Billy Wilder on audiences: "Individually, they're idiots. Collectively, they're a genius."
I'm not sure when Hollywood began running test screenings, but I know it goes way back. In 1942, two preview screenings of The Magnificent Ambersons (written and directed by Orson Welles) went over like wet blankets and RKO, the studio, lopped 40 minutes off and re-shot the ending. Likewise, the recent World War Z had a third act that tested poorly and was completely re-written and re-shot. One might conclude not much has changed.
Criticisms aside, there is a scientific method to modern test screenings, which are more often aimed at figuring out how to market the film than how to re-edit it. The two main companies that make a business of running audience-recruitment screenings -- and make no mistake, sample quality is more important than sample size -- are NRG (a division of Nielsen, expensive) and MPG (geared toward indies).
What is the standard format for a test screening?
Rent a theater, show an audience a cut, have them fill out a questionnaire.
Depending on what you want to test, you gather an appropriate audience. If you want to see how the movie plays among suburban soccer moms, you need to get out to the soccer fields and offer free orange wedges.
You can get good and useful opinions from friends and family, but it is hard to know how much bias they bring. You definitely know they bring bias. Sometimes, they over-compensate by hating on your movie much more than the general public. This is a very real phenomenon. The screening companies even try to screen out anyone who works in the film industry. (Although the recruiters they employ don't try too hard, since they are paid based on who shows up to the screenings.)
Any way, I hope you don't need a lot of convincing to imagine that the best test screening audience is one that A) Doesn't know the filmmakers; B) is not a wanna-be filmmaker; C) approximates more or less the type of audience that the actual marketing for the film will pull in.
That last reason is why you'll see screenings advertised as "GENRE starring ACTOR A and ACTOR B about BASIC PLOT DESCRIPTION" -- e.g. A thriller starring Arnold Schwartzenegger and Zach Galifinakis about a father and son trapped in an avalanche.
Free Questionnaire Template
While the screening companies are tight-lipped about their methodology, I've come across a sample questionnaire that looks very similar to ones I've seen at screenings.
You will have to customize it, obviously, to your film and what you'd like to know. John August's favorite test screening question is, "Given a pair of magical scissors, is there anything you’d snip out?"
What are the top two boxes?
The top two boxes are the two "Yes" answers to "Would you recommend this movie to your friends?" I have heard that the rule of thumb is that movie is ready to release when it scores 80 or more on the top two boxes, meaning 80%+ of the audience would recommend it. Word of mouth is still the holy grail for movie marketing.
If your film doesn't manage to score what you wanted with your target audience, then maybe it's time to rethink the film -- or the target audience.
What are the limits of audience testing?
"What is wrong with audience research? It doesn't work. If it worked, there would be no flops." - David Mamet
Audience testing is a guide, but the ultimate artistic decisions to hear or ignore it will determine whether it mauls a masterpiece (as in the supposed case of Magnificent Ambersons) or whether it rescues a turkey (as in the supposed case of World War Z).
'Movie theater' image by Bonita Sarita
Ethan Shaftel is director, writer and editor who has worked with artists like Beyoncé and John Legend. He also makes visually-arresting, mind-bending science fiction films, the latest of which is the short "Flesh Computer". Check out the trailer:
I had a chance to speak with Ethan via email about how he pulled off the complex digital and practical effects you see above. He also talked about recruiting top talent on a low budget and, oh yeah, the philosophy of consciousness. Lots of great info for fellow filmmakers. Enjoy...
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Making the Movie: Where did the idea for "Flesh Computer" come from?
Ethan Shaftel: I had been mulling over two very different concepts for quite some time before I connected them and realized I had the makings for a really cool short.
There was a time when I had fruit flies living in all my potted plants. Since I work at home, I would kill literally dozens of flies every day just by clapping them with my hands and casually brushing their carcasses into the trash. They are so small it didn't even seem gross, I wasn't even aware of "blood and guts" spilling out onto my hands. I couldn't feel their bodies being destroyed. And at some point I realized that my actions would be horrific if the flies were even just a little bit bigger -- if they were puppies, or even small birds, crushing one in my hands would be absolutely disgusting and upsetting.
And the reaction of the creature itself -- the wriggling, the frightened cries, the accelerated heartbeat and struggle to escape -- would make it very clear that it's own death is not something it regards ambivalently. And this is regardless of the mechanism that controls those reactions -- as consciousness is not a given even if the creature flees pain and is driven to survive. The question of how much awareness the fly might have of it's own destruction leads one to think about the fly’s awareness of it's own existence. Which is the connection with the next idea that lead to the short as a whole...
I have long pondered the relationship we have with our electronic belongings, imagining a future where one would care about the welfare of your computer in a much more visceral way, as someone might view the safety of her pet or even her child. So I imagined a parent figure who cares for a computer that is as helpless and alive as a small child or an animal.
