Test Movies

Sensing the market directly

The value, and quality, of a test movie

Integral to the Movie Stream Productions business is the use of test movies. They are the device that can tip the scales sharply in favor of market success, and should be used by every independent movie producer. Coincidentally, Amazon Studios is employing the same process, and a wide diversity of test movies are available for viewing at Amazon Studios. Dorian is a participant in Amazon Studios, both reviewing other's screenplays and having submitted some of his non-franchise screenplays for review and development.

Some of the techniques in this article may be relevant to Amazon Studios test movies, however the method described here can cost around $16,000.00 or more, which is not within the reach of most working in the Amazon Studios environment.

Development is essential for screenplays, and testing in front of an audience is part of development. During pre-production, an actual inexpensive test production of the movie should be created and tested before an actual audience. At this point, rewriting can easily be done and millions of dollars saved. But putting the movie that is alread in the can before a test audience can tell you much about market potential, but at that point it's too late to fix it. The entire cost of the production is lost unless you can reshoot just a few critical scenes. Stories can rarely be slashed after principal photography - each scene is usually integrated with the overall plot.

Doing the test movie also has the advantage of allowing the actors to thoroughly rehearse and call attention to script problems. It's kind of like a dress and technical rehearsal.

Dorian critiqued screenplays, worked as a story analyst, and set up productions with National Writers Workshop, LA, in the late 80s and early 90s. National Writers Workshop helped writers bring their scripts to marketable level, partly by presenting them to Hollywood audiences in staged readings, with Hollywood principals as hosts. Dorian has also written plays and done staged readings of them, as well as his own screenplays.

Over the years Dorian has developed ways of testing visual media, having been a manager in marketing/advertising for two companies, and through his work with plays, movies, and focus groups. Having done a number of staged readings, he has seen that methodology fully developed, with specialized script rewrites for it, delivered in front of Hollywood, Lexington, St. Louis, and other audiences, and seen that staged readings don't really work very well.

There are a number of problems with staged readings. For one thing, actors tend to treat a reading as a "table reading," that lacks much delivery. Table readings are not for audiences. Also during a reading, people get confused because the physical action cues - the entire visual component - isn't there. A movie is visual, and if you can fully understand it from the dialogue, it probably is not good writing. The narration can be disruptive and lack quality. And a full movie reading is too long - the audience tends to lose interest.

There are also problems with substitute photography, seen by Dorian in marketing and production and focus groups. Poor photography distracts the viewer's attention onto the low quality of the production - if the photography, or any other part of the test production, is unprofessional, the production itself becomes the focus of attention. The test presentation has to avoid distraction, and needs to be mostly suggestive, similar to impressionist art. So Dorian has developed techniques for screening test movies with audiences.

Next page: The approach.

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The approach

Dorian's approach includes various methods, including rehearsals, a subtle and integral narration where needed that doesn't jolt the viewer, heavy emphasis on modified black box presentation with limited props and physical action, setting changes, a real set for selected pivotal scenes, establish shots, stationary/stock shots, and emphasizing physical action and good delivery. On Amazon Studios, Memory, Christian Davis's Test Movie (Movie 8), is a good example of suggestive presentation with de-emphasizing detail. A current television production has the same suggestive quality and de-emphasis of detail, the TV series Stargate Universe, in which the ship setting has minimal lighting so details can't be seen.

The deciding factor of how to present a scene depends on the importance of the scene to the story, and how much the audience will be affected by context and transitions.

In a strict black box production, there are no props on the set. The actors act "in limbo," which requires the audience to use their imagination to see essential aspects of the set. An audience's imagination is perfect. It projects the exact level of detail that each individual viewer needs, and there is no criticism of imperfection. Black box theater is a very effective method of presentation.

In employing the black box method, what Dorian found is that some props are helpful. If the actors are to sit at a table, they probably should have a table. So a modified black box method is more practical in which some practical props are used. A stage arrangement can even be used to suggest rooms, with barebones furniture. But these props should also be suggestive, not a fancy table that you would find in a fine restaurant if that is the setting. (Fancy restaurants actually use very bare bones tables and just put nice linen over them - it's also a suggestive illusion.)

Not every movie can be done in the same way. Action movies are not done well in black box, although many of their scenes can be. On Amazon Studios there are a number of good test movie productions that vary in technique. A test movie should have the following: Actors should be very talented, and should know and rehearse their lines, and be directed in blocking. Nothing will hurt the audience reception more than the poor presentation of a "B" movie. B movies get B reactions. Adjustments to the script should be made as needed to improve the story and presentation. Pivotal scenes should be shot on the actual set using professional standards, just like during principal photography.

