This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
WARNING: This feature contains spoilers for the end of movies, ranging from 1980s hits to recent ones like Escape Room. If you haven’t seen one of the films discussed, you may want to skip over that entry or otherwise proceed with caution.
The test screening process is a nebulous part of studio filmmaking. Some directors and producers swear by it, but in other cases, it’s the bane of a filmmaker’s existence. With so much money on the line, most studios reserve the right to choose the final cut of a film, which can be hugely influenced by preview audiences’ reactions.
Endings seem to be particularly fluid when it comes to test-screening feedback and there are countless stories of movies ending differently as a result of how a sample audience have reacted to a preview screening. We’ve collected 32 examples here, ranging from the infamous to the less discussed, and even one very recent film.
Understandably, the process of changing a movie’s ending after you’ve finished filming is very eclectic. Sometimes they’ve added or reshot something and sometimes they’ve taken something out. Maybe the filmmakers are onboard or maybe the studio has taken it away from them. And crucially, some of these changes are for the better and some…aren’t.
Finally, many of the movies on the table spawned sequels or spin-offs, so it’s interesting to see how the altered ending changed the course of their respective franchises. So, with one last spoiler warning (again, we’re discussing the very end of all these movies), let’s start with an ending…
Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy (2004)
How did it originally end? Let’s start with a film that was wholly changed as a result of poor test screenings. The first Anchorman‘s main plot once revolved around a group of hippie bank robbers known as The Alarm Clock (played by Kevin Corrigan, Maya Rudolph, Chuck D, and Tara Subkoff) who aim to use media coverage of their crimes to further their agenda, culminating with them taking Christina Applegate’s Veronica Corningstone hostage.
What changed? Pretty much everything. After the first cut of the film fell flat, the script was significantly rewritten and reshot, replacing the Alarm Clock stuff with the subplot about a pregnant panda and reconfiguring the ending accordingly. If you’re feeling morbidly curious about how the film originally looked, the early cut was released as a straight-to-DVD spin-off titled Wake Up Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie.
Army Of Darkness (1992)
How did it originally end? “I slept too long!” Sam Raimi’s raucous “Medieval Dead” threequel had a sting in the tail where Ash Campbell (Bruce Campbell) takes one drop too many of a sleeping draught designed to help him hibernate until the present day. Instead, he wakes up in a post-apocalyptic hellscape and we draw a veil on his latest predicament.
What changed? In the studio-mandated ending, Ash wakes up on time and goes back to work at the S-Mart, where he takes on another deadite. The spin-off series Ash vs. Evil Dead treats this ending as canon, in part because of a rights situation involving the third film. Both endings are good though.
Blade Runner (1982)
How did it originally end? There are no less than seven different cuts of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi LA noir for people to chew over. Although we’ve had a Director’s Cut and a Final Cut and all sorts of other cuts since, the original intention was for Deckard (Harrison Ford) to find a fatefully placed origami unicorn outside his apartment as he leaves with replicant Rachael (Sean Young), and… well, that’s up for interpretation.
What changed? Beyond their confusion with the complex and ambiguous plot, audiences expected Harrison Ford to be more like Han Solo or Indiana Jones in this sci-fi noir. The studio brought the star back in between shooting scenes on Return of the Jedi to record some notoriously awful narration (he really didn’t fancy doing it and it sounds like it too) and tacked a bit of sunny countryside footage originally shot for The Shining onto the end as a happy ending of sorts. The film bombed upon release but has found more acclaim in its various different versions over the years.
How did it originally end? In another famous case of studio interference, the marvellously dystopic Brazil was subject to a pitched battle between director Terry Gilliam and the top brass at Universal, then led by Sid Sheinberg. Gilliam’s cut ended with the bittersweet reveal of Sam (Jonathan Pryce) dreaming of a fantastic escape from Central Services, while he’s lobotomized in reality.
What changed? Sheinberg ordered a version of the film that not only cut off the reveal, imposing what Gilliam labelled the “Love Conquers All” ending, but also culled the film from 142 minutes to 94 minutes. This cut is what US audiences saw back in 1985, but Universal finally let Gilliam have his way after he arranged unauthorized screenings for film critics and local students and wound up winning Best Picture at that year’s LA Critics Circle Awards.
How did it originally end? He wasn’t even supposed to be there today! Kevin Smith’s ode to convenience store workers debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994 in a longer form than the one general audiences got to see. Now available to watch in its entirety on the Clerks X special edition DVD, “The First Cut” ends with Dante (Brian O’Halloran) being killed in cold blood by a gun-toting robber.
What changed? Upon reflection, Smith has admitted that he initially “didn’t know how to end a film.” Although the film was rapturously received from the off, this version disproved Dante’s own theory in the case of Empire vs Jedi, that a downer ending is better. Upon further festival screenings and advice from producers, Smith cut the death scene and an unlikely franchise was born.
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
How did it originally end? By all accounts, this sharky monster movie tested terrifically well, particularly following one of the most memorable surprise deaths of the last 20 years. However, producers were puzzled that the ending, in which heroes Thomas Jane, LL Cool J, and Saffron Burrows all made it out alive, went down so badly.
