I am of two minds about test audiences. On the one hand, I think it's absurd for a director to change his movie -- which supposedly represents his vision -- based solely on feedback he gets from a test audience, rather than sticking to his instincts. On the other hand, I think audiences in general tend to be dimwitted and superficial in their tastes and should be ignored altogether. So ... actually, I guess I'm only of one mind.
I'm thinking about this topic because of last week's Internet rumor (courtesy of Cinema Blend) that Christopher Nolan was considering removing a scene from The Dark Knight based on negative (but dumb) reactions from test audiences. The scene in question has the Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger, in a body bag, pretending to be dead for the sake of a Joker-esque prank. Apparently, some viewers couldn't separate fact from fiction and were disturbed by the images of a dead-looking Joker.
A subsequent report at Movie Hole claims that the scene will NOT be removed from the film, regardless of what the test audiences' reaction might have been. I'm not too surprised by that, given that Nolan has generally been a strong-minded, intelligent filmmaker and not a wishy-washy for-hire studio hack. I bet we could all name a few directors who definitely would have made the change, though, in an attempt to make the film as mainstream, inoffensive, and bland as possible.
But it's an example of why the test-screening process is often ridiculous. It's one thing to show slightly different cuts of a film to figure out which version is better. With a comedy, especially, you get so close to the material that it's hard to stay objective about what's funny. Brent White, who has helped edit several Judd Apatow-produced movies, told some of us at South By Southwest last year that the actors in Knocked Up did so much improvising that it was hard to figure out which takes were funniest. So they'd show different ones to different audiences, record the laughter, and determine which jokes were best. That kind of test-screening makes sense, as you're simply looking for input on the details, not changing the plot or tone of the project.
One of the worst examples of kowtowing to dumb audience reactions was with the 1986 film version of Little Shop of Horrors. The stage musical ends with everyone dying and the plant taking over the world -- a comically downbeat conclusion, but perfectly appropriate for the darkly funny tone of the show, and the only ending that a campy tribute to B movies could have. Frank Oz shot the film the same way, then chickened out when test audiences didn't like the ending. He shot a happy ending, which totally sells out the tone of the show, and that's how the film was released. Bah. Bah, I say!
Test audiences often reflect the worst lowest-common-denominator impulses of moviegoers in general. They don't want any good guys killed off, even if it's thematically appropriate. They don't want a downer ending, even if it's what the whole film has been leading up to. They want everything to be spelled out for them, even if the film derives more power through ambiguity. Transformers seems like a movie that was made entirely through the input of test audiences: "Make the explosions louder! Make the jive-talking robot stupider! Make the hot chick's T-shirt tighter! Wooooooo!" You pay attention to test audiences and that's the kind of product you'll wind up with.
Make your movie. Seek input from people whose opinions you value. Trust your instincts. That's how talented people produce good films. I'm glad Christopher Nolan is one of those people. I, for one, look forward to seeing Heath Ledger playing a guy pretending to be dead!
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Eric D. Snider (website) would also like to see a movie where someone pries a gun out of Charlton Heston's cold dead hands.