..Gary Dretzka
Noah Forrest
..Leonard Klady
..David Poland
..Douglas Pratt
..Ray Pride
..Kim Voynar
..Michael Wilmington

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January 1, 2003


… to Buy a Fat Pig

In the annals of Farmer's Market research, this yarn is definitely one for the books. One morning in the fall of 1990, filmmaker Brian DePalma arrived for breakfast and greeted Market regular Paul Mazursky with a query about Disney's decision to postpone the release of Mazursky's upcoming movie. A rather vague story had appeared in the trades the prior week announcing that Scenes from a Mall would open in early 1991 rather than in the fall of 1990.

It was clear that Mazursky had been exhausted by the process of finishing the comedy with Woody Allen and Bette Midler, screening and test screening it, tweaking it and arguing the finer points with senior production executives at the studio. He let out a sigh and told DePalma and the table that the film had scored well with audiences. It was testing in the high 70s but the folks at the studio wanted it to score in the 80s.

When he finished, DePalma let out a hardy cackle (he has a very distinctive laugh) and when he recovered said, "you're lucky." He went on to explain that his new picture, according to the marketing people at Warner Bros., had scored the lowest of any major release in the studio's history. He said it tested at about 55% and didn't see how any amount of tinkering would ever significantly boost audience response. Though likely tinged with hyperbole, that picture was the subsequently infamous Bonfire of the Vanities.

But let's back up a bit. Dating back to the 1930s, it's been common practice for the majors to preview upcoming movies with test audiences prior to a commercial release. Frank Capra claimed (likely a bit of hyperbole) that following a poorly received test screening of Lost Horizon, he incinerated the first two reels of the film and turned a catastrophe into a popular hit.

However, the most famous Hollywood quote about what the moviegoing audience wants remains the one credited to Harry Cohn who apparently said something like "if my ass twitches, there's something wrong with the picture." It prompted the Herman Mankiewicz rejoinder: "imagine the whole world wired to Harry Cohn's ass."

In its simplest form, a film is screened on a preview basis for an audience and following the showing individuals are asked to respond by ticking off a box on a printed form. The ideal is to have people respond with a definite recommend. The piece of paper might have five boxes that diminish down to definitely not recommend and the way the industry zeros in on the screening results is to take aim on the top two boxes. So, you will hear that a picture scored 76% in the top two boxes. There's even an urban legend that the 1989 dance film Tap with Gregory Hines scored 100% and while co-producer Gary Adelson confirmed it, he also acknowledged that the screening took place for a highly receptive crowd in Harlem.

The process itself of screening an early cut of a film for Joe Public can also be a bit of an ass. If you live in Southern California and go to the movies on a regular basis, you've likely been solicited at some time while standing on line to be part of a recruited audience for an upcoming movie from a major studio. Recruiters are invariably awkward students trying to meet age, race and gender quotas and desperately trying to qualify people that don't quite fit into the square pegs (motion picture employees should be immediate terminates). Sometimes the invitation is a blank form but generally one is told something as an incentive such as the genre or cast and the savvy can figure the rest by doing an Internet search.

It would be hard to imagine a filmmaker or studio executive that didn't appreciate the potential value of these type of previews. It's as close as the movies get to the out-of-town tryout for a Broadway play and has from time to time salvaged troubled pictures.

Contractually, most directors have the option of two preview screenings and by the very nature of the business the impetus is to register high in the top two boxes. Though producers and studios have used the excuse of low scores to force changes in the release version, it's not uncommon for the power player to toss out all the research a la Harry Cohen and let his kiester do the talking. Few in the upper echelons truly appreciate the value of market research and, because of a history to manipulate the data to suit the client in the industry, it's been perceived as having incredible elasticity.

Most filmmakers who have commented on the experience of the sneak preview say that the audience is very informative to their process. Robert Downey Sr. says he likes to sit off to the side near the front of the auditorium (as opposed to the traditional back of the theater position) and watch the audience. Regardless, it doesn't take a genius to figure out if the viewer is laughing at the jokes or responding to the horror or drama on screen. You want their attention - not the tell-tale sounds of restlessness.

DePalma says he's happy to go to previews. But he draws the line at staying on for the focus group.

The focus group is, depending on the source, the logical or absurd extension of the preview screening. Following the end credit scroll, part of the recruited crowd (generally no more than 25) is asked to stay behind and discuss the movie verbally and/or on paper. There are a number of reasons why many filmmakers deplore this form of market research. Even those that promote it as a valuable tool in their process tend to work in qualifiers.

