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How Audience Testing Works

After the Audience Screening
Tom Cruise reportedly crashed a test screening of 'Mission: Impossible II,' ensuring over-the-top scores from the audience.
Tom Cruise reportedly crashed a test screening of 'Mission: Impossible II,' ensuring over-the-top scores from the audience.
Kai Danneberg/GC Images

After the preview is finished and the feedback cards collected, the screening company combs the audience for members who fit their ideal target age and gender groups. They're invited to participate in smaller focus groups, which are also recorded and watched by the bigwigs. During these sessions, people have the opportunity to elaborate on their impressions of the film in a more in-depth manner than the handwritten Q&A form.

Previews aren't just about forms and focus groups, however. Occasionally, a bit of excitement livens things up! Roberts says the Hollywood legend that Tom Cruise crashed the test screening for "Mission: Impossible II" is true – his friend was there. "I heard that showed up, ran up to the front of the theater, gave audience members high fives and told everyone to enjoy the movie," he says. "Well, that pretty much turned it into a waste of however much money the preview cost. The movie scored through the roof, of course, and it was because everyone got to see Tom Cruise." Well played, Mr. Cruise. Well played.

The scores are in and the feedback's been analyzed. How's a filmmaker to proceed with this criticism? "Usually when there is a preview the filmmakers will have specific things they are testing, and those are the things they will change if that's what the feedback dictates," Robert explains. "If a random audience starts giving their opinion on other aspects of the film, it will kind of get chalked up as criticism, plus there might not be anything they can do to accommodate the other requests."

Some input can be addressed if the producers feel that there's merit to the claim. The popular James Bond film "License to Kill" was renamed after test screening feedback indicated that American viewers confused the original title ("License Revoked") with driving [source: Radford]. Occasionally, the ball will bounce in favor of an actor, as was the case for Rupert Everett's in "My Best Friend's Wedding." His character scored so well with previewers that filmmakers actually had him shoot additional scenes to make him a more prominent part of the movie [source: Goldstein]. More often, however, the resulting changes are more realistic and affect pace, plot clarifications and so on.

Opinions about the practice of test screenings vary widely in the industry, but I say keep it going – a little constructive criticism never hurt anybody. But releasing a film without any input? That can turn into a "Glitter"-esque catastrophe in a hurry.