SPOILER WARNING: Inevitably, this piece talks about the ending of many of the films concerned. It’s best to avoid individual entries about films you’re not familiar with to be on the safe said. That said, we’ve tried to be as spoiler-light as possible.
As far back as 1939, movies were being test screened. This is not a new thing, and in the example of The Wizard Of Oz, the test audience nearly did the film real damage. For the feedback came in that Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” was slowing the film down. In this instance, the studio held its nerve. But in others? That’s not been the case.
We’re assuming you know the stories of Fatal Attraction and Blade Runner, and how test audiences affected both films, so we’ve kept them out. But what we’ve tried to dig up here is a few lesser known stories. In some instances, the test audience improved the film. In some, it damaged it. In others, it barely make a scratch.
Without further ado…
28 DAYS LATER
Danny Boyle’s impressive zombie-esque movie had a very bleak ending when the original cut came in. It saw Cillian Murphy’s character lying in his hospital bed, having being shot, slowly dying. ‘That’s too downbeat!’, screamed the test audiences. Murphy was saved, and instead it’s the zombie-esque creatures who are on the verge of death as the film pulls to a close.
David Fincher is a director who fights hard to get the final cut of his movie, and pretty much always gets it now. In Sharon Waxman’s book Rebels On The Backlot, she tells the story of how Fincher wouldn’t back down on Fight Club, arguing to worried Fox top brass that it was the film and script they’d signed off on.
But then Fincher has learned the hard way to protect his work. There’s no final director’s cut of Alien 3 available, after all, because he never ultimately got to make one. The more recent Alien series boxsets have a version put together from Fincher’s notes and work – one that makes more sense – but it’s not one that he was ultimately involved in making.
Fincher was a first time director when the test screening numbers came back from Alien 3, and it would be fair to say that Fox panicked. Fincher was ordered to shoot more material months down the line (we talk about it in this article on arduous film productions), but even then, Fox executives recut the movie behind Fincher’s back. Eventually, the-then young director refused to have anything more to do with it.
Many directors embrace the test screening process, using it to help shape their films. Francis Ford Coppola in particular would be grateful to it when piecing Apocalypse Now together.
The book Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola by Gene D Phillips digs into this a little, arguing that Coppola is credited “with beginning the Hollywood vogue of test-screening movies”. In his case, “filmgoers were given a letter from Coppola at the test screenings inviting them ‘to help me finalize the film'”. In response to some of the comments he got? “My nerves are shot, and my heart is broken”. But responses very much helped shaped his films.
Coppola would continually use test screenings throughout his work, and we’ll be coming back to him soon.
BABE: PIG IN THE CITY
The story goes that Universal pretty much left director George Miller to his own devices for Babe 2. The original, a surprise hit and Best Picture Oscar nominee, had opened the studio’s eyes to a franchise. And thus Miller was given relatively free reign to make a follow-up.
When Universal first test screened the film though, at Anaheim Hills nearly a month before the release, it knew it had a big, big problem. Parents complained that the film – featuring animals being dragged to within an inch of death – was too scary for children. And Universal didn’t have much time to make changes.
Some alterations were made, but the biggest problem was that said test screening had initiated troubling word of mouth. Universal upped its marketing, went for a big opening weekend, and soon scrapped plans for Babe 3, as families began to avoid the film.
The changes that were made, incidentally, included Miller shortening a sequence where a goldfish flaps around out of the water, a cutting back of scenes of near-drowning, a toning down of the scores, and removing moments with Mickey Rooney’s clown character. A special premiere had to be cancelled to accommodate the changes. For more on this, here’s our piece on edgy, expensive films that got through the studio system.
The ending to Big was the logical one, if incredibly harsh on Elizabeth Perkins’s character (as we explored here). The film sees Tom Hanks’s Josh return to his youth, to the delight of his parents. Meanwhile, we’re left with the still-adult Perkins, left to solemnly drive away, alone.
That’s not what test audiences wanted, however. As director Penny Marshall told Premiere back in 1989, test audiences wanted Perkins to join Tom Hanks in childhood. “At one point, the studio wanted her to go back”, she admitted, and that “we talked about it”. However, Marshall and her co-producer stood firm.