During recording of the black box scenes, the conventional 3 camera position approach should be used, preferrably with no cuts unless actors make major changes in position that require it. Appropriate camera work, such as close ups, should be specified by the director and cinematographer. The actors should act as if the set is actually present (as they would in front of a green screen). Record with DSLR cameras with one or more copies in H.264 format. H.264 is the most accepted encoding standard, and arguably provides the best picture. You will likely edit and distribute in H.264 format, especially for a focus group.

Audiences can easily get lost during a production. A variety of things can be used to keep them oriented in space and time, especially during scene transitions:

1) Use a narrator to describe any action that is not provided by the actors. Use the narrator to describe changes in time, or use text on the screen. Fade the text in and out. The narration should be subtle, not loud.

2) When the narrator is talking, use some photography on the screen that is appropriate to the production. A still shot of the ending or beginning scene will work, or an establish shot of the new setting. You can also use camera techniques on the still photography, such as shots that show characters in transit, or just panning and zooming in on the still photograph.

3) If the audience really needs to see some detail, use a green screen behind the black box setting and insert it in post-production.

4) Almost any scene can be done in black box. But that doesn't break up a 2 hour movie enough for the audience. Besides the pivotal scenes, select a number of other inexpensive scenes that can be done on sets that are more visually appealing. For example, if a bridge, office, fancy home, or other setting recurs often in the movie, plan to shoot those scenes all at one time in that setting.

5) Use dissolve (overlapping fade in/out), rather than cut, to ease the major transitions to the narrator and from black box to another setting, and back.

6) Use still establish shots to show where the setting is.

7) Don't be ridiculous. If an actor is doing a fight on a tower on a real production set, the DP would get long shots of the man on the tower, and get closeups of the action. For black box, you could insert a visually exciting still shot of the tower using a green screen in the background, and use a small piece of a tower (pipes) as a prop on the black box stage. Since the floor is black, and the rest of the background is black, the shot is in limbo, and the audience can visualize the setting. But an audience can also visualize the fight just with the prop. Use the minimum necessary. The more you try to add detail to get something close to perfect, the more the audience will criticize it. Suggestive is the key.

8) Do very good post production. Make sure there is nothing in the production that will jolt or distract the audience. Make sure it is visually suggestive, and that small details do not detract from the audience's attention.

Next page: The test and audience results.

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The test and audience results

Testing a movie in front of a focus group audience is an art. Bad practices can get you horribly unfortunate results. People sometimes make the mistake of just showing it to one college group in an auditorium. This potentially could be - one - group. Use the general public, recruiting from those who would actually be your potential audience (people who watch movies, and pay). Focus group facilities exist for this purpose, if you can afford them.

If possible, use a professional moderator, preferrably one who tests movies, but those with movie experience are more difficult to find outside of the film capitals or coasts. Make sure the audience doesn't feel that an honest answer will be taken personally (hurt anyone's feelings), and that their honest personal opinion is very valuable to you and represents thousands of others. If possible, use electronic feedback devices ("dials") for each respondent to continuously show their level of enjoyment (level of like/dislike) during the showing. Record this over a copy of what the audience is seeing so you can reference it. This will tell you where things went well and where they went sour.

Make sure several audiences see the movie, who are in your target age demographic. One audience can be very misleading. Reaction will even vary in different parts of the country, but geographical differences are too expensive to test for too little results. If the audience didn't show much enthusiasm for something, find out specifically what it is. Sometimes they just don't like an actor and changing the actor will fix it. Sometimes they don't like a character, and modifying the character's lines or attitude will fix it. Sometimes they just aren't interested.

Ask about the places the dials say it went sour. Ask very thorough questions, which often seems repetitive, but is actually probing to get from the audience what they liked and didn't like. Toward the end, ask behavioral questions, such as, "Would you recommend this movie to a friend?" "Would you pay to see it, or would you just wait until it was on TV for free?"

After the moderator has finished questioning, including questions you pass in on paper, and the audience has laid it all out, although not common, you possibly might come out from behind the glass wall and ask some questions of your own. This usually works well, but if you are not diplomatic or are easily angered, or argumentative, don't even think of doing it. You are there simply to ask questions and listen. If you have to explain the movie or defend it, you have already failed. Don't ever use suggestive questions that put words and ideas in their mouths. If you don't know how to phrase questions so they aren't suggestive and lead to specific answers you want to hear, don't ask anything. Obey the moderator - they know their job.

Use a videographer or house camera to record the entire focus session so you can go over it dispassionately and discuss it with others later. Get suggestions from the respondents on how the movie could be improved. Focus group respondents vary in creative quality. Some give excellent suggestions, and some don't. As an end result, there should be a majority of people who like it well enough to buy it, but keep in mind that some will hate it no matter what.

