My First Test Screening Experience

Wednesday I attended my first film test screening.  What is a test screening?  A test screening is where a movie is shown to an audience before it is officially released in order to get feedback that the producers can use to improve the film.  Each attendee is given a questionnaire to fill out with questions asking about the cast’s performances, the scenes, general impressions of the film, the ending, etc.

Screenings like this happen all the time in LA, but they are much rarer in the Bay Area.  So when I found out about this screening, I jumped at the chance to attend.  This was research for me.  I wanted to see what a screening was like in anticipation of perhaps doing one for my film some day.  And it was a chance to see an independent movie for free.  Can’t beat that price!

The host was one of the executive producers who started the evening off introducing a couple of other producers and the editor.  He said that this film was a rough cut and that the final edit might be influenced by the feedback they received.  They passed out pens and a two-sided questionnaire that was printed on very heavy paper (thin cardboard), which was a good idea considering that are no tables in a movie theater.  Where they fell short was in considering the readability of the questionnaire.  The print was too small and, even with the lights turned up all the way, the theater was too dark.  This made the questionnaire virtually unreadable for me.  I and several others had to go out into the lobby after the movie so that we could get enough light to read and answer the questions.

The producer said he was going to do a Q&A after we filled out the forms, so I admit that I rushed through the questions because I wanted to go back into the theater and listen to the Q&A.  I really didn’t give the feedback that I should have.  As it was, when I walked back into the theater, the Q&A had already started.  I don’t know how much of it I missed, but there wasn’t much discussion going on when I got there.  That was disappointing. 

The few questions that were asked were story related.  I asked a non-story related question, namely, I wanted to know what the budget was.  The producer wasn’t willing to give out that info, but he did say it was under a million.   I wish I could have gotten a more exact figure from him, but my guess is that the film was maybe in the $400 to $600k range.  But if you add on the talent, that might have brought up the number to the quarter million mark.  Mind you, this is just a guesstimate.  I may be way off.

After the movie, I overheard two women talking in the ladies room.  They were quite critical of the movie and one admitted that she didn’t have the heart to write what she really thought about the movie on the questionnaire.  I had to smile at that because I had the same problem.  It’s really hard to come right out and tell someone that you don’t like their movie and would never recommend it to anyone else, so I found myself soft pedaling what I really thought about the film.

Okay, no soft pedaling here.  I’m going to tell you what I really thought of the movie.  However, the movie shall remain nameless because my intent is not to tear apart someone elses work for the sake of, well, tearing it apart.  No, I have the utmost respect for what the filmmakers accomplished.  Heck, getting any movie made is a major accomplishment in of itself.  But I want to use this forum to explore what I thought worked and didn’t work in this movie. 

It’s vital that producers understand the various elements that go into a film and to be able to differentiate between quality and drek.  Of course, everyone in the business will tell you that there is no magic formula for what makes a film successful.  It’s virtually impossible to predict ahead of time what the audience’s reaction will be.  Regardless, producers are constantly having to evaluate other people’s artistic expressions, starting with the script, and making decisions based on those evaluations.  It’s part of the job.  In fact, the ability to be able to discern quality over the mediocre, together with personal taste, plays a huge factor in whether a producer will have a successful career or not.  So this is good practice for me.  

Just to warn you, there are going to be a lot of spoilers in my evaluation.  Frankly, I doubt that any of you will ever see this movie.  But, to be fair, I’m giving the warning anyway.

Evaluation Time

The story was about a bumbling detective who is in a turf war with a cult leader over the building they occupy.  The cult leader wants the detective’s office space.  The detective won’t give it up.  His ditzy secretary ends up being “recruited” by the cult and the detective must save her and his office space while also trying to find out who is following his new client, a sultry brunette.

A big part of this movie was the storyline with the sultry brunette.  I kept trying to figure out where they were going with her.  She hired the detective to follow her because she thought someone was following her.  But that never went anywhere.  Nobody was following her.  She was never in any kind of peril.

Then she started to come on to the detective and I got the feeling that she had hired the detective because she was lonely.  Okay, possible love interest?  Well, no.  That never went anywhere either.