As she argued, “this was the script that the studio bought, and if they were worried about the ending being bittersweet, they should have worried about it a few years earlier”. Perkins’s character was doomed, therefore, to eternal loneliness.
THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES
More Tom Hanks. Julie Salamon’s book The Devil’s Candy is an exhaustive and brilliant account of the Hollywoodisation (is that a word? Bah, it is now) of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire Of The Vanities. The movie’s a dud, but by the end of the book, you’re rooting for it not to be.
Late on, she talks about how De Palma tested the film. The first public preview screening took place in San Diego (“the executives wanted to test the film with an audience that approximated their idea of middle America without having to fly very far from Los Angeles”).
Salamon writes that “before the movie began De Palma knew he was in trouble”, noting “the lack of ethnicity and class diversity, the profusion of blond hair and golf slacks in the San Diego crowd”. The audience didn’t get the film. Interestingly, Salomon also revealed that De Palma regularly used Steven Spielberg to help preview his films. Spielberg, who had previously seen a cut of the film and liked it, would say that “I could feel the audience getting into the fetal position. I had that same reaction”. Ouch.
The scores came back as passable, but nowhere near the numbers that Warner Bros was looking for. And thus the recutting process began…
One of the planet’s most confident and interesting directors of popular movies would be Wes Anderson. It’s hard to imagine Anderson being too beholden to the whims of a test audience, but the story goes that he significantly retooled his first film, Bottle Rocket. That was because the audience couldn’t work out what was happening to the characters played by Owen and Luke Wilson, and thus reshoots were required. Given that this was a low budget production though, funding was relatively sparse. Turns out, it was Mel Brooks who paid the bill.
BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but in the run up to the release of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Columbia Pictures thought it had an outright dud on its hands. Director Francis Ford Coppola had to recut the film, but even then, it wouldn’t find favour with test audiences.
Interestingly, then, what Columbia opted to do was not materially alter the film again, but rather the release strategy. Figuring that the film was going to get killed after its first week, Columbia opted to release the film as widely as possible with as much punch as possible. That’s a conventional tactic for a big movie now, but not in 1992. As Jon Lewis’ book, Whom God Wishes To Destory – Francis Coppola And The New Hollywood, recalls, “when the picture hit, the studio distribution team had, unintentionally, platformed the picture perfectly. Had they believed all along that the movie would be a blockbuster, the distribution team no doubt would have opened the movie fast and wide anyway in order to turn its release into an event. As such, “the executives simply sat back, let the film do its thing at the box office, and then took credit for its success”.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula would go on to take over $200m at the global box office.
Peyton Reed’s risky rom-com, at heart about a couple rowing for two hours as they break up, proved a solid summer hit in 2006. Both Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn came out of the project well.
After test audiences didn’t like that fact that the lead couple stayed apart at the end of the film, a new ending was hastily ordered and shot, which left the door open. That ending went down just as badly, as it happened. But the film hit big anyway.
Gregor Jordan’s excellent war comedy Buffalo Soldiers was a well-charted victim of timing. Picked up by Miramax at the Toronto Film Festival on September 10th 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center the day after left Hollywood studios uneasy about releasing any feature deemed unpatriotic. Miramax, which had promised to release the film within a year, moved it back to a July 2002 release date.
However, it screened the film to a test audience in January 2002, in New York City. The feedback? Miramax needed to leave more time. As the Los Angeles Times reported back in June 2003, “one woman spoke out during a focus group after the screening saying that while she didn’t dispute the film’s accuracy, ‘I think this is a time when we need to be patriotic and I don’t think the American people should see it’. After delaying the release, Miramax tested the film again in December 2002, and got a far more positive reaction. It eventually got a small and not entirely successful release in July 2003.
A quite sizeable hit, against expectations, Coyote Ugly is a Jerry Bruckheimer movie that had a firm ambition to get women into a cinema. As such, for the test screening process, women were recruited, but they gave the filmmakers some feedback they weren’t expected. For the audience knew a good thing when they saw it, and the response to the film was clear: edit in more John Goodman. As a result, that’s exactly what happened. New scenes were filmed with Goodman, and added to the final cut of the film.
