Last Monday was the first time I put The Movie in front of an audience: thirty friends and colleagues recruited to help figure out whether the film was appropriately funny, dramatic, and comprehensible. (Answers: Yes, Yes, and Not So Much. We’re working on that last part.)
Screening a work-in-progress is just as nerve-wracking as it sounds. Going in, you know the film isn’t perfect. You’re projecting low-resolution video, with temp music, temp visual effects, and bad sound. But it’s a crucial step, because it’s impossible for filmmakers to see their movie with fresh eyes. You need an audience to laugh, gasp or murmur in confusion.
The thirty people who watched the cut were incredibly generous with their time and comments, not only staying afterwards to talk, but also filling out cards and emailing additional thoughts. They made the movie significantly better.
But as great as they were, the fact that they were friends and colleagues was a significant detriment. They had an emotional investment: they wanted to like it. They were also largely film-and-television people, hardly a representative cross-section of the movie-going public.
The obvious next step would be to put The Movie in front of a real recruited audience, i.e. strangers.
But I can’t.
The very same internet that makes this site possible makes a real test screening impossible. Or at the least, a very risky proposition.
Odds are, one or more of those recruited strangers would recognize my name, the producers, or the actors involved and decide it would be a really good idea to write in to Ain’t It Cool News or a site like it. Quite a scoop, after all, reviewing a movie where even the premise has been kept hush-hush.
Reviews of test screenings are frustrating for a big studio like Warner Bros., but they’re potentially ruinous for a little movie like ours. Keep in mind: We don’t have distribution yet. We’re hoping to sell the movie after a festival premiere. So if DrkLOrd79 trashes the movie, that sets a bad tone going in. Almost worse would be if DrkLOrd79 loved it and gushed on for pages. We’ve all experienced the disappointment that follows having our expectations set too high.
The friends and colleagues at last Monday’s screening were chosen for their insight and opinion. But more importantly, they were chosen for their discretion.
With one exception, every movie I’ve written has had a traditional recruited audience screening, with 200 or so demographically-mixed young filmgoers circling numbers with little golf pencils. After every screening, we learned important things which made the film better.
And after every screening, someone posted his thoughts on the Internet. It was annoying, but it was inevitable. For CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, I stayed up until 2 a.m. waiting for the first test screening review to show up. Sure enough, it came.
The one film which didn’t have a traditional test screening was CHARLIE’S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE. It was fear of internet leaks that kept the studio from bringing in a recruited audience. And let me be clear about the cause and effect: Full Throttle was not untested because it was a bad movie.
Full Throttle was a bad movie because it was not tested.
The premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was the first time I saw Full Throttle with a full audience. As the lights went down, there was palpable enthusiasm, and some real residual love for the first movie. By the time the lights came back up, it was pretty clear we really should have done a test screening.
Part of me fears the same could happen with The Movie. Our fear of internet leaks may keep us from giving it the test it deserves. Lord knows, I don’t want the first time I see it with a real audience to be at Sundance or some other festival. So I’m trying to figure out some middle ground, an audience of trustworthy strangers.
As always, suggestions are welcome.