Again, the logical next thought is about the awareness or consciousness of the computer itself. The main connection between both these stories is not so much the quality of the consciousness of the various creatures, but just the vast power differential that exists between different pairs of beings: the fly exists as an unimaginably tiny and insignificant thing to the man who carelessly swats it. To a lesser extent, that differential is also found in the various pairs of Owner/Pet, or Parent/Child. The greater of the pair understands the lesser completely, while simultaneously assuming that the lesser has no sense of the richness of existence. Other relationships with power differences presented as contrasts in "Flesh Computer" include the Bully vs the Victim, the Child vs. the Toy, and even the Conscious (in the sense of being awake) vs. the Unconscious -- the person who is simply asleep, and thus unaware and defenseless.
Ultimately "Flesh Computer" is about the concept that everything has a point of view, and in some way everything is conscious. And since that question is so big and so scary and could lead us in so many directions, I decided that the best way to tie together the story of a computer and its caretaker with the story of a fly's death was to get a sense of the "state of the art" in the philosophy of consciousness by weaving in an interview with a philosopher working on the cutting edge.
How long was pre-production vs. the shoot vs. post-production?
Pre-production -- including writing the script from a set of loose notes -- took three months. Production was four days, not counting a couple pickup shots a little later. Post was spread over nine months. Of course, when there is considerable CG work, the distinction between post and production is less clear. The plates for the fly sequence were shot in less than half a day, but that animation work took several months.
What were the challenges in each of these chapters of the process?
It's a musical comedy about an aspiring chef and an aspiring musician who -- and I'm just guessing here -- fall in love. As their kickstarter puts it: MUSIC + FOOD + LOVE = AWESOME.
I spoke with Jenn and Phil via email about the project and their can-do philosophy of movie making. Read on for some great tips on script development, SAG contracts and social media marketing for filmmakers...
Making the Movie: How did the idea for the story of Sweet Nothings arise?
Jenn & Phil: We were shooting a short for USC that starred Jenn and Jason Witter (one of our long time collaborators) as these two sweet, awkward people who had this connection that you never saw in the script and we wanted to see more of them so they became he basis of the Gwen and Jack characters. Jenn really wanted to do a practical musical that was totally original and not a rehash of pop songs. She was obsessed with capturing that moment when you actually try and pursue your dreams.
What got you interested in filmmaking? How did you wind up at this place of trying to raise $50,000 for a film?
Wow. That's a mammoth question. We've both been connected to the arts since we were kids, but Jenn was the performer and Phil was the visual arts guy. We were both obsessed with movies, though Jenn was sheltered and only watched wholesome entertainment. Phil, on the other hand, had a weird dad that let him watch whatever crazy horror and sci-fi he was watching. It warped him in so many interesting ways.
The basis has always been Jenn writes and performs and Phil directs. We've been making work together for nine years and had always been experts out of making something from nothing, but sometimes that mentality can leave your project falling short of your ambition. So, we took a hard look at the script and applied our experience to what we thought we could make this particular movie right and that's our number. Phil thinks people blow so much money on films that he is always quite conservative in filmmaking. But when Jenn finished this script, he knew they could make this on an indie budget. At this level the script HAS to be gold or you're wasting your time and we thought the script was gold.
Jenn goes through a draft and then Phil will give notes on it and we did several readings with specific actors to workshop certain characters and then we did a small reading with five people and finally graduated to a full reading. We will spitball ideas and come up with jokes and then Jenn makes it all work. She's the funny one. Phil is good with structure and grounding the characters.
One of the things your fellow filmmakers would be interested in how you are structuring your crowdfunding campaign. How did you decide on the levels and rewards? How are you getting the word out? (more…)
Also, if you're in the U.S. and looking to get an edge on Oscar voting, 3 of the 5 Documentary nominees are on Netflix streaming and one, 20 Feet from Stardom, is currently a $.99 rental on Amazon.
I can heartily recommend both The Act of Killing and 20 Feet from Stardom.
The foreign film nominees are harder to see, but frontrunners The Great Beauty and The Hunt are at least $4.99 rentals on Amazon and also available on iTunes in selected territories.
Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you'd like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.
Filmmaker Mag: Making a film is like having a child. - The responsibilities continue after birth...
Q. Will this Comcast/Netflix deal harm indie filmmakers? A. Time will tell. Not a very conclusive answer, but accurate.
Q. Why did it happen? A. Looks to me like Netflix read the tea leaves, found net neutrality was going to die a slow death and decided to get a lock in an early sweetheart deal. In return, Comcast has bought out one of the biggest opponents to the merger with Time/Warner Cable. Welcome to the brave new world of pay-for-cable-play.
YOUR WEEKLY WISDOM:
A new goal for myself: make more eye contact with performers and less with screen/paper. #recording
-Audio Craftsman @RandyCoppinger
OLD POSTS UPDATED:
Only Connect: An Interview with Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza - The trailer for his Kickstarter success, Know How, a musical by and starring foster care youth, is now online.