That test audience should be allowed to watch more films, and request more John Goodman.
Interesting one, this. In the trailer for Renny Harlin’s 1993 hit Cliffhanger, Sylvester Stallone is seen jumping from one cliff to another. It’s a 40 foot leap, and when test audiences were presentated with this, they guffawed. The reason? They just didn’t buy it could be possible. As such, the jump was re-edited – ironically needing the help of some CG work – to make the jump appear shorter. Nobody guffawed. It made it to the film.
THE DARK CRYSTAL
As the excellent biography of Jim Henson that Brian Jay Jones penned recalled, The Dark Crystal was a film where the story did not come first. Henson embroiled himself in the creature and world creation, and it was only relatively late into production that the narrative was considered in great detail.
Perhaps inevitably then, the early test screenings of The Dark Crystal were not positive ones. As DarkCrystal.com noted, “audiences were bewildered and repulsed by the sight of grotesque lizards snarling at one another in meaningless shrieks. As soon as the movie started, people began walking out”. The negative press followed, but Henson stood form. He reworked the film a little, but not much. Crucially, further test screenings didn’t involve that many people in the film industry, and went a little better.
But ultimately, Henson – still unconvinced that his backers (who had since changed) were behind the project – bought the whole thing back. He insulated himself from the excesses of the test screening process by buying his own negative back. A wise man.
DEATH BECOMES HER
Robert Zemeckis’ underrated special effects-driven comedy Death Becomes Her is one we looked back at recently, and it had an entire subplot cut from it as a consequence of the testing process.
When the original film was screened for test audiences, the congregated hive of minds was adamant: the ending had to go. As a consequence, not only was the ending of Death Becomes Her changed, but it meant a subplot about a bartender the character of Ernest (played by Bruce Willis) falls in love with had to go. In spite of said changes, the film never caught fire at the box office in the way it was expected to.
Neil Marshall ended up battling test audiences on one of his later projects, Centurion, yet with The Descent, they’d already done a bit of damage. His excellent movie was originally set to end with with none of the lead characters survivors. US test screenings put pay to that, though, and Marshall had to retool his film slightly so that one of them survived.
The film that firmly put the late Patrick Swayze on the movie star map, it’s a movie he talks about extensively in his autobiography (where he reveals how he was struggling, due to injury, with the dancing scenes). Swayze’s book makes it sound like he was always confident about the film, but at one stage, the film was going to bypass cinemas altogether. Early test audience reactions were hostile to the film, to the point where a straight to video release was considered.
DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY
Rumours still abound regarding a sequel to Rawson Marshall-Thurber’s Dodgeball. But this was a film that test audiences demanded, and got, a change to. In the original cut of the film, Vince Vaughn’s Average Joes lost in the final dodgeball match, with the film hitting the credits on a downbeat moment. Against Marshall-Thurber’s personal wishes, the studio wanted, and got, the more uplifting ending. Dodgeball went on to make lots of money.
Jim Sheridan is an excellent director (take a look at In America for a start), but Dream House is a crappy movie. However, Sheridan didn’t have right of final cut of the movie in his contract, and as such, Morgan Creek Productions scissored together the version that was ultimately released.
The movie, which starred Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, was an all-round flop, and test screenings had gone very badly. Morgan Creek, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, was disappointed with how much improvisation Sheridan had allowed on set, and the director tried to remove his name from the project. Only when the company stumped up for reshoots did he remove his request, only to put said request back in, presumably when he didn’t warm to the final version of the film. He would not be alone in that regard.
THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE
Disney had its eye on another Lion King-style success when it greenlit Kingdom Of The Sun, a film set to be backed by music from Sting. But as Trudie Styler would document in her fascinating documentary The Sweatbox (which leaked onto YouTube), all did not go to plan. The original plan for a move environmental story was ditched soon after test screenings had been met with a disappointing response.
