How to think about test screenings

Dear Doc Doctor: I have a fifteen minute cut of a one-hour documentary, and the editor and I are not sure about the main storyline and characters. Should I have a test screening? How many should I have?

Even if you had a perfect fifteen minute opening and all you wanted was to practice your speech for the Oscars, I would advise you not to screen the project so early in the editing process. And if you have doubts about those fifteen minutes, I would suggest even more strongly that you not put it in front of an audience.

The creative process is very delicate. Even the right comment can prove to be destructive if it is said at the wrong time. Why risk postscreening depression any sooner than necessary? Rather than asking when or how many times to screen, ask yourself: Why do you want to show your film at this point?

If the answer is, “to find out how to go on,” then don’t call an army of well-intentioned people to tell you what to do. You won’t end up with an answer, but with twenty different opinions. And the math inside of a screening room is very simple: Twenty opinions equals one director’s headache.

Instead of a test screening, what you and your editor probably need to do is step back, forget it all, and then evaluate the film at the plot level with clean, fresh eyes. If time off from the cutting room doesn’t do it, then consider calling in one person—not an army. An outsider knowledgeable in narrative structure can often help you through the maze. They do not even have to be in the film business. Just talking to someone new about the project can lower your anxiety, and hearing yourself explain the film will probably help materialize the key to final cut kingdom.

Test screenings are an American phenomenon, created by Hollywood’s strategy of securing the broadest possible audience for films by appealing to the lowest common denominator. In other parts of the world, filmmakers wait until they are almost ready to lock picture before they show their films, and then they only hold a very small, private screening. Still, some think that compulsive testing is the way to go. I know one filmmaker who held fifteen test screenings before finishing a film.

I advocate the middle path. Don’t constantly show the film at every turn, but don’t shy away from screenings as if the film weren’t intended to ever be seen either. The screening of a rough cut is a great opportunity to test your key assumptions. Is there a character you like and want to know if other people like too? Test. Is the story solid but loaded with information and you want to make sure it is all crystal clear? Test. Is the ending compelling? Test. Test screenings are a tool to help you determine if what you are doing is working, not a manual to tell you how to edit your film. Test what you already know.

Dear Doc Doctor: I’m close to final cut and am preparing for a test screening. How do you suggest I prepare for the screening?

First of all, are we talking about a work-in-progress screening or a test screening? A work-in-progress screening, for the purposes of this discussion, is a screening in which your primary goal is to generate buzz for your film. The testing happens, but it is secondary. A test screening’s primary goal is to assess if certain things in your film are working out.

If you are showing a work in progress to start an early buzz, you are probably planning to screen at a venue, such as a festival or market, that holds programs specifically for works in progress. In this situation, most of what goes on is beyond your control. Bring a smile and a ton of publicity material. Approach the people that had a positive reaction to your documentary—these are your target audience, so it is good to learn who they are.

But if you are planning your own test screening, there are a few things you should consider. When making the guest list, the fewer the merrier. Ten people are more than enough. With a larger group, you will still get the opinions of only ten people—the loudest ten. The rest will echo their comments. Ten well-chosen people are much easier to listen to. Save the rest for the opening night.

Whether you invite ten or ten thousand, hand out a questionnaire to help the audience to organize their thoughts. Pay special attention to the issues that come up for several people. If three find the first ten minutes unclear, try to determine why. But if one person says she doesn’t understand the ending, let it go.

When possible, use a moderator, especially if a large audience screening is unavoidable. She or he will be more detached and can make sure that nobody monopolizes the discussion. Also, a moderator can remind the audience that works in progress should never be compared to finished films. If people do mention a specific film, avoid comparing your film to it when you get back in the cutting room. Just keep following the natural development of your own story.

And finally, don’t forget to feed the crowd. They are taking time to work on your film. The more they sense that you appreciate their input, the more they will want to contribute to your success.

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