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7.06.2015

PRODUCTION TIPS: Test Screening Your Film + Free Questionnaire Template

I know, I know... Test screenings seem like an idea dreamed up by studio executives as a way to squeeze the artistry and creativity out of a director's movie and torment him with data that confirms his movie is "shit." But believe it or not, while there are many films that have been test screened from potential greatness to mediocrity, many films we love today benefitted from the comments after a test screening (Exhibit A and B). Everything from changing the title to changing the ending is possible after a test screening. While few directors take solace in the brutal feedback a group of strangers may give his baby, the executives want the feedback data to see if the film will have an audience and, as a result, make money.

It's easy to deride test screenings and "fucking hate them" but think of it from the investor's point of view for a minute. Every movie is essentially a new business start-up. And new business start-ups don't have a readymade market waiting to buy their product; they have to find them or build them from scratch. With the rare exception of movie franchises like Indiana Jones or The Avengers or Star Wars, audiences don't know what a typical movie is about or if they'll like it. Therefore, there is no guarantee people will go see the new movie in enough numbers to make money. This is why, for better or worse, so many movies are made about best-selling books and comic books and famous people because they have a built-in audience upon which investors have a better chance of recouping their money from. And even that alone does not solve the problem of appealing to audiences, which is why pretty much all movies get test screened. The test screening is a preview into whether the market for the new "business" exists, whether they will flock to it and if they won't, what can be changed, added or deleted to make them come.

Before the movie is made, marketers rely on past releases to predict how a film with certain elements similar to a past film (story, director, star, budget, genre, etc.) might perform. Throughout the filmmaking process, there are also research data and data analytics put together by research companies based on focus groups, social media tracking, assessments of advertising effectiveness and so on. But when the film is completed, there are no hypothetical ifs or maybes, there is just the film that was made. At that point, the filmmaker can either cross his fingers and just release it nationwide or first conduct a small test screening.

When conducting a test screening, indie filmmakers would do best to avoid filling an audience with friends and relatives. Friends and relatives will be too emotionally invested in giving the filmmaker a good review (even if it doesn't deserve it). Some recommend that even other filmmakers should not be involved in a test screening since they might be too self-interested or technical in their feedback but I don't think it should be a hard rule. A filmmaker or two in a test screening filled with non-filmmaking strangers will not skew the results. Ideally, your test screening audience should be a mix of strangers from different walks of life with a concentration of the type of demo you think would be most attracted to your film (for ex. screen a horror film for an audience of men and women of different races and age groups but with a majority of them being men between ages 18 - 25.)

One thing to worry about with test screenings is the buzz that a negative response after a test screening could create. Babe 2 is proof of that when the negative buzz after the test screening scrapped plans for a Babe 3. But all things are fraught with risk and the helpful feedback and potential positive buzz should outweigh it. Since no filmmaker intentionally tries to make a bad film (even Ed Wood, I think), all a filmmaker can do is create their best work and stand by it. True, it's not easy to get negative feedback but it's part of the game if you are making movies at a certain level. At that level, when it's about making money, both the filmmakers and the film marketer want to know 2 things about the potential audience:
  • Why would a person choose to see that particular film? and 
  • If they didn't want to see it after the screening, what could the filmmaker do to make them want to watch it?
Figuring out those answers and applying them to the movie will be the difference between a blockbuster and a bust.


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FILMMAKERS: Whether you have done multiple test screenings or this is your first time, use the Film Strategy Audience Test Screening Questionnaire for your future test screenings. It's also in the Filmmaker's Toolkit, in the "Marketing" section. It is easy to use. You don't have to use all parts of it but you do have to fill in the relevant info pertaining to your film such as the date, the movie title, the character names, the elements you want reviewed, etc before giving it to your test audience to survey.


Danny Jiminian is a producer and attorney who specializes in Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property, Business Law and Nonprofits and practices out of New York. For a free consultation, email him.

Matter included here or in linked websites may not be current. It is advisable to consult with a competent professional before relying on any written commentary. No attorney client relationship is established by the viewing, use, or communication in any manner through this web site. Nothing on this blog or blog posting is official legal advice; it is just information and opinion. But if you want to, you can visit my professional website and hire me at www.djimlaw.com.


Photo Credit: Roey Ahram (Creative Commons BY NC ND)

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