In fact, the film changed dramatically. Virtually all of Sting’s songs were dropped, the original director quit, and the film migrated – with no small amount of credit to incoming director Mark Dindal – into the enjoyable comedy The Emperor’s New Groove. It had a happy ending, but only just…
Simple one, this. Universal wasn’t quite sure what it had on its hands with Erin Brokovich, the film that won an Oscar for Julia Roberts, and an Oscar nomination for director Steven Sodebergh (he won the same year for Traffic). The arguments got to the point where the studio wanted to change the title of the film. However, when the test scores came back high, Universal relented. The title stayed, the film became a hit, it won gongs, and Roberts’ career was revived.
Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial hardly had the most chipper ending when it did finally make it cinemas. But the story goes that in one cut of the film that was tested, E.T. died, rather than popped into his spaceship to go home. You won’t be surprised to hear that the test audience in question did not warm to this ending at all. A new ending, where E.T. lived, was duly filmed.
The ending of the first Final Destination film originally had the character of Alex – played by Devon Sawa – meeting his maker in an electrocution ‘accident’. Then – get this – the film fast forward nine months, and Ali Larter’s Clear gives birth to his son. Quite a lot of post-production fiddling thus went on, and another cut – with Alex being killed by a helicopter – was used. Both of these endings were nixed by test audiences, leaving the one that the film ultimately used. Kerr Smith’s Carter – reportedly at a cost of a couple of million dollars – was knocked off instead.
Another ending story this one, and in this case, Sylvester Stallone probably owes the test audiences of his first Rambo film a cut. In the original story, John Rambo perished at the hands of Trautman. This is also what happens in the novel upon which Rambo is based.
Yet the test audiences were not happy with this, and demanded that Rambo lived. Sylvester Stallone duly obliged, along came a new ending, and when Rambo went on to be a huge hit, the sequel – First Blood: Part II – followed shortly.
Now, Stallone is getting to work on Rambo 5. Every time he does a balance enquiry at his local brand of NatWest, he must do a silent grin to himself…
FOR LOVE OF THE GAME
If you’ve ever had an urge to admire Kevin Costner’s penis, then you need one of the original cuts of his third baseball movie, For Love Of The Game.
The Sam Raimi-directed film originally contained a shower scene where Costner stood wearing the outfit he was delivered into the world in, his untouchable in full view. MPAA guidelines seemingly apparently state that the mere site of a Costner’s dancing wolf constituted an R rating, so Universal was already veering towards cutting it. But also, the test audience, according to New York magazine, “giggled at Kevin’s penis”. Proof positive that sometimes, if you build it, they won’t come.
It’s okay, that’s taxi out there’s for us.
A brief sojourn into television.
Considering that Friends has gone on to become one of the most popular television sitcoms of all time, it’s staggering that it was nearly nixed in its early life by the curse of the test audience. When they had the opportunity to see the pilot episode, they weren’t impressed. An NBC Research report has revealed that “most viewers felt the show was not very entertaining, clever or original”, criticising the characters for being “smug, superficial and self-absorbed”. Furthermore, “the coffee house setting was confusing to viewers”.
It was scored 41 out of 100, and ranked “weak”. Yikes. You can find the full report here.
According to Peter Biskind’s book, Easy Riders Raging Bulls, Martin Scorsese never been forced to test screen any of his movies until 1990’s Goodfellas. Then, at the behest of Warner Bros, a pair of test screenings were arranged in California. 40 people walked out of the first one within ten minutes of it starting. Those who stayed reported discomfort at the last chunk of the movie, as Henry Hill – played by Ray Lliota – spends his last day as a wiseguy. Scorsese counter-argued, and he and long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker subsequently added jump cuts, speeding the sequence up, to put across the impact the drugs were having on Hill. That’s the version that ultimately made it to cinemas.
HALLOWEEN 6: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS
It’s nice to know that six films into a film series, people still like sticking their nose in. Halloween 6: The Curse Of Michael Myers “tested poorly” in its original form, reported Film School Rejects. It learned this on the commentary to the DVD release of ‘The Producers’ Cut’ of the film, that was originally set to be the version we got to see in cinemas/at the video shop.
