Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Tip #90: Have a test audience screening

By Dan Parkes (Director/editor)

As filmmakers sometimes we get too close to the film to be able to be objective about whether things are really working or not. In the previous blog we looked at how some films can have various cuts as director's attempt to rectify issues. We also listed some critical factors to look for when deciding on that final cut. But an even better method is to test your film on an actual 'virgin' audience before deciding on a finished cut.

The wrong audience
Of course it is very easy to just show it to those who were involved in the making -the cast and crew- as they are no doubt eager to have some input. While this can be a good idea, they will all suffer from that lack of objectivity that will prejudice any feedback.

They already know the story. They may have seen a lot of it being filmed and know the difficulties and issues already. Many actors do not like seeing themselves on screen, and crew such as sound recordists and cinematographers may well be very critical of their work or the way it has been represented as their reputation is at stake. Their input is all worth considering but may not be entirely helpful. Conversely, family and friends may be aware of the sacrifices you have made and so will not be as critical as you would like them to be.

The right audience
What you really need is a cross section of people who are seeing the film for the very first time -without knowledge of how it begins or ends and without any emotional connections or involved in its making. You want them to be as honest about the experience as possible. But make sure this cross section is your target audience, the correct age group especially, those who would watch this kind of film by choice, otherwise you are only asking for a negative reaction.

Word of caution
Everyone has a point-of-view and everyone is their own film critic ready and able to tell you how much better it could have been. But they may have no knowledge of the limitations or even how films are made. Unless you find a very serious issue, do you have the time and money to reshoot a scene, or write in another scene, or rerecord the music? Tailor the feedback to be more specific, to things which can be practically done to improve the film.

There is also a political and psychological factor to think about: if someone is asked to state an opinion or comment on someone's work there is sometimes a need to justify their involvement or credibility by making a point -even it if is not required or worthy. Especially is this the case when those being asked to comment are employees of a company or part of a committee -they will consciously or unconsciously want to justify their position by finding something wrong. Simply stating that it seems fine would not seem enough.

That is why some test audience's have "focus groups" which will hopefully pinpoint more specific and practical areas of improvement from a collective point of view. But beware of the proverbial "focus group endings" which have spoilt many a film due to an apparent yearning for a Hollywood conclusion!

A case in point: A focus group that watched Wolfgang Petersen's Troy (2004) apparently did not like the dramatic score by Greek composer Gabriel Yared (above). Despite the director and composer having worked hard together on it, the studio, based on the focus group's reaction, rejected the score and James Horner was brought in with only two weeks to create a replacement score. When the film was released the general consensus among many was that the film would have been much better with Gabriel Yared's version, and that it suffered overall as a consequence (although not the only reason it did so).

In the case of Ambleton Delight we arranged several test screenings. However the most important screening we organised encountered an unresolvable technical issue with the sound which meant it had to be cancelled at the last minute, a missed opportunity and embarrassing situation which I will forever regret, and which left us very little time to make adjustments prior to the premiere. In the end the premiere and festival screenings brought enough feedback which we used to create the final version of the film.

Test audiences are not always right...but they are an important part of post-production and you should employ suggestions when and if practical. But remember to not loose your artistic integrity.

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