What if E.T. died?
Test audiences have profound effect on movies
Web posted on: Monday, September 28, 1998 3:00:35 PM
A NewsStand: CNN & Entertainment Weekly Report
HOLLYWOOD (CNN) -- What if E.T. hadn't made it home, or Richard Gere had failed to come back for his pretty woman, Julia Roberts? Believe it or not, in the original versions of these films, E.T. died on American soil and it was Roberts who rejected Gere at the end of "Pretty Woman."
So who changed these potential misses into hits? It wasn't the producers or the writers who prevailed for change -- it was the moviegoers. In what may be Hollywood's last and most closely guarded secret, the test audience is having a profound effect on the movies you watch.
Want some examples?
In the original version of last year's hit "My Best Friend's Wedding," Rupert Everett had a minor role as Julia Roberts' gay best friend.
But test audiences wanted more. So the ending was scrapped, the set rebuilt, and Everett's character came back for one final appearance.
That's what can happen if test audiences love you. But what if they loathe you?
Ask Glenn Close. In the 1987 thriller "Fatal Attraction," test audiences so despised Close's character that they became responsible for having her killed off in the end.
Music, endings, even character development can be radically altered as a result of audience research.
"People want to have the backing of something that seems quantifiable and scientific in a field that is basically neither of those things," says Andrew Hinds, senior editor of Variety.
Audience testing is the movie studios' way of hedging their bets. Although it's been around for a long time, it has never been a completely reliable process.
In 1939, test audiences for "The Wizard of Oz" felt that the now-classic scene in which Judy Garland sings "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" slowed down the action. Somehow, the songwriters prevailed, and the song stayed put.
When "E.T." was tested, audiences hated it. But it went on to become the second-highest grossing film of all time.
Love it, hate it
"It's a process that I don't believe in," says director Robert Altman. "And I don't think it's correct for my kind of films."
Altman's kind of films, 35 in all, include "Nashville," "The Player," and "M*A*S*H." His films have never made big money, but they've always had a loyal following.
But with Altman's most recent film, "Gingerbread Man," he found himself in a classic collision of art and commerce. He believes people in focus groups feel obligated to look for problems.
"Many of these people are professional critics," he laments.
But there are other filmmakers who feel audience research can provide helpful feedback. Director Ron Howard and his partner, producer Brian Grazer, are responsible for hits like "Far and Away," "Ransom," and "Apollo 13."
"What I would hate to do is put the movie out there, find out that the audience is confused about something or upset about something that you could have fixed, and go, 'God, I had no idea they'd respond that way,'" says Howard.
Grazer and Howard were dealt one surprise when they tested the 1989 film "Parenthood."
"The audience told us there was too much vulgarity in the movie," Grasier says. "We took out a lot of the vulgarity. The scores went up, made us feel better, the movie played better. It didn't offend anybody."
So how does the process work?
First, test audiences are recruited from movie lines. Real estate developer Tina Baker is a veteran of the testing process, with 25 screenings under her belt.
"They're always offering them, so it's a free movie," Baker says. "You might as well see it before everybody else does."
The audience sees the film for free. Afterwards, each participant fills out a survey.
"It has a lot of questions, what you thought of the film, what five things you liked best, what five things you liked least, which scenes you liked the most, which characters you identified with," Baker says.
Some members of the audience are asked to join a smaller discussion, known as a focus group. There, the process works basically the same way.
"There was a facilitator," says Robert Kessler of a focus group he attended. "And he basically asked people to comment on whether they liked or disliked certain characters, whether you thought certain things should have been more developed, less developed, et cetera."
'A huge amount of money'
At the end of the process, the studios treat the research as valuable inside information, and they guard it zealously.
National Research Group is the organization responsible for the majority of audience testing in Hollywood. They refused to talk to Entertainment Weekly when it researched this report. And so did many of the studios who hire NRG: Miramax, Warner Brothers, Paramount, PolyGram, Universal.
"There's a huge amount of money at stake," says Hinds. "And there are also, probably more importantly, a lot of careers at stake."
Studios use some of this information to market their films. But studios also use research as a mandate for creative change.
PolyGram scheduled three test screenings for Altman's "Gingerbread Man." And each time, audiences said the gothic thriller wasn't thrilling enough.
Altman made changes each of the three times. Each time, the low scores stayed essentially the same. Frustrated, PolyGram took the film away from Altman, replaced his editor, and re-cut it their way.
"They tested it. And it tested a little more poorly than ours had," recalls Altman. "So they then gave it back to me with -- they said, 'Now here's some things we think you should do.'"
"And I said, 'No. You either give this film back to me, or you don't.' I said, 'I've gone through that, I've gone through all this collaboration process.' And they gave it back to me, and I finished the film and delivered it to them."
In January, the Altman-edited version was released in two markets, Los Angeles and New York. Critics praised the film, and it seemed it might do well.
On opening weekend, showing at just eight screens, the movie took in $118,000 at the box office, which is pretty good for such a small release. But when it came time to roll out the movie nationwide, Altman says that because he publicly vented his anger about the research process, PolyGram held the film back and did not promote it properly.
PolyGram refused a request for an interview, but did tell us that the low test scores indicated that "Gingerbread Man" just wasn't a good film.
So why do filmmakers like Howard and Grazer feel they get so much out of this controversial process? In part, because they're in the enviable position of having artistic control -- they make the final cut on their films.
"It's much easier to embrace the whole testing process when you know that you ultimately control the final cut on your movies," says Howard. "But it's frightening if you're in a position where you're going to show the movie at a preview and somebody else is going to take the results of that preview and re-cut the film based on that, maybe consulting you or maybe not. That's terrifying."
But even for directors with final approval, testing can shatter your confidence.
"Brutal, hideous," says Howard of the testing process. "I mean, the whole preview experience is not fun. Even when it's going well, it's not fun. You never want to be proven to be mistaken about anything."
And it's even harder for filmmakers who believe their artistic vision is being compromised.
"I just think it's wrong and destructive," says Altman. "I edit my film, and I take it out to people, and they can make the final judgment.
And in the end, it is the audience who makes the judgment.
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