If someone is literally poisoning the atmosphere, have the facility get them out of the group, but try to tolerate them and realize that the other respondents take them with a grain of salt. It is very rare that someone has to be removed, and moderators are usually very good at controlling them.

Don't have the actors at the focus group, or show them the results. Someone will always be critical of them, and the actors won't take it well. Actors avoid the critics for good reason. But give them the feedback they need to improve their performance.

While there are many ways a test movie can be created, this type of test movie is an actual full production, not a shortcut presentation. It means analyzing the script scene by scene and making notes just as you would for principal photography, coming up with a production schedule, recruiting talent, coaching actors, working with crews, getting food to the set, making sure there are bathrooms, obtaining and operating professional equipment, etc.

The end result is worth it. You can do it for under $20,000.00, which takes the place of some paid rehearsal time, and be much more assured that your $300,000.00 or so investment will not be wasted on a movie that will have a limited audience and insufficient revenue. You get some idea of market potential. You can also use the opportunity to find out what your test audience would like to see (and not like to see).


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The pitfalls, the market

The danger in using relevance as a criteria is in going full overboard into "message films," or overly moralistic stories, which doesn't work well. Characters find out the consequences of their actions through realistic story development, not through preaching or contrived plots. It's well determined that fiction movies have very little influence in the day to day lives and thinking of people - that's more the role of documentaries - movies are more a mirror of who we are and what we want to think about or be thrilled by - not necessarily who we actually want to be or want to do.

We don't necessarily want to do what people do in movies. People want to explore questions, not be handed a smiley face answer. Significantly, there is a major difference between truth and reality in movies. Movies are never reality, but they pry away at a truth in the human condition. In several years of research and writing about storytelling, Dorian calls writing for this, Creating Honest Characters and story.

It pays to keep up with society and not beat a dead horse. Society changes, and with it the questions. Divorce rates surged in the 1980s, but have returned to 1970s levels in the first decade of this Century. Drug use among teens surged last Century, but this Century drug use has been declining. Teen sex surged in the last decade, but this decade has declined. Abortion surged in the last Century, but in this decade declined to 1970 pre-abortion law levels. Writing about these things is likely to mark you as out of date and not relevant - not a today writer. Society changes, and with it the questions that are important to us.

The demographics on movies isn't just the narrow Hollywood focus of the young adult. Young adults flock to the theater for thrills, and leave asking, "Is that all there is?" Their need for thrills is insatiable, and theaters recognize that as their meal ticket. The MSP Internet test audience, who subscribed for no other reason than their love of movies, is fairly equally represented through all ages up to around age 60. Hollywood has simply left these people behind, either by focusing on ticket sales to the most frequent buyers, or by not giving them a convenient venue. The market is there for all age groups.

Today there are many trends influencing what will be good stories today and in the future. Whether writing a comedy, drama, or action movie, some relevant questions are:

  • When does a social trend become a "point of pain" in the psyche of the population, so that it is worth exploring in a movie?
  • When does the social trend become a point of fantasy in the psyche of the population? What trend is prompting the need for this fantasy?
  • When does a social trend reflect serious questions we have about ourselves?
  • When does exploring a social trend achieve burn out by an increasingly sophisticated audience?
  • When has a social trend evolved to the point in society that it deserves a new approach?
  • Where is an existing trend going? Are zombies the new vampire craze?
  • Can you take an existing trend and add traditional elements to it, such as mystery, suspense, action?

Movies are loosely about the human condition. Human nature really doesn't change much, but our situation changes and presents us with new questions. Many of the same human condition themes are used over and over in a new setting or in a new plot that reflect our changing world. Filmmakers are really free to write about any topic they want, incorporate elements of today's trends (society's concerns and fantasies), spice it up with comedy, mystery, suspense, action, and have an entirely new movie. Or they can just write specifically (theme and plot) about the new trend. The market is there and it is hungry for good content, and the Internet provides a preferred venue. Create better content, and the audience will find you.

Google Trends might be one place for research.

Have you produced a good independent movie or short? Get more attention for your shorts on FlixStreamer.com. Rent your movie on FlixStreamer.com for more profit.

- Dorian

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NETFLIX® is a Registered Trademark of NETFLIX®, INC.
Any trademark not listed out of oversight is a Trademark or Registered Trademark of it's respective owner.

Mention of any business or movie in this article is not intended to endorse, disparage, or favor any business.

Movie names that are mentioned are not given reference citations. This is because numerous studios are involved in production, and they then assign distribution rights to multiple distributors, and these rights can be sold to other distributors. For production and distribution information on any movie mentioned, consult the Internet Movie Database, or other authoritative listing.

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