How test audiences shaped the movies we love

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The original cut of “La La Land” had no music or singing for the first 12 minutes. The reaction from a test audience changed that. Photo courtesy of Pictorial Press Ltd.

There’s a part of the filmmaking process that rarely gets discussed yet often determines if a movie is a flop of a hit: the audience focus group.

In his book, “Audience-ology: How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love,” Kevin Goetz reveals one of the most unknown places in Hollywood. He says it’s a place where “famous directors are reduced to tears and multi-millionaire actors to fits of rage.” 


Kevin Goetz and his firm, Screen Engine/ASI, conduct about 10 film screenings a week, both virtually and in person. Photo by David Blank.

His firm, Screen Engine/ASI, has been conducting focus group research screenings for 30 years, handling a majority of the films widely released in America and around the world, from “Forrest Gump” to “Ice Age.”

The book chronicles how real people have written and rewritten America’s cinematic masterpieces by showing up, watching a rough cut of a new film, and giving their unfettered opinions so that directors and studios can salvage their blunders, or better yet, turn their movies into blockbusters and classics.

“These massively creative people essentially are giving birth to their children, their works of art, for the first time,” he says. “So for your baby to be judged for the first time, and then [it] turns out, maybe they [the audience] don't enjoy it, or they're not seeing it in the way that the filmmaker intended it, that is a very scary notion for a creative person.”

That’s where Goetz comes in. He compares his method to that of a doctor.

“I have to give the prognosis and prescriptive orders of, ‘Look, if you don't make these changes, if you don't fix the ending, if you don't clear up these massive confusions, your child is not going to make it.’”

For example, test audiences told director Adam McKay not to kill the dog, Baxter, in “Anchorman.” Actor Jack Black kicks the dog off a bridge, but due to audience feedback, Baxter is later shown emerging from the water, somehow completely unharmed.

And the rough cut of “La La Land” didn’t open with the six-minute dance number on an LA freeway overpass. That scene was left on the cutting room floor, but test audiences brought it back.

During the pandemic, Goetz says his company invented a platform in which filmmakers could watch people viewing their movie online live. But there are still filmmakers who want to feel and sense the audience in person, and in-person test audiences are coming back. 

Goetz adds that new technologies are creating even more opportunities for data and feedback. His company is now measuring facial recognition, pulse rate, and galvanic skin response to pinpoint emotional responses audience members may be reluctant or unable to put into words during discussion groups.

Credits

Guest:

  • Kevin Goetz - Author and founder of Screen Engine/ASI