What detractors point to most often is the manner in which an individual is asked to become an armchair critic. They understand that people's response as they leave the theater is a pretty good gauge to whether the movie gets a thumbs up or thumbs down. However, very often someone cannot tell you much more than he liked it. The response is emotional and visceral because the majority of the audience is neither trained nor interested in breaking down the film analytically. It's not why they go to the movies and when asked to switch hats, some cannot handle the momentary power.

Giving voice to the inarticulate is no mean feat. The market research firm may have to concoct a method to provide insight along with the data. That addition comes at a premium but it has served to sooth the needs of the marketers as well as the studio executives looking for tools and ammunition to support their views. The focus group may be asked about "favorite" scenes or characters and for many that's the "when did you stop beating your wife" question. That is it's leading the audience in the direction that suits the people asking the questions.

Preview screenings and focus groups are an important part of the market research tools employed by studios. It can optimally identify fixable problems. A producer once took a very hard stand on the process and insisted there was only one valid question for the preview hordes: What didn't make sense?

Of course, the whole process can also backfire. There is an intrinsic dilemma in doing this market research in the Greater Los Angeles area rather than flying out to Omaha, Seattle or Miami. Not only is the L.A. crowd connected (even figuratively) to the industry, its very proximity makes it virtually impossible to keep results confidential. Even before the advent of Aint It Cool News, members of the press kept vigil on test screenings and eagerly noted when pictures laid a goose eggs in previews. It came to a crashing head when one scribe wrote about catastrophic response to an early look at The Last Action Hero and Sony Pictures returned fire that the screening in question in fact involved an entirely different picture.

But perhaps the worst victim of early buzz was James L. Brooks' I'll Do Anything, originally conceived as a stylistically novel musical. Because the film had to be screened with its original soundtrack, Brooks could not do previews much beyond the city limits and tie up the negative for two to three days. Brooks, who is an adherent of market research, settled on a theater in the San Fernando Valley and screened a version that included sequences he sensed would not work as a barometer for the testing. They indeed fell flat with the audience but the fallout included negative reports from the trade papers and the Los Angeles Times. He could not staunch the flow of bad press and retreated to the presumably safe position of removing all the singing sequences. Rumors persist that the experience was a stinging experience and that he remains unconvinced about including the musical version on DVD.

Previews and focus groups are simply one part of market research. The companies employed by the studios might also test a film's title and will certainly put a picture's trailer and print campaign through their process of scrutiny. There are tracking studies that gauge awareness and interest and other yardsticks meant to be predictive of a film's appeal and ultimate box office.

But here's the big secret about market research for the film industry: it has a higher statistical margin of error factor than any other product. One might jump to the conclusion that because people tend to respond emotionally rather than on the basis of quality or taste, that this warps the possibility of collecting accurate, informative data about a movie. And while this is a contributing factor to skewering results, it isn't the most demonizing to the process.

Consider any other product. Compare, for instance, selecting a movie to buying a car. Aside from the obvious cost differences, there is the fungible nature of putting down $10 or $20 to be diverted for a couple of hours in relation to acquiring something most people will use daily for several years. In most instances the former is a discretionary expense and the latter is a necessity. The delicacies of the situation are even more revealing. In selecting a film, the cost is relatively the same whether what you are going to view was made for $1 million or $100 million. In choosing an automobile, the price tag, anomalies aside, is directly related to the manufacturing cost.

Even contrasting a movie ticket to buying a detergent reveals subtle differences. While the costs are more comparable and uniform, the selection process is quite another matter. In the case of the cleaner, one's options range across a field that tends to be consistent. However, a movie's shelf life is fleeting and the options at a multiplex change every week. A horror film entering the marketplace may have tested well in previews, served up a compelling trailer and ad campaign and generated positive media response. Still its fate can change significantly by factors that were not part of the laboratory testing like the fact that two or three other horror movies are simultaneously in theaters. That might be an asset if the earlier films were satisfying to that audience or it might hamper business because the thirst for that type of movie has slaked.

Finally there are two major factors that contribute to limiting the effectiveness of market research in the film industry. The first is simply time. Even the best, most considered approach to presenting a movie can be misjudged and the possibility of adroitly shifting gears to Plan B only works in theory. But even if there were second chances for films, an appreciation for market research on the executive level is missing. For some it is no more than an excuse that starts off with "I don't understand" and ends with "… but the market research said."

- by Leonard Klady

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