Then it was revealed that she was a member of the cult.  Aha!  She was there to lure the detective away from that valuable office space, right?  Wrong.  She wasn’t really an active member.  So that went nowhere too.

So what was the purpose of this character?  Beats me.  She seemed tacked on and had no involvement whatsoever in the central conflict of the story. 

Speaking of central conflicts, they fell short on this one too.  What starts out as an office turf war turns into a “save the secretary” storyline.  Why?  Because she makes great coffee.  But then it is revealed that the cult’s cookies are laced with some kind of mind control substance, revealing that the cult leader’s plans are to turn everyone into mindless zombies who turn over all their assets to the cult.  This bigger threat could have been expanded upon to become the main storyline, but they really didn’t delve into it much. 

If you haven’t already guessed it by the silliness of the plot, this was supposed to be a comedy, but I didn’t find it all that funny.  I laughed maybe two or three times tops throughout the entire movie.

I’ve really got to wonder who they think the audience is for this movie.  It’s got a bit of a retro feel with the film noir type detective, but it’s set in our day and has a bit of an Austin Powers type of humor.  Even though it would be rated PG or PG-13, it really wasn’t suitable for kids as it had some adult themes.

Its lack of production values pretty much guarantees that it will never get any kind of a wide release in theaters or even end up on TV.  At the most it might do a limited release in art house theaters and go to DVD. 

Unfortunately, it looked like a low-budget film.  Cheap.  Real cheap.  There are ways filmmakers can stretch their budgets and give their films a bigger look.  But this film didn’t bother to employ any of those methods.  In fact, my budget estimate above might have been way too generous.

As a comparison, I remember a short 20-minute indie film called Broken.  I wrote an online review about it a few years ago.  What blew me away was that for only $8,000 the filmmakers were able to create a film that visually rivals a studio film.  They set a very high bar for indie films. 

This comedy, however, really needed a lot of work.  I kept looking for something that would set it apart and make it special.  Instead, it wasn’t even average.  The lighting was bad.  The camera was poorly placed and there were no interesting shots to speak of.  The sets/locations were poorly designed/chosen. 

I would have loved to see this movie have more of a cartoon look to it—something along the lines of Pushing Daisies would have worked really well for this film and given it more visual charm.  

Another thing this movie suffered from was talkitis.  It felt like they were trying too hard to make the dialog clever and funny.  But it really didn’t work.  Parts of it dragged on and on and on.

So how in the world did this film ever get made?  Obviously, there were some investors out there that thought enough of it to fund it.

Well, it had a strong cast.  In fact, its only strength was its cast.  I’m not going to name them, but you would recognize them in an instant.  They had some really talented actors in the lead roles and cameos by some even more well-known actors.  They all did a great job acting.  Unfortunately, the characters they were given to play were just caricatures.  Such a waste.

With a cast such as they had, I had to find out who they got to write and direct this movie.  So I looked it up and found out that the director and writer is the same person—a soap opera actor who also was one of the producers.  Now it started to make sense.  This was someone already in the business who had some connections.  Still, I’ve got to wonder if anyone bothered to take a look at his previous work to see if it was any good.

At this point there isn’t much they can do to salvage this movie.  It needs a page one rewrite and then virtually every creative decision they made about it needs to be rethought.  With their budget that is not going to happen.  The most they can probably do is try to fix the pace in the editing room, but I don’t think that is going to be enough to save this movie.

So would I have wanted to be involved in this project?  Probably not.  There are just too many things wrong with it, starting with the script.  If I could get it rewritten and hire another director, I would consider it since it does have a great cast.  But considering that the writer and director are the same person, that isn’t very likely.  My guess is that he attached himself as the director to his own script.  In other words, if you want the script, you have to accept him as the director.  But in this case, the story just wasn’t strong enough.

1 thought on “My First Test Screening Experience

  1. Thanks for the inside look. It’s interesting to hear about the impulse to downplay negative reactions. It helps to explain how some movies get made when they are so, so wrong.

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