130 million to produce, it's hard to read his comments and not think of the scene in What Just Happened? where Catherine Keener's studio boss calmly and forcefully instructs a director to get rid of the unhappy ending, not because it will help the film become a hit, but because it will help the studio lose less money.

"The thing with audiences," concludes Linson, "is that they're often right but they're often wrong, even for themselves.

"They may dislike the very thing that they like when it comes out. It might have taken them to a place that upset them and they can't articulate on a piece of paper that they liked it.

"That's why you get people in Hollywood saying, 'How'd that happen? Everybody hated the thing, all we got was 'f*** you' on the cards, and then they go and buy a ticket to see it again'. So if testing is to be used, it's to be used with restraint. You can't make something other than what it is."

• What Just Happened? is released on 26 November.

Test screening – the directors' view


"It drives me craaaazy, but I have to do it because it helps the studio with their marketing and insecurity. I managed to avoid testing on Black Hawk Down because there was absolutely nothing to be gained from everyone and their mother being a f****** expert on it. I was like 'shut the f*** up and just put the film out!' Any film you take in, you're going to get 95,000 experts and right there you're going to get confusion. So it's a means to an end. It's a tool to maybe underscore what you may intuitively be feeling about two or three things. Where it gets chaotic is when you've really f***** up your movie. Which probably means the script is terrible, it's been badly done and they've somehow patched it together and thought 'this is OK.' Then the audience decimates it. That's when you've got to go back to the editing room. Has that happened to me? No. With Blade Runner, because they didn't get it, we were fiddling forever and it was always right. So it just goes to show how much it means."


"I put stock in seeing how a movie plays for 300 people. I don't put a whole lot of stock in focus groups. I don't know a lot of people who do. So the process of watching the backs of 300 people's heads is very valuable. The process of sitting down and asking them how a movie should end? Eh, not so much. On Zodiac we did a screening in New Orleans before we locked the picture and we made a bunch of trims that were basically concessions to the multiplex. Everyone knew we were going to restore that stuff when it went to DVD. It's not radically different, but some of it (such as the excised four-minute audio montage that divides the film in two) caused a lot of anxiety for people in a mall."


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"On Blindness I asked our distributors to pay for some test screenings. It's very expensive, but it's very helpful. There are two rape scenes in the film and during the second one almost 15 per cent of the audience walked out of our first screening in Toronto, so I realised there was something wrong with the film. There was too much, it was out of balance. I trimmed it down and then I did a second test screening in New York and there were only two or three walkouts, so I thought, OK, I can live with that. But it was very helpful, because when you're shooting those kinds of scenes, you rehearse them, you set the camera and then you spend hours cutting it and you begin to lose a bit of perspective. That's why I love test screenings, because you get a fresh audience that knows nothing about the film. You get a fresh perspective and that's all that I care about. It was terrible, though, to be sitting in the middle of the cinema when people started walking out. That was scary and depressing."