While only a few top Hollywood directors have the final say in how their films are edited and delivered to screen, there is one major player in the film industry who has a huge impact on the end product: the audience. .
In fact, test screenings and focus groups have a bigger effect on movies than most people realize, as the new book “Audience-ology: How Moviegoers Shape The Films We Love” (Tiller Press), released on November 30. Here, authors Kevin Goetz – the founder of Hollywood market research firm Screen Engine / ASI – and colleague Darlene Hayman discuss how public commentary changed six Hollywood classics.
“Presenter”: Don’t kill the dog!
When DreamWorks tested “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” in 2004, first director Adam McKay was “nervous as hell”. During the screening, the film “killed, made people laugh the whole time,” writes Goetz. But when a focus group provided feedback after the movie, the overall response wasn’t great.
No one understood why except Terry Press, the studio’s marketing manager. “She didn’t mince words,” McKay says in the book. “She said, ‘Hey idiot, you killed the dog!'”
The press was referring to Baxter, Ron Burgundy’s dog, who is thrown off a bridge in the film by a biker played by Jack Black.
“People will watch any kind of movie in which a human is killed, but killing a dog is a big no-no,” she said.
McKay has put on covers and a scene was filmed where it is clear that Baxter is surviving. The film was retested, scores increased by 26 points (on a scale of 1 to 100), and “Anchorman” became a classic of modern comedy.
“Moonstruck”: Nix the opera
MGM / UA had high hopes for the 1987 romantic comedy starring Cher and Nicolas Cage, so studio executives were puzzled when audiences laughed much less than expected during the first test screening.
In fact, the crowd seemed reluctant to respond to “Moonstruck”. There was even an “undercurrent of tension”.
The audience comment cards explained why. “What became very evident was that moviegoers didn’t get the humor,” the studio’s Greg Foster told Goetz.
“They don’t know it’s funny,” editor Lou Lombardo guessed as he read the maps. “We have to show them it’s okay to laugh.”
The initial edit opened with a montage of activities backed up by dramatic opera music, which Lombardo soon realized was “setting the wrong tone from the start”. That night, Lombardo traded Puccini for something he was sure he would point to comedy: “That’s Amore” by Dean Martin.
This one change made all the difference. When it was screened to the public the following night, there was a laughter, the film was a success, and its star, Cher, won an Oscar.
“Fatal attraction”: kill the bad guy
At the end of the initial version of the 1987 hit “Fatal Attraction”, Alex (Glenn Close) committed suicide by slitting his throat. Dan (Michael Douglas) was wrongly arrested for his murder, and his wife, played by Anne Archer, was on her way in tears to prove her innocence as the credits rolled by.
When the film was tested, audiences didn’t like the ending. Studio executives realized that a change had to be made, although they agonized for weeks over exactly how.
Close, meanwhile, pleaded for the ending to remain intact.
It was ultimately decided that Paramount Studio would fund a new ending, but filmmakers wouldn’t have to use it if it didn’t work. The new ending was a battle between the three main characters, with Archer ultimately killing Close.
When they tested it for an audience, the crowd “went wild, filling the auditorium with their cries.” The new ending – soon to be iconic – was kept, and “Fatal Attraction” went on to earn $ 320 million worldwide.
‘Free of any tie’: Don’t cut the victory dance
As hard as it could be to imagine, director Herbert Ross was convinced that once Kevin Bacon’s character emerged victorious from his town’s anti-dance forces in 1984’s “Footloose”, the film should end there. . The actual dance, he believed, did not need to be shown.
Producer Craig Zadan strongly disagreed.
“[Ross] told Zadan that if you’re making a movie about a family that wants a home, the winning moment is when the family walks up to the front door and puts the key in the lock, ”Goetz writes. “You don’t need to show them the kitchen, living room and bedroom to take stock,” he insisted. “The public will feel good. “
Zadan, on the other hand, believed that “When you have a whole movie about fighting for a dance, the reward is having the dance. “
But the studio agreed with Ross, and Zadan remained angry about it throughout production.