However, Miramax – a firm with something of a reputation for chopping away at films – wanted changes. A chunk of the film was ultimately reshot (although because Donald Pleasance had passed away by this time, a body double for him was used), and a sizeable number of changes were made. These changes kicked in from the opening of the film (which was set to begin with a montage from earlier movies), and stretched right through to the ending. It would be fair to say that the final cut was notably different.
The 2000s remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers may have starred Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman, but it had lots of things that weren’t going for it. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who helmed both The Experiment and Downfall (before moving on to, er, Diana) took charge, but his final cut of the film did not hit the mark.
Enter the test audience. In this instance, the original ending had left things quite open, leaving ambiguity as to whether the boy at the end of the film who has the cure that will see off the aliens has actually survived. Test audience? It say no. Thus, Warner Bros drafted in the Wachowskis to pen a more action driven finale, and James McTeigue, helmer of V For Vendetta, directed the extra material. It all made little difference. The film tanked.
Sometimes, a test screening can make a great film even better. Steven Spielberg knew he had a success on his hands with Jaws when, mid-way through an early screening, one audience member decamped to the toilets to be sick. But it was after the screening of a first rough cut of the movie, which took place in Dallas, that Spielberg figured he could fine tune Jaws even more.
The original version, as Tom Shone writes in his book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Summer, had “one big scream – when the shark comes at Roy Scheider while he is chumming at the back of the boat, at the eighty-minute mark”. Spielberg would add a further scene, “where a head swings out of a sunken boat”, and cut it into the film. He had scream number two. Shone’s book, incidentally, is well worth a look, going in some detail through the Jaws testing process.
Right then: page two of this list. We’ve had to split it up to help with loading times, and gubbins such as that. But at least we’re getting started again with a chat about the infamous Last Action Hero. Buckle up…
LAST ACTION HERO
Arnold Schwarzenegger had strong ideas about Last Action Hero. His first summer tentpole movie since Terminator 2: Judgment Day, it arrived at a time when the 90s were said to have a more caring, sharing feel. And in a moment of prescience, Schwarzenegger wanted his latest action fest to have a family rating. A PG-13 action blockbuster? They’d surely never catch on.
The problem was that the audience wanted an Schwarzenegger action film that didn’t flinch. Yet even on the poster for Last Action Hero, Arnie wasn’t holding a gun. Surely this wasn’t a big film that was pretending the Austrian Oak was an actor?
Test screenings were not good. At one, reported the Los Angeles Times in 1993, a member of the audience stood up and yelled “this movie has cancer”. Which is nice. At one stage, Columbia threatened to boycott the Los Angeles Times over reporting of such a disastrous test screening, originally deny it took place. But take place it did, and all concerned realised they had a problem.
Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters, in the book Hit And Run, go back further, to the very first test screening. Shown in an incomplete state, an audience that started off “whopping and foot-stomping” ended up “catatonic”. In the words of one person at the screening, “the movie lay there like a big friend egg”.
Columbia tried to fix it. Shane Black was called back to rewrite parts of the movie’s third act, with hasty reshoots adding in more action, and more traditional Arnie work. The ad campaign threw in more guns. But the battle was lost. In this case, reports of the poor test screenings coincided with the huge success of Jurassic Park. Last Action Hero was beaten.
THE LAST MOVIE
Sometimes, a filmmaker stands their ground in the face of disastrous test movie scores, and lets their movie find its own way. That’s what Dennis Hopper did with his sophomore directorial effort, The Last Movie. After spending of a year in the cutting room to come up with a screenable version of the film, Universal and Hopper were hardly best friends. As Robert Sellers tells in his book Hollywood Hellraisers, Universal traceled to see a rough version of the film, whilst “Dennis ignored them and went into the local bar instead to get pissed”.
A test screening was organized of The Last Movie at the University Of Iowa. Hopper found himself booed and jeered afterwards, with the audience throwing objects in his direction. Spotting a woman he took a liking to by a vending machine in the lobby, Hopper approached her. When she ascertained he made the film, she promptly punched him on the nose, and called him a “sexist fucking pig”. Universal, Sellers says, thought the film was “a bucket of shit”, with one executive reportedly telling Hopper that “we’ll only make money on this picture if you die”.
