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in Filmmaking
on Aug 10, 2006

Screenwriter John August (Go, Big Fish) has been directing a movie, an indie and his first, and he’s been writing about it on his blog. This week he discusses the dilemma of working within the industry and still trying to audience-test your work:

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….

August goes on to talk about how test screenings have helped his studio movies and how a lack of test screenings has hurt others (“Full Throttle was not untested because it was a bad movie. Full Throttle was a bad movie because it was not tested.) and then asks for advice on how solicit feedback in an leak-crazy world, which you can post to his blog.

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