“You have no idea how you screw this movie up,” he told anyone who wanted to listen to him.
“It will not work.”
The first screening test proved him right. Audiences went wild every minute of the film until the last five minutes, when the mood collapsed. The test results reflected their disappointment.
Ross finally realized his mistake and joined Zadan in his campaign for the studio to fund a new shoot. But once filming was over, the sets were stripped down and the cast dispersed, reassembling everything was, Zadan later said, “a nightmare.”
In the end, however, the studio gave in, recreating the shoot, which had taken place in Provo, Utah, on the Paramount grounds. With the new ending, “Footloose” became the seventh highest grossing film of 1984, and two of its songs were Oscar nominees.
‘Thelma & Louise’: Leave the end a mystery
The initial cut of “Thelma & Louise” was exactly the same as the theatrical version in 1991, with one exception. At the very end, after the main characters (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon respectively) conclude a series of crimes while driving their car over a cliff, the couple are seen again for a split second, driving happily on the road. highway.
According to Foster, director Ridley Scott had no intention of portraying them as they survived. “He just wanted to metaphorically show that their spirits were alive,” Foster told Goetz. But the test audience “has become ape-t.”
“Afterwards, during the focus group, Foster listened to moviegoers express their outrage at this scene,” Goetz writes. “This is hogwash,” they said. “You glorify what they have done! “
“They felt the ending was inauthentic and did not represent the spirit of the story.”
Before the film was tested for a different audience the next day, editor Thom Noble entered the projection booth. Because the offending scene was at the very end of the movie and this first trial version didn’t have an end credits, Noble simply took the reel from the movie and “surgically removed” the scene.
The new screening was a “giant success,” Foster said, noting that “it’s often a little thing that makes the difference.”
Cocktail: Let Tom Cruise be Tom Cruise
As a follow-up to Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun,” much relied on the success of 1984’s “Cocktail,” which led him to play a New York bartender named Brian Flanagan. Studio executives were then stunned when the test screenings ended in dead silence.
Viewers liked Cruise’s character and thought most of the movie was a fun ride. But late in the movie, Brian’s boss committed suicide. Cruise’s character found him and the movie ended shortly after.
Producer Robert Cort told Goetz that “all the air has come out of the room” at this point in the screening, describing a “sense of morbidity” in the theater. A post-screening discussion revealed no solution until the research firm’s Joe Farrell made the offhand comment, “I guess the public just don’t want to know that Tom Cruise can’t have it all. ”
“Cort froze, as if a light bulb had turned on,” Goetz writes. “’It was clear that we had written a character and picked an actor who embodied the dynamic spirit that an audience wanted,” Cort recalls.
“He replied to the group, ‘Dude, this is cinema. He can have it all. We have to rewrite the end.
The suicide stuck, but it was followed by Cruise’s moral victory over a new antagonistic character, his girlfriend’s father, who tried to bribe him into not marrying her. In the new version, Cruise and his girlfriend got married, she got pregnant with twins, he opened his own bar, and “Cocktail” became one of the highest-grossing films of the year.
‘La La Land’: must dance
The first test screening of the 2016 film “La La Land”, which won six Oscars before being mistakenly presented with a seventh for Best Picture (“Moonlight was the real winner), left audiences bewildered.
While “La La Land” is a musical, in the first cut, no one sang or danced for the first 12 minutes. So when the roommates of Emma Stone’s character broke into the song “Someone in the Crowd,” the audience couldn’t figure out what was going on.
“The rules for the film weren’t set at the start,” producer Marc Platt told Goetz. The film already had its solution in the box. An extravagant musical number set in a traffic jam in Los Angeles, “Another Day of Sun”, had been filmed, but was left on the editing room floor to be “stylistically different from the rest of the film.”
After the initial screening, the stage was placed at the very beginning of the film. It was the only change made, and it was enough to set the tone for success.