Hopper did not take that well, and from that point on, refused to recut The Last Movie into something more commericial. It bombed on its release, having being savage by critics, later lamenting that “it ended my career” (as a director at least).
Sometimes, the test audience is right…
In what’s now regarded as an error, director Ridley Scott went a bit to town on his original cut of Legend for its US release. Test scores came back low, and as such, Scott dropped Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the movie, and also chopped out the best part of ten minutes of material from the final film. Scott would eventually assemble a director’s cut many years’ later, which jigsawed the movie into more convincing shape.
LICENCE TO KILL
A simple one this, but it shows that the testing process isn’t just limited to the film itself. The title of Timothy Dalton’s final 007 adventure was originally Licence Revoked. Test audiences, goes the report, suggested that in the US, this meant he’d lost his driving licence. The James Bond team changed the title. Job done.
THE LOVELY BONES
Peter Jackson’s hugely ambitious – and not entirely successful – film of Alice Sebold’s novel pushed against the boundaries of a PG-13 rating, and that wasn’t helped by the testing process. As Peter Jackson told Reuters at the time, the test audiences wanted him to “add more violence and suffering”, revealing “they just weren’t satisfied”. In particular, the death of one character disappointed viewers, as they wanted to see that person “in agony”, arguing that he needed to “suffer a lot more”. The changes were made.
THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS
A studio hack job, this, and a fairly dramatic one. Orson Welles’s cut of The Magnificent Ambersons came in at a weighty 148 minutes. Following, er, ‘negative audience feedback’, the studio cut a full hour (yep) from the movie, and added a happier ending to the piece. It’s something the Clamp Cable Network would be proud of.
There’s no happy ending here, either. The majority of footage that was hacked away has never resurfaced.
PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID
The home movie revolution – in turn, VHS, Laserdisc and DVD – saved the original cut of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. The 1973 western had a hefty 20 minutes chopped away by studio chiefs, after a preview screening of Peckinpah’s cut did not go well. The film consequently did badly on its original release and got poor critical notices as well.
Eventually, though, a DVD release in 2005 managed to pull together something closer to Peckinpah’s original cut of the film. And whilst the director himself could never fully sign off on that cut, the film’s reputation is now far stronger than it once was.
A PERFECT MURDER
The loose retelling of Dial M For Murder proved a decent box office hit for Michael Douglas towards the end of the 1990s. But it’s one that had a hairy last few weeks of post-production, thanks to a late decision to shoot a new ending. Naturally enough, it’s one that doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but the test audience didn’t like the original choice.
Turns out this was not the finest work of a test audience. The original ending surfaced on the DVD release, and leaves things in a more interestingly place. Paltrow’s Emily shoots Douglas’ Steven. She injures herself. He dies. She presents the whole thing as self-defeance. Given what the characters have been through to that point, it makes a little more sense…
Had fate taken a different turn on this one, Julia Roberts may not have gone on to be a movie star. There are lots of things about the harsh story of Pretty Woman that were curtailed to turn it into the Cinderella tale that it become, but how about this for an original ending? A few different takes were filmed – Garry Marshall talks about them in his book – but the original cut of the movie would have not seen Gere and Roberts ending up together.
Instead, the version that was first screened saw Gere walk away from Roberts after her week-long makeover. It’s an ending far more in keeping with the original dark tone of the screenplay’s first draft, but conversely, it’s also one test audiences didn’t go for at all. They wanted the pair to end up together, that’s just what happened, box office gold followed.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
Joe Wright’s 2005 take on Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice proved to be a hit in both the UK and the US – but Britain got a shorter version of the film. As the BBC reported back in 2005, the US release ran for eight minutes longer, after British test audiences reacted against “the extended romantic ending”. The American version of the film allows time for Elizbeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy to have an “embrace at the end”. Whilst that was happening, British audiences were already on their way to the bus stop.
Recovering from the critical and commercial destruction of his high budget adaptation of The Bonfire Of The Vanities, Brian De Palma went a bit closer to home territory with his next movie, the low-budget B-flick Raising Cain. There’s a good jolt or two in Raising Cain, and a great performance from John Lithgow.
