Janet walked out of the movie theater, looking and feeling bored, and tired (it had been a long week). She’d just sat through an early preview of Fatal Attraction, and like most of the test audience, she didn’t love it.
The main reason? The ending was not satisfying. The movie tells the story of a mistress who becomes obsessed with her lover. In the original version, the mistress kills herself and frames her lover for her own murder. However, it left audiences feeling that the mistress didn’t get her due punishment.
The studio executives knew they had a problem, but how would they fix it?
Fatal Attraction went on to be nominated for six Academy Awards and generated $320 million at the box office worldwide ($688 million in today’s value). Having said that, the version of Fatal Attraction that reached those heights wasn’t the same Fatal Attraction that early test audiences saw.
To get there, the studio had to reshoot the entire ending.
In the new ending, the wife, played by Anne Archer, shoots the one-time mistress, played by Glenn Close, in a riveting bathroom scene, ultimately creating the psycho-thriller ending that defined the film.
Previews, or, as the trade lingo calls them, “recruited audience screenings,” have become an essential means of testing new releases. And understanding these screenings can help companies — even those working in B2B — supercharge their creative powers.
Kevin Goetz, the founder and CEO of Screen Engine/ASI, a leading Hollywood research firm, specializes in recruited audience screenings and over the years has conducted what he estimates are “well over ten thousand” previews. I spoke to him to better understand how these screenings worked, and whether those practices could be applied outside the movie industry.
Studios generally hold test screenings once there’s a rough cut of a film. The music track or a few special effects may be missing, but for the most part the story and rhythm of the film are set.
In the crowd are men and women who match the target audience, at least based on the preliminary marketing strategy.
Fearing that people might record the movie or tweet a spoiler, security is tight: viewers are asked to sign a confidentiality agreement, leave their phones outside the theater, and pass through metal detectors.
When the film ends, audience members fill out a survey card with questions on topics ranging from their favorite characters and scenes to whether the film moved too slowly or too quickly.
The two most important questions are:
How likely are you to “definitely” recommend the movie?
How do you rate the movie overall?
The results of this, the quantitative part of the research, can often decide the fate of a film. Will portions of it need to be reshot? Is it worth all those precious marketing dollars?
But it’s not over yet. Next, a microcosm of the audience is selected to stay in their seats and participate in a discussion so that the studio can better understand the why behind the data. If you are unlikely to recommend the film, why? Is it because you hated the main character? Did you feel the plot dragged? “At a test screening, the focus group is often the intersection of art and science,” says Goetz. “A creative moderator can tease out visceral responses that moviegoers wouldn’t necessarily write about in their questionnaires.” This mix of quantitative and qualitative data gives filmmakers and studio executives valuable insights into where the movie works, where it doesn’t, and the best ways to fix it.
Many creatives are hesitant to view feedback as a critical part of the creative process. The fear of “creativity by committee” is real, and many still think of feedback (both qualitative and quantitative) as a pollution of a process that should be individualistic and self-contained. If you need input from others to create, well…then you’re not really the one being creative, are you?
But I think Goetz’s explanation of the movie-making process is a strong rebuttal of these feedback-phobic arguments. Movies, in essence, are a massive creative endeavor among screenwriters, directors, and producers. The production team doesn’t close themselves off from the world to craft the movie in secret, and then unveil it fully formed and untainted by outside opinion on release day. Instead, moviemakers make feedback a central part of their creative process.
Nina Jacobson is one of the most influential people in Hollywood. She previously was the president of Walt Disney Motion Pictures, where she was responsible for shepherding countless hits into theaters, ranging from Pirates of the Caribbean to The Sixth Sense. Today she is the founder and CEO of Color Force, the production company responsible for the Hunger Games movie franchise that generated $3 billion worldwide. Jacobson and Color Force were also responsible for the award-winning The People v. O. J. Simpson TV series.
And Jacobson is all-in when it comes to feedback-enabled creativity.
As Jacobson explained to me, “Oftentimes it’s easy to think, ‘Oh, it’s so extrinsic to the creative process to ask a bunch of consumers basically what they think,’ but we’re making movies for audiences, so it’s actually very helpful to know what they think.”
Most companies don’t have the resources to run massive audience testing programs or pay for huge focus group sessions. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t take advantage of the creative benefits of feedback.
Even in big companies, many feedback techniques are decidedly low-tech. Ben & Jerry’s, for example, sends e-mail surveys out to ice cream fans, which is something anyone can do using free online tools. What’s more, many techniques historically used by large companies have now become accessible to small companies and individuals. Google Surveys, for one, allows anyone to assess a targeted group of users for as little as fifteen cents per response. For thirty dollars, you can assemble 200 people in a mini online focus group. Another service, PickFu, makes it easy to survey basic split-test questions in hours for as little as twenty dollars.
If you want to give your company a creative leg-up, consider piloting some institutional feedback programs. Create a mini focus-group of your customers to see if you can pick up suggestions for improving your sales outreach. Or send a survey to your email list to get some feedback on your company’s branding. It will help your company move to the head of the creative pack.
As I spoke with all kinds of creative people for this book, I was struck by how often their stories mirrored one another. Creative success does indeed have a pattern. The biggest secret to creating something your audience will love? Listen to them.
Adapted from THE CREATIVE CURVE: HOW TO DEVELOP THE RIGHT IDEA, AT THE RIGHT TIME © 2018 by Allen Gannett. Published by Currency, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.