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Previews & Test Markets

Your project is completed. Take a deep breath. You’ve earned it. Of course, this still doesn’t mean the work is done. People who aren’t inside the production bubble need to see it. For artists, the first test screenings can be horribly stressful and pain inducing. But you need an objective audience. And while you can’t change something like your lead actor being a talentless hack based on viewer feedback, you can re-order shots, cut scenes that don’t work or adjust the audio quality. Well, you can also lock yourself in the bathroom and cry. Before you do that, remember that even if the early viewers don’t love your project…nobody knows anything.

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Doing a Screening Right

There’s no real point in doing a test screening just to hear the viewers mumble to themselves on the way out the door. Make a questionnaire with specific questions. “Did you like this?” might be what you really want to know, but the answers you get won’t be incredibly helpful. If you’re lucky enough to have multiple test viewings, divide your audiences up based on their relationship to the project. Are they friends and family? Are they industry professionals who read the script? Are they drunken frat boys who thought there would be free booze and strippers? You’ll want to keep all these in mind when evaluating the responses. Sometimes you can even tailor your test audience to the material. If your project is about a narcotics detective busting up a drug ring, have a test screening for cops. Or if your social network skews in the other direction, have a screening for drug dealers (and maybe the cops will show up). While there are some obvious biases in these types of test audiences, you’ll also get the benefit of lived experience.

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Being Objective While Keeping a Backbone

Once upon a time, there were things like “The Godfather” and “I Love Lucy” that basically everybody loved. Not everyone is going to instantly appreciate the beauty and charm of your project, especially not in a test screening. This is in fact why you are having a TEST screening before actually releasing to a worldwide audience. Based on the responses, there’s still time to play around with the sound, the music and even the scenes. Maybe there’s a line you think is the greatest piece of comedy in a generation, but doesn’t seem to get a single laugh. Is there a better shot, take or audio you can use? Do you need to go for additional ADR? Or is it only funny to you? There can in fact be aspects of your project that you adore, but just don’t work for whatever reason. Don’t be afraid to cut your darlings, to update a line from William Faulkner. At the same time, sometimes test audiences are too small or insulated a sample. You don’t want to tear the beating heart out of your story because a bunch of strangers didn’t understand the artistic statement, even – or especially – if they have a background in media. There are countless documented cases of studio executives re-editing films for the worse based on a few test screenings. If you ever wondered why the original version of “Blade Runner” ended with a sunny road trip that looked suspiciously like the opening of “The Shining,” it’s because they added that footage to put a nice cherry on top of Ridley Scott’s dark vision of humanity in a technological dystopia. Sometimes, test audiences are just plain wrong.

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