However, for a crucial time, De Palma lost confidence in his film. Test screenings were reportedly disastrous, and as a result of that, he heavily recut his film. In doing so, he moved the focus away from Lolita Davidovich’s Jenny, making it more a movie about Lithgow. Jenny’s story was heavily diluted as a result of De Palma’s recuts, and he’s admitted since he regrets the changes that he made. The film, for starters, would have opened with her, rather than Lithgow’s Carter Nix.
There’s an interesting piece at IndieWire here that goes into a lot more detail, including the piecing together of a cut closer to De Palma’s original vision for the film.
The pressure was on with the retooling of RoboCop that was released into cinemas last year. It got generally good to strong reviews too, with the political content in particular coming in for praise. As star Joel Kinnaman told us earlier in the year though, it was the test audience that saved that cut.
The studio behind the film was expressing fears about the movie lacking excitement, and being too heavy on politics. However, as he told us, “in the first test screening of RoboCop, it tested very high. Then they asked the people why they liked it, and the first answer was, ‘I liked it because it was political.’ And the second answer was because, ‘It feels like it deals with current affairs.’ And the third answer was, ‘Because it feels emotional.'”
Effectively, the list of things that the studio was looking to tone down. Kinnaman attributes the fact that director Jose Padilha managed to get his cut through the Hollywood system to the test audience’s reaction.
You won’t find us taking a bullet for John McTiernan’s remake of Rollerball, and given his interviews on the project since, nor would McTiernan. But here’s an example of a film where just the mere reports of bad test screenings blighted a project. Nearly a year ahead of its eventual release, the internet was awash with reports of just how crappy the film was. McTiernan notoriously flew Ain’t It Cool News‘ Harry Knowles to New York, put him up in a posh hotel, and showed him a cut of the film. Knowles did not write nice words about the film.
The film was thus recut, and reshoots were ordered. Then cuts were made to get the film a PG-13 rating, to give it a good shot at decent box office. That shot missed. Whilst the version of Rollerball that eventually made it to the screens of multiplexes differed quite heavily from the version tested, it was not the required improved. That advance negative buzz from the aforementioned early screenings had no counterpoint. The film bombed.
A SAILOR-MADE MAN
Here’s a story that goes right back to 1921. Test screenings had been used for a few years by this stage, to help with silent films. Harold Lloyd and producer Hal Roach would take note of how many laughs their movies were getting, and tinker with the edit as appropriate. Thus, with his feature debut, A Sailor-Made Man, Lloyd noted that this one was going down a particular treat, the film wasn’t chopped down, and Lloyd became – after Charlie Chaplin – the second silent film comic to release a full length film.
David Fincher had had enough of studio meddling by the time he came to make one of his masterpieces, Seven. Thus, it would be fair to say that his 1995 classic is very much his uncompromised vision (well, as uncompromised as a film can get) – with one exception. Test audience scores for Seven were low, and in particular, the desperately dark ending came in for heavy criticism. Fincher, and Morgan Freeman, wanted the ending, and got it, but not without a major fight. In the end, the narration of Freeman quoting Ernest Hemingway in the final moment of the film was the compromise, but that’s as far as it went. Fincher and Freeman were not keen on it.
As Fincher recalled of the testing process on Seven “I’m standing in the back of the theatre, I think I was with Bob Shaye [then-head of New Line Cinema] and these three women come by and one of them says to the other two, ‘the people who made that movie should be killed'”. Good job they weren’t….
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
Gah. It’s well worth taking a look at Mark Kermode’s book of The Shawshank Redemption movie story. Get ready to sob a little bit though, as that slightly cheesy ending – where Red and Andy finally meet on the beach – was absolutely not in the original cut of the film.
Instead, the original version hinged on hope, as did Stephen King’s original short story. In fact, the last words of King’s prose were “I hope”. The idea was that the story was left as Red left prison, to see if he would find his new life, or meet the same fate as befalls the late James Whitmore’s Brooks in the movie. However, when two different endings were tested side by side, the one least preferred by the filmmakers, and most preferred by the test audience, prevailed. That lingering question about hope was thus firmly answered, diluting the ending of the picture in the process.
