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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 "
the market research said."