RTF Hard Look: ‘Do Test Screening Results For Movies Really Matter?’
Let’s face it: Nowadays we get way too much information about the movies we’re interested in. Through a combination of our own insatiable appetite to discover every possible scrap of information we can about a project before we go to see it at the cinema, and a seemingly endless barrage of websites that look everywhere they can to create content to drive traffic, there’s a whole lot of information out there. Some of it’s useful; Some of it isn’t. But since journalists, bloggers, and social media personalities are going to keep dropping whatever intel they can scrounge together with the hope that you’ll trust and follow them, we at Revenge of The Fans are happy to help you determine the true value of some of the information that gets floated out there.
Today, we’re going to take a look at test screenings.
“What’s a test screening?”
Definition: “A test screening is a preview screening of a movie or television show before its general release in order to gauge audience reaction. Preview audiences are selected from a cross-section of the population, and are usually asked to complete a questionnaire or provide feedback in some form.” [Courtesy of WikiPedia]
Going beyond that textbook definition, what’s notable about these special industry screenings is that the audience typically has no idea what movie it is until they’ve sat down to watch it. And that’s usually after going through metal detectors and signing non-disclosure agreements aimed at keeping the results of the screening private. Often, all they’ll know is the film’s genre when the invitation arrives.
Like last year, when a test screening was held in New Jersey for Blade Runner 2049. All the audience members knew going in was that they’d be seeing “a sci-fi movie.”
“Do they see the whole movie?”
In a word: Yes.
But what if I told you that they often see more of the movie than you do?
See, when it comes to test screenings, the studio will sometimes have multiple cuts they’re testing at once. For example, at that Blade Runner 2049 screening last year, the audience was treated to a cut of the film that was well north of three hours. The audience gave its feedback on the film, and the version that would make its way into theaters had been shaved down to 2 hours and 44 minutes.
This means that test results aren’t going to be of much use to anyone trying to determine the quality of a film in advance, because there’s no telling what will change before the movie that was tested makes its way into theaters.
Sometimes the tests include alternate endings, differently structured edits, and subplots that may end up getting cut entirely.
This is why the results are meant to be kept private, for studio use only, because this information is aimed to help the filmmakers- not to appeal to prospective audiences.
In the case of BR 2049, director Denis Villeneuve took the notes (which included that the film “dragged,” was “too long,” and was kind of “boring”) to streamline the narrative a bit and shorten the running time a little so that it would move a tad more briskly. Ultimately, the film drew rave reviews from critics and Blade Runner fans alike- a far cry from the “it’s too long and boring” summation that came out when someone leaked the test results.
This is why it’s tricky to bother tracking test results.
“So what do the results really mean?“
If we’re not certain test audiences are even seeing the same version of the movie we’ll end up seeing, and the studio is likely to make changes to the final cut based on the results of the tests, what can we glean from these results at all, right?
To figure this out, let’s look at another example of a film that had it’s confidential test results leaked to the public: Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2.
In February of 2017, reports flooded the net that Marvel’s Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2 had scored the rare perfect score of 100 at a recent test screening.
When the film arrived in theaters three months later, the correlation was pretty clear: Fans loved the movie- especially general audiences, who gave it an A CinemaScore. Critics awarded it a 67 on MetaCritic.
If we circle back to Blade Runner 2049, despite the film not testing overly well, it ended up getting an A- CinemaScore and an 81 on MetaCritic.
And yet, Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2 is considered the greater success story because of its $863.7M worldwide haul at the box office, compared to Blade Runner 2049‘s $259.2M.
“What’s the moral of the story?“
The big takeaway here is that there are two reasons you shouldn’t put much stock in test screening results, but one notable connection between those results and their probable outcomes if you insist on doing so.
First, the two reasons why test results shouldn’t be newsworthy (and why we’ve stopped covering them):
- There’s no telling if the audience saw the same version of the movie you will, so their read on it won’t necessarily be accurate.
- This information is not meant for mass consumption. It’s an internal practice that allows the filmmakers to get some feedback from audiences before they unveil their finished work to the entire world. It’s a tool used to fine tune a work of art, not something that should be used to either hurt or promote the finished product.
And now for the one consistent takeaway, if you are intrigued by test results:
- More often than not, the results are strictly an indication of how general audiences will like a film.
Just take a look at the two examples cited. BR 2049 tested so-so, and ended up beloved by hardcore fans and ignored by general audiences. GoTG Vol. 2 tested amazingly and ended up beloved by general audiences, while its reception amongst hardcore fans is a little more mixed.
If you’re reading this, chances are you are not a member of the general audience, or a “casual fan.” You’re a hardcore kind of person. You don’t just love these movies, you want to immerse yourself in everything you can about them. And with that in mind, test results are unlikely to jibe with your own eventual thoughts on the film, since they’re seemingly much better at indicating what the casuals will think than what you will.
So keep all of this in mind next time you hear “Such and such film tested really well/poorly.”