Everything You Wanted To Know About Reel Breaks - Added more information on reel length standards and rules for where to split reels.
I generally liked this movie, especially the winning central performances from Steve Coogan and Judy Dench. I feel like the final payoff -- where Dench's character learns what has happened to her son, could have been far more dramatically powerful. Likewise, Coogan's character's confrontation with the "evil" nun.
The movie tries to have its cake and eat it too on the subject of religion. For those who are believers, Dench's character embodies the "simple faith" that is true to the church. For nonbelievers, Coogan's character represents the incredulity at the sheer ignorance of such people.
I feel like Coogan (as co-screenwriter, with Jeff Pope) cops out gives the believers the "win" in the end of the story. But that could be my own pre-conceived notions that I bring to the story. Or it could just be faithfulness to the true story on which Philomena was based.
In any case, it's nice to see a quality "small" movie get big nomination recognition -- even if it's not the small movie I would have liked.
I guess this movie has divided people. Some feel it is looking down on the simple folk of the Midwest. Some feel it's a loving satire. I guess I would fall in the former camp. If this film was not in the black and white tones of a *serious movie* I doubt anyone would be giving it a second thought. The cinematography is very good and Bruce Dern is very good (although I recently spoke to an 80-year-old woman who did not find his dementia credible).
But the script by Bob Nelson and the directing by Alexander Payne never modulates out of a medium funny mode. I was smirking or frowning, never laughing or crying. Part of this is that, although the characters are mostly believable, the filmmakers can't resist broad comedic touches like having two buffoonish cousins "disguise" themselves in ski masks.
I prefer any of Payne's previous films, even the much-maligned About Schmidt, which at least has an elderly male protagonist who is a hoot to watch and which excavates deeper mines of both pathos and Horatian satire.
When I encounter an odd error message and its solution, I make a note. This is one of those notes. I want solutions to turn up better in searches for other Avid users (and myself). As with all error posts on the site, the casual reader can just skip ahead to other less-technical content.
Trying to export a Tab-Delmited .txt file of a bin full of subclips as I've done many times, I got this error:
"No master clips or subclips were selected or found. Export was aborted."
The fix was simple. I closed the bin and re-opened it. Then I tried File > Export... once more and it worked.
I don't know what I did to produce the error, but I know it wasn't caused by having clips selected or by doing anything unusual with my Set Bin Display... settings.
Work for Avid? Know more about what's going on? Know a better solution? Leave a comment below.
Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you'd like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.
FilmDrunk: Follow-up: The Man Who Killed Another Man For Texting During Previews Before Lone Survivor - This is a sad story. Surprised it is not getting more attention given that other "violence and the media" stories saturate the news.
LATimes: Richard Linklater's 12-year project Boyhood to premiere at Sundance - Super excited about this film. What an epic project!
BuzzFeed: 25 Things You Didn't Know About Fight Club - Well, I knew some of them.
Forbes: Negotiating Dynamic Changes Between Netflix and the Studios - You heard it here first, of course.
Top Rated Films by Location They Were Shot - Created by a Reddit user using IMDb data
YOUR WEEKLY WISDOM:
"Bored by the scene you're writing? Cut away. Maybe cut the whole scene. Get out of there, man." -@jonspaihts
OLD POSTS UPDATED
Free Film Leader Download - made some changes to the files, now improved for v2
As I discussed in the post about film reel breaks in editing, "leader" is the bit of picture that gets attached to front (head) and end (tail) of a film reel to minimize scratching and help tell lab technicians where picture and sound are supposed to begin and end. I made a "universal" leader for a project I'm working on and am releasing it free for use.
Right now these are available to download from the Vimeo account as .mp4 files. I also am trying to figure out the best way to distribute versions as uncompressed TIFF sequences and an Avid bin (.avb) for easy remixes. If you'd like to see that or just want to show appreciation, make a donation.
For help in designing the head leader, I am first of all much indebted to Job ter Berg, the Dutch film editor who has made an excellent Academy/SMPTE/Framecounting countdown as a free download. I also looked over the official SMPTE Universal Leader specs (PDF) and a couple of examples provided to me by AE (assistant editor) friends.
For the Tail Leader, I modeled after a version titled "SAA Universal Leader" that's floating around the editing community. Near as I can Google, I'm guessing it is from the Society of American Archivists. It only runs 6 seconds, but I padded out my version to eight seconds for symmetry between the head and tail. For a 6-second tail, you can easily crop the last two seconds, and end on the frame labeled "6 END 6". Some places like even more tail leader. Soundelux asks for 20 seconds of tail leader. You can always extend with black slug or one of the "END OF REEL" frames.
Disclaimer: I don't pretend to know the function of many aspects of these elements. For example: I know the C F C F in the last frames of the 4-count are Control Frames but what they control, I know not.
Are you a lab technician who knows what all that's about? A filmmaker with requests for alternate versions? An expert who wants to tell me all the formatting mistakes I made? Leave a comment below.