In Audience-ology, Goetz recalls Ang Lee saying to him: “Picasso never audience-tested his paintings”. But Goetz argues that if each of Picasso’s paintings had taken years to create, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, then maybe he would have tested them. “I’ve heard people say that the studio has an agenda,” he says, “and that’s true, but the agenda is that they want the film to get good word-of-mouth and to have real longevity. That’s how they make money from it.” Besides, he is a firm believer in the wisdom of crowds. “If someone honks at you on the highway, they’re a jerk,” he says. “But if three or four people honk at you, you’re the jerk. It’s the same with films. If 30 or 40 people tell you that something’s not working, you have to listen to that and think, ‘Maybe I’m not conveying what I set out to convey’. I like to say that testing doesn’t take away from a filmmaker’s vision, it helps to actualise that vision.”
That’s certainly what happened when Francis Annan was fine-tuning his directorial debut, Escape From Pretoria, a prison-break docudrama starring Daniel Radcliffe as an anti-apartheid activist. “The producers were obsessed by the film being 90 minutes long,” Annan tells BBC Culture, “so they kept cutting stuff until I felt that audiences wouldn’t know what was going on. The test screenings gave me ammo to fight back because the four weak points that audiences identified were where four actual scenes had been cut. I could call the executive producer, and say, ‘Look, you’ve overcut, they don’t understand why this character’s dying, they don’t understand what that character’s doing. Maybe if you put back that scene that I spent two days shooting with 100 extras, it might help.’ Of the four scenes that he’d cut, he accepted the need to put back three.”
Sometimes, Annan admits, a screening can work the other way around, and be used by a studio to overrule a director. Either way, he says, “It can be a scalpel to cut out pretentiousness and self-indulgence. If the ultimate point of art is to connect with someone, it would be absurd to exclude audiences from the process”.
Whether or not Ang Lee would agree, the process is here to stay. Recently, Goetz’s company developed a remote-screening system he describes as “Zoom on steroids” which allows hundreds of people to watch a film in their homes simultaneously, while the director and producers study their faces to see if they are laughing, crying or dozing off. “The stakes are higher than ever now that the theatrical window [when films are in cinemas] is so short. Why would you risk releasing something before it’s ready to show to the world?”
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