02 April 2010

Listening to Your Audience

by guest columnist Frederick Marx.  Follow him on Twitter.

I always test screen my film for audiences before releasing it. This might come as a shock to those who connote the market testing of Hollywood movies with the death of auteurist creativity. And in fact, I’m one of them! I think market testing has in fact killed some of the creativity of Hollywood filmmakers. So do I have a double standard? It’s OK for me but not for Hollywood? Maybe. For me the information I collect is always useful. The question is what do you do with it afterwards?

Hollywood studios insist that the audience is king, that whatever the test market audiences say should determine what changes filmmakers make. That’s not true for me. I do listen hard and try to absorb all of what my audiences tell me. It’s important to me and my process to learn from them what’s working for them and what not. But then I pick and choose among the suggestions and determine what actually works best for me, for the film I want to make.

So how do I go about collecting that information? For starters, I design a questionnaire to pass out following each test screening. “What seemed unclear to you in the story? What characters did you like best? What would you like to see more of? Less? When did the movie lose your interest? When did it really grab you?” etc. But I also question people “live” right after the screening so I can compare their responses with each other. Is it just one crank who’s got a problem or was there a concern that 4-5 people share?

I probably screened my rough cut 5 times at test screenings, with 10-30 people each, as I was beginning the drive to the finish line early last year. Then I screened my fine cut about 10 more times at fundraisers, all the while gathering more audience feedback. Even after I finish the film I still like to watch the first 3-4 audiences to see how well the film is working. Then, after the screening, when people offer unsolicited feedback on things they didn’t like in the film, I listen politely… while inwardly groaning. Usually, I can write them off as critics of another, different film, ie., complaining that my film is not the film THEY would’ve made. In fact, their complaints often help to reinforce my notion that I made the film that works best for me. But occasionally I have to admit they’re right – their ideas would’ve made an even better film for me.

While editing and finishing the film I always have a standing list of “changes to be made.” Now I just keep going after it’s finished. Who knows when they might come in handy? Maybe I’ll make those changes in the hour long version for TV…

Those are the direct ways the audience tells you how a film is working. The things they’re conscious of. Here’s a list of the indirect ways, the usually unconscious ways they tell you how your film is working:

Settle time
How long does it take for the audience to really settle in and focus on the film? If I haven’t grabbed them by the end of the first minute something’s wrong.

Squirm time
At what points in the movie are people squirming in their chairs? Their physical discomfort is usually a sign of their mental discomfort with the film. Stillness is golden.

Bathroom time
Are people getting up to go to the bathroom? If so, when? Those moments could be boring parts of the movie, when the suspense drags. A simple test of the audience’s love of the movie is how long they’re willing to hold it. You only want to see people rush out of the theater clutching their crotches during the end credits.

Hopefully, this never happens and nobody ever walks out. Truth be told it happens to the best of us. When exactly? No doubt when the suspense lets up.

The same with people sleeping. 
If you nod off OK, maybe you’ve had a long day. But start snoring during my movie when I’m in the house and I’ll wake your ass up!

How well is the audience tracking the movie? You can usually tell by their responses, especially laughter. I often wait in the theater until the 1st or 2nd lighthearted moment to see whether people react. If I hear at least some chuckling I feel reasonably assured the audience as a whole is tracking the film. Tears are good too.

The objective of course is that from the moment the screen goes dark until the lights come up again nobody moves, everybody stays entirely focused on the screen, and they all laugh and cry at all the right moments. Your audiences will tell you a lot about your film if you’re just willing to listen.

Frederick Marx  is an internationally acclaimed, Oscar and Emmy nominated producer/director with 35 years in the film business.   He was named a Chicago Tribune Artist of the Year for 1994, a 1995 Guggenheim Fellow, and a recipient of a Robert F. Kennedy Special Achievement Award.  His film HOOP DREAMS played in hundreds of theatres nationwide after winning the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and was the first documentary ever chosen to close the New York Film Festival.  It was on over 100 “Ten Best” lists nationwide and was named Best Film of the Year by critics Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, Gene Shalit, and Ken Turran and by the Chicago Film Critics Association. Ebert also named it Best Film of the Decade. It won numerous prestigious awards, including an Academy Nomination (Best Editing), Producer’s Guild, Editor’s Guild (ACE), Peabody Awards, the Prix Italia (Europe’s top documentary prize) and The National Society of Film Critics Award.  The New York, Boston, LA, and San Francisco Film Critics all chose it as Best Documentary, 1994.  Utne Reader named it one of 150 of humanity’s “essential works,” the Library of Congress recently added it to its prestigious National Film Registry and the International Documentary Association named it the Best Documentary Ever.


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