Of all the things a test audience could have grumbled about in Starship Troopers, the one factor that stood out was the love triangle in the midst of the film. So: would Denise Richards’s character find love with Patrick Muldoon or Casper Van Dien?
You may recall, if you know that film, that Richards’ Carmen breaks up with Van Dien’s Rico. But in the original cut, she has a smooch with Muldoon’s Zander. And the test audience reportedly hated her character as a result. The result? An edit, that reduced the relationship we see between Zander and Carmen.
Rico, meanwhile, deals with the blow of being dumped by Carmen by striking up a relationship with Dina Meyer’s Diz. The test audience didn’t mind that.
Oh, and whilst we’re chatting about Starship Troopers, a quick plug for our piece on Michael Ironside and the evolution of his missing body parts.
Lest you think that the test screening is a modern phenomena, consider a classic such as Sunset Boulevard. At a test screening for the film, director Billy Wilder was told by one attendee that she had “never saw such a pile of shit in all my life”. Furthermore, the original opening, set in a morgue, invoked laughter. Wilder retooled both the start and the end of the film off the back of the feedback, focusing specifically on a single narrator.
SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE
Lots of problems plagued Superman IV, with Cannon cutting the budget drastically at the last minute (as we explored in our look at the rise and fall of Cannon Films), and Milton Keynes being forced to double for New York with the help of a few cheap and unconvincing props.
Cannon knew it had a problem pre-release though, especially after a test screening that took place in Orange County, California. It would be fair to say that it did not go down well. The audience there was shown a 134 minute cut of the film, and Superman IV was trimmed heavily before it made it into wide release.
So what got cut? There’s the Lacy and Clark romance. There’s the first Nuclear Man. There are also some plot lines that the longer cut apparently cleared up, although given that nobody seems to have a copy of the director’s cut of Superman IV, that may just be heresay. It’s unlikely that a director’s cut could save Superman IV. But it may just paper over one or two of its many cracks.
Rachel Talalay’s movie of Tank Girl never made the expected box office splash back in 1995, and a big feature in the July ’95 issue of Empire throws insights as to why. Jamie Hewlett, the co-creator of Tank Girl, addressed the issue of how the film was extensively cut following test screenings.
So, the character of Sub Girl got cut down to one scene after originally being an integral part of the film, whilst the ending changed. “The very last shot had Tank Girl burping into the camera”, Hewlett remembers.
Hewlett shared his view on the process, and it’s not too positive a one. “It’s ridiculous having a bunch of snotty little 14-year olds deciding how a film should be made. They were probably just snogging their bird or pulling each others’ hair throughout the whole thing”, he suggested.
Hewlett also revealed that a scene with Tank Girl, Booga and “a ten-inch prosthetic cock” also got cut. “A $5,000 cock. It looked brilliant”, he said. “The whole scene was very romantic. But MGM took it out. Too bestial. We were going ‘it’s innocent, like seeing your mum and dad in bed together”.
An interesting movie this one, but still a film that feels like it adds up to far less than the sum of its ingredients. But the production, which combined Jack Nicholson with director Mike Nichols, found problems when the testing process started. As Lawrence Journal-World reported back in June 1994, “an early test screening in Dallas proved dismal”.
So dismal, in fact, that Nichols would perform much surgery on his film. To quote the report, he “substantially altered the movie, tightening the pace of the ending to make it more comprehensible to audiences and overhauling the musical score by Ennio Morricone”. It’s a great Morricone score, incidentally, should you get the chance to try it. But Wolf ended up a strange mess, with some really good moments.
Joe Johnston had a job on his hands to save Universal’s expensive film of The Wolfman, starring Benicio Del Toro. He didn’t ultimately succeed, but the film nonetheless did at least do half decent business.
It was a series of test screenings that determined which version of the film went on general release, interestingly. A couple of different cuts were put before said test audiences, and the feedback that came back, unusually, was it was the longer version that they preferred. And that’s what they got.
One last thing…
There’s a lovely post over at Criterion’s website that features notes from a Videodrome test screening. Click here and get, er, ‘an insight’ into the process…!