Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Tales Of A Test Screening

I’ve been meaning to write about this for several months, but I thought it might be better if I held off until the film in question came out, so that I could partially avoid the spoiler issue. Be aware that I’m going to be mentioning the new Judd Apatow comedy KNOCKED UP, so if you haven’t seen it yet, know that I’ll be revealing some spoilers (if there can be said to be spoilers in a Hollywood romantic comedy).

Last October when I visited Los Angeles, I attended my first test screening. I think you may find the process as interesting and as odd as I did. I invite anyone who has also attended test screenings to post his or her experience below.

My friend Chris and I were wandering through the Studio City farmer’s market (where Ed Begley, Jr. has a booth selling his environmentally friendly cleaner, Begley’s Best!) on a Sunday morning when a young man called to us and asked if we were interested in a free test screening later that week. He handed us a flyer that mentioned next Thursday’s date and a multiplex in Sherman Oaks. The film was KNOCKED UP starring Katherine Heigl and Paul Rudd. I think it may have had a one- or two-sentence synopsis on it too, because I recall thinking that Rudd must be the romantic lead who knocks up Heigl. He asked if either of us worked for a studio. Chris does, but lied and said we didn’t. The guy asked us to RSVP on Thursday if we wanted to go.

On Thursday afternoon, I called the number on the flyer. Whoever answered was very much into security. She asked my name and the name of whoever would accompany me, as well as our addresses. She asked me to tell her the name of the number written on the upper righthand corner of the flyer, which I did. She asked if we worked for a studio, and I said no. Finally, she told me to show up at least 45 minutes before showtime, so we’d have a good chance of getting a seat (they invite more people than the auditorium actually holds).

Chris and I got to the Sherman Oaks theater well ahead of time and noticed a good-sized line, but not so long that we couldn’t get in. After about ten minutes, a young woman with a clipboard came up to us and asked how old we were. I didn’t see her do this with anyone else, but as I looked around, it was clear that pretty much everyone there was in their 20s or younger. I said I was 39 and Chris was 31 (or whatever). She then moved us to the head of the line, I guess to make sure the old dudes got in to help balance the results.

Despite all the security when I made the call, nobody ever asked us for ID or what our names were. I guess there was no need to RSVP; we could have just walked off the street and nobody would have known. All they did was make sure we didn’t have any cameras or recording devices. They even wanded us when we entered the theater.

Chris and I had decent seats in the stadium seating section. We saw Apatow with Garry Shandling and Loudon Wainwright III, so we figured they were in the movie (we were half right).

I haven’t seen KNOCKED UP since October, so I don’t know how much of what we saw is still in the movie. One thing that surprised me is that it isn’t any shorter. I didn’t check my watch at the beginning, but the cut we saw was about 2 hours and 20 minutes. There were a lot of scenes where Chris and I said, “that’ll be cut out,” not necessarily because it wasn’t funny, but it didn’t have anything to do with the rest of the film. One scene in particular where a bouncer bitches out Heigl and Leslie Mann was hilarious, but I couldn’t see how the studio would allow it to stay in. Plus, the movie felt too long. The middle really dragged, particularly a pointless section set in Las Vegas, which I would have snipped for being unfunny as well as non-essential.

Still, I thought it was a funny movie that would be hilarious at 100 minutes. After the movie was over, some women (why are these test audience monitors always women?) handed everybody a sheet of paper and one of those little miniature golf course pencils. This sheet had several test questions on it, some of them essay-type. I’m paraphrasing, but they would ask us to rate 1-10 how much we liked each individual cast member. They asked us to name three scenes we liked and three we didn’t like. They asked us how we would describe the movie to our friends (I said something like “THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN MEETS LEGALLY BLONDE”) and if we would recommend it.

Then, one of the women approached Chris and I and asked if we would stay to be part of the focus group. Again, probably because we were the oldest guys there. Of course, we did, and this is where the real craziness set in. Keep in mind that Apatow and others associated with the film are in the top row of the seats watching and listening (I found out later in a NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE piece that Apatow recorded the audience during the film to time where the laughs were). The woman running this focus group was a real piece of work. Maybe she deals with a lot of morons in her line of work, but she talked to the twenty of us in the group like a kindergarten teacher. She was incredibly condescending, and I actually felt embarrassed to be thought of as a five-year-old.

She asked more in-depth questions about the actors and their characters and motivations. Did we think the film was too long, just right or not long enough (incredibly, a couple people said it was too short—I guess those were the idiots)? Someone mentioned Paul Rudd, and she got all excited and slowly—again, like she was talking to five-year-olds—asked, “Okay, now does everybody know who she’s talking about?” I didn’t say very much unless spoken directly to, partially because I was trying to take everything in and partially because—and I hate to say this—I felt intellectually superior to everybody except Chris (and I think he felt the same way). Some of these people, I had the feeling, had never seen a movie before.

I can see the argument that “well, these are the people who will be paying to see the movie, so why not give them what they want,” but I just can’t believe that, after spending $70 million and a year making the film, after it has been written, shot and edited by talented people entrusted with that much dough, that filmmakers would allow normal schleprocks like me to decide for them what their art should be about. Some of these people in the focus group have no business even watching movies, much less deciding whether scenes should be added or dropped or judging whether somebody is a good actor or director.

It really seems like a silly way to make creative decisions. With a comedy, sure, I can understand recording the laughter and seeing what jokes play and what don’t or gauging whether to edit an extra beat here or there. Oddly, it may all have been moot. For what I have heard, a lot of what was in that test screening version is still in the film. The Las Vegas stuff is there. The bouncer scene is in. I’m most amazed to learn that a closeup of a vagina, which drew loud but uncomfortable laughter and groans, is still in the movie; I figured either the studio would want to avoid any controversy or the MPAA would make them cut it. The NYT MAGAZINE piece I referenced above indicated that there may have been some reshoots or alternate takes used in the final cut, so I’m curious to see KNOCKED UP again and see if I notice. One thing that I specifically spoke against to the focus group is that the Seth Rogan character has one line in a doctor’s office that is so mean, so cruel, so awful, that his character becomes completely unsympathetic for the rest of the movie. That after the film has tried hard to make him a compatible father, he blows it with that one line, turning him into a complete asshole. At the time, I thought Apatow would probably soften that scene, but I wonder.

One thing for sure: it was fun to see this movie months before everyone else and to follow the rumors and buzz that preceded its release, knowing that it was going to be good. The fact that it’s a box office hit is no surprise to me, although I did have misgivings about its length and negative word-of-mouth that “it’s funny, but way too long.”

Anyone else with a test screening story to share? Was my experience pretty common or atypical?