Test Screenings

15 12 2008

John August, the screenwriter and blogger who is an incredible resource to the online film community, has a post about putting together a test screening questionnaire. I’ll let you go away and read it.

My response:

Three caveats on the questionnaire:

  1. First, don’t be surprised when the scenes that appear on the “scenes I liked most” list, also show up on the “scenes I liked least” list. It happens every time and, in a funny sort of way, means that you’re pushing some buttons. Not a bad thing.
  2. Second, be very very careful how you ask the question about things that concern you (this is especially true in the those awful focus groups after the screenings). As soon as you ask whether the audience had a problem with something, you’ve called it out to them and they start responding to perceived problems, even if they didn’t feel them. If you have an issue with the music in your film, don’t ask about the music, ask if there were things that contributed to the audience’s enjoyment or lack of enjoyment of the film.  You get the idea. As soon as you give them a pencil, they all think they’re Roger Ebert.
  3. And, finally, be very very careful about what changes you make as a result of the questionnaires. Too many people use it to justify something they’ve wanted to do all along, and others use it as a cudgel to beat someone over the head. Each audience is different and each person in each audience is different. Take everything as information, not as marching orders.

That having been said, I’ve often learned a lot about the films I’ve worked on through test screenings.  There was a screening of the film HAIR, on which I was an assistant editor and assistant music editor to the incredibly talented John Strauss, for which we got a comment that the viewer “liked the scene with Claude’s sister.” The problem was that the John Savage character didn’t have a sister in the film — the person was referring to Beverly D’Angelo’s character, Sheila.

What was obvious to us at that point was that at least one person hadn’t realized the relationship that these people really had in the film. And that was important to us.

So, we did a few questions in that focus group trying to discover if others had that perception — asking who else liked his sister, how they felt about his sister, did they like what happened to his sister at the end (well, we didn’t do it that obviously, but you get the idea). And, lo and behold, we found that most people understood that the two weren’t related but a few didn’t.

We fixed it in the next cut.


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