How Audience Testing Works

By: Alia Hoyt
In the film 'Pretty in Pink,' Andie (Molly Ringwald) was originally supposed to end up with Duckie (Jon Cryer, L) but test audiences were rooting for her to get with the more handsome Blaine (Andrew McCarthy, R). The audience prevailed.
Paramount/Getty Images

Have you ever looked at something for so long that everything starts to blend, totally messing with your perspective? Much as my editor critiques my work, filmmakers also need outside opinions to call attention to the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of movies, often turning to audience testing to gain this critical input.

In fact, mega-hits like "Fatal Attraction," "E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial," "Pretty in Pink" and "Pretty Woman" were all seriously altered following audience testing [source: Bay]. Now, I liked Duckie just as much as the next gal, but the test audience accurately recognized that he was firmly entrenched in the zero chemistry friend zone, strongly suggesting instead that Ms. Ringwald's character should be with oh-so-dreamy Blaine [source: Shewfelt]. Other movies, like "Seven" and "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" were tested, with the feedback totally ignored to mixed results -- "Seven" still hit box office gold while the "Charlie's Angels" sequel lost money domestically [source: Radford].


Back in 2005, my cousin Dave had the pleasure of being part of the test audience for a little film called "Wedding Crashers." The producers were understandably a bit skittish about the raunchy nature of the film and needed audience input to soothe their concerns. "The big question at the preview was if they should keep in the nudity and bad language and have an R rating, or if they should tone it down to PG-13," Dave recalls. "The audience said it was so funny they would be killing it to take that stuff out."

In fact, the testing, or "preview" went so well that the film opening was delayed six months to go after the big summertime box-office dollars. The move paid off handsomely for the film, which grossed more than $285 million worldwide, far exceeding the comparatively paltry $40 million production budget [source: Box Office Mojo]. Not too shabby for a couple of guys with nothing better to do than try to score free booze, food and lovin'.

This practice has been around for decades – 1939's "The Wizard of Oz" was test-screened – but many filmmakers don't bother, including director Christopher Nolan ("Man of Steel;" "The Dark Night") [source: Radford]. As was the case with "Wedding Crashers," comedies benefit from testing more than other genres, with test screenings typically offering multiple alternate endings and jokes of different levels. "They will add a raunchy joke or another risky move and see how the audience reacts to it," explains Jack Roberts*, an insider with a major Hollywood studio. "Put it in front of a real audience and you'll know if it goes too far or not."

*Name withheld.


The Movie Testing Process

With ticket prices what they are these days, it's no wonder many people jump at the chance to participate in free test screenings. Because many of the filmmakers and other powers-that-be are heavily involved in the screening process, these events typically take place in theaters nearby where they are being produced (read: areas near Los Angeles). Still, they do pop up in other locations; you just have to know where to look. According to Roberts, most studios employ an outside firm to recruit audience members and run the event (introduction, passing out questionnaires and crowd management). Studios fork over millions of dollars per year for such services [source: Eller]. The company has many methods for gathering participants, sometimes setting up promotions or sign-ups at local movie theaters and shopping malls. In general, the target age for screening audience members is 18-34, because most moviegoers fall within that age range, although it's not always a hard and fast rule [source: Bobbitt]. In fact, a film that is geared toward baby boomers will likely feature a test audience in that age range [source: Ott].

Elsewhere, the editing crew feverishly completes the rough cut of the movie. "Preview screenings represent the most stressful and hard-working times at my job," explains Roberts, a first assistant editor who emphasizes the importance of temporary effects and music on the unfinished product. "We are usually up all night getting the cut together." Once the rough representation is complete, select crew members (usually the first assistant editor and post-production supervisor) travel to the theater, set everything up and do a full run-through to ensure that everything looks and sounds the way it's supposed to.


Right before the film starts, a moderator introduces the movie and advises the audience of a few things, namely that the visual and sound effects have not yet been perfected and that other minor blemishes will pepper the film. In other words, he reminds them that the final piece will be more polished prior to wide release, so don't take that into account. Once the preliminaries are complete, the curtain goes up – and it's time for the film to sink or swim.

It's Showtime!

Test audiences felt Judy Garland singing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' slowed down the action in 'The Wizard of Oz.' Luckily, the song was kept in.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

Once the test screening begins, it's just like any other movie-going experience -- except of course for the fact that many of the filmmakers, producers and even stars are typically present. "The screenings are filmed so that the producers and all the filmmakers can go back and re-watch the audience reactions to the various scenes in the movie, see which jokes landed and which didn't, and how the audience reacted to different parts," explains insider Roberts. In essence, they like to be there in the flesh for initial impressions, and then analyze the hits and misses later on, ad nauseam.

After the credits have rolled, all audience members receive a list of questions that must be answered before exiting stage left. Each card asks for opinions that can give the filmmakers a better idea about the movie's pace, clarity of the plot and other general input, such as the best and worst moments of the film. Because word of mouth is critical to the success of any film, filmmakers place extra value on whether or not audience members would be likely to recommend the movie to their friends.


"If a hundred people see the movie and 90 of them say that they would definitely recommend the movie to a friend then the movie gets a score of a 90," says Roberts. "If they answer with anything other than a 'definitely recommend' it doesn't count towards the score." Although each film and studio is different, on average a score of 80 means that a film is ready for public enjoyment [source: Ott]. I guess this leaves us outsiders to deduce that mega-flops like "Glitter," "Transcendence" and "Sex Tape" either a) weren't previewed at all, or b) were previewed by people with frighteningly low standards or were on some sort of heavy cold medication at the time.

Or just perhaps, the directors ignored the feedback, thinking they knew better. Sometimes they do. Incredibly, test audiences for "The Wizard of Oz" felt the scene where Judy Garland sings "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" slowed down the action. Fortunately, the producers and director fought to keep the song in and it won an Academy Award as well as became a signature tune for Garland [source: Bay].


After the Audience Screening

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 [Cruise] 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.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Audience Testing Works

I appreciate the idea and value of audience testing, but much like political polling and the Nielsen rating system, no one ever seems to ask me what I think! C'mon producers – show a Georgia girl some love with tickets to the preview of "Magic Mike – XXL," why dontcha? I promise I won't catcall Channing Tatum ... too much.

Related Articles

  • Bay, Willow. "What if E.T. died?" CNN. 2000 (Jan. 13, 2015)
  • Bobbitt, Mike. "I Am a Reluctant Test Audience." Off The Mike. July 18, 2014 (Jan. 13, 2015)
  • Box Office Mojo. "Wedding Crashers." 2015 (Jan. 13, 2015)
  • Eller, Claudia. "Influential Movie Market Researcher Quits His Post." Los Angeles Times. Sept. 20, 2002 (Jan. 14, 2015)
  • Goldstein, Patrick. "How One Actor Changed A Movie Before It Even Came Out." Los Angeles Times. June 23, 1997 (Jan. 14, 2015)
  • Ott, John. "All About Movie Test Screenings (With Free Questionnaire Download)." Making the Movie (Jan. 14, 2015)
  • Radford, Ivan. "Give them what they want..." The Guardian. Aug. 20, 2008 (Jan. 12, 2015)
  • Roberts, Jack* (name withheld). Interview via email. Jan. 12-14, 2015.
  • Shewfelt, Raechal Leone. "Molly Ringwald and John Cryer Disagree About Whether Duckie From 'Pretty in Pink' Was Gay." Yahoo! Celebrity. May 24, 2012 (Jan. 14, 2015)
  • Vejvoda, Jim. "The Biggest Box Office Flops of 2014." IGN. Dec. 30, 2014 (Jan. 15, 2015)