What changed? As anyone who’s seen the film knows, the key to the test audience’s umbrage was that Burrows’ mad scientist Susan originally survived unscathed. As director Rennie Harlin tells it, the filmmakers got response cards saying “kill the bitch.” A quick reshoot was arranged to add a CG shark to a climactic scene where Susan falls in the water and dispatch her with a quick chomp.
The Descent (2005)
How did it originally end? Several British films wind up being altered for different markets and various films on this list were cut differently for American audiences. As seen in the UK versions, Neil Marshall’s relentless claustrophobic thriller ends with Sarah finally escaping the uncharted Appalachian cave system. When a vision of her dead friend Juno appears, she awakes in terror, back underground, and realizes she was hallucinating as the gribblies finally catch up with her.
What changed? After complaints that the ending was too dark, the US cut gives the film the Brazil treatment and simply omits the last 30 seconds of the film, turning the appearance of Juno into a baffling final image. 2009’s The Descent Part 2 (a film that answers that age-old question “what if Aliens, but lousy?”) is vague enough to follow both endings, but the real ending, where you don’t have to watch the sequel, is far more preferable.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)
How did it originally end? “Joes lose!” Unlikely as it seems, Rawson Marshall Thurber’s riotous sports comedy was first shown to test audiences with a downer ending, in which the film fades to black shortly after White Goodman (Ben Stiller) eliminates Average Joes captain Peter LeFleur (Vince Vaughn) in the final.
What changed? In the reinstated “Sudden Death” ending, we get a few more super-quotable lines (“He will not be able to see that way” and “Fuckin’ Chuck Norris” spring to mind) before the credits roll, sending us home smiling with a much happier ending. If you wait until the very end of the credits, you’ll get a bit of meta-commentary from a ranting Goodman. “You know, that’s the problem with the American cinema. Can’t handle any complexity in it, you know?”
How did it originally end? Alexander Payne’s scabrous portrait of the rivalry between petty high-school teacher Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) and bright young thing Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is one of the best films of its year. However, the original “let bygones be bygones” ending, in which Tracy visits her former teacher to reconcile before going onto better things, was widely disliked by preview audiences.
What changed? More than a year after principal photography was completed, it was apparent that a new ending was needed. The finished film gives us the epilogue where Mr. M seems content in a new job but becomes incensed by the sight of Tracy working with a politician while sightseeing in Washington D.C. He impotently flings his drink at their car and runs away, in a far more fitting ending for one of Broderick’s most unlikeable characters.
Escape Room (2019)
How did it originally end? If you’re looking for spectacularly illogical, wildly inventive fun from the movies this year, you could do worse than Escape Room, the rare horror that peaks right at the end. But to start with, the ending was rather more nihilistic, as likeable puzzle enthusiast Zoey (Taylor Russell) goes back to her dorm room, only to discover it’s been turned into another trap.
What changed? Given how new this one is, we don’t want to spoil the far crazier and more entertaining ending that director Adam Robitel came up with, but it’s a definite improvement, so if you haven’t seen it, go and watch it. A sequel is also in the works for August 2020.
Final Destination (2000)
How did it originally end? A lot of teens die in this movie, but for some test audiences, the matter of the film’s last gotcha was a sticking point. In the original cut of the film, there were two separate endings in which Death caught up with Alex (Devon Sawa), leaving Clear (Ali Larter) and Carter (Kerr Smith) as the only survivors out of the Flight 180 passengers.
What changed? In both versions, test audiences flatly rejected Alex’s death. Noting that the inventive death scenes were by far the most popular part of the film, director James Wong decided to get the most out of $2 million worth of reshoots that followed. In the finished film, Alex almost dies again, but it’s Carter who perishes in spectacular fashion. When Sawa declined to return for the sequel, his character was killed off-screen anyway.
Fatal Attraction (1987)
How did it originally end? In one of the more infamous cases on this list, the director’s cut of this erotic thriller ends with Alex (Glenn Close) framing her former lover Dan (Michael Douglas) for murder before committing suicide. This ending was retained for the Japanese release of the film, but American preview audiences prompted the studio to shoot a slightly dafter alternate ending.
What changed? Much to Close’s chagrin, Paramount ordered three weeks of reshoots. The rejigged ending transforms Alex from an obsessive ex-lover to a slasher movie killer, complete with that one bit where she comes back from being drowned so that Dan’s wife can shoot her to death. It’s a bombastic and memorable ending, but not one which necessarily suits the film preceding it.
First Blood (1982)
How did it originally end? David Morrell’s novel follows John Rambo, a Vietnam veteran who goes on a rampage after being singled out by small-town cops, culminating in Rambo’s death. During the production of their film version, director Ted Koppel and star Sylvester Stallone realized that this might be too dark and put together two different cuts of the film for test audiences.
What changed? In the original version (see above), Rambo forces Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) to shoot and kill him, but test audiences preferred the version where Rambo lived to fight another day. Several other days, in fact – soon after, a franchise was born, and 37 years on, we’re about to get Rambo number 5…
Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
How did it originally end? “Versus” movies don’t usually turn out great anyway, but this ended on a note that left audiences confused. In a bit of nightmare logic that would be par for the course in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, two of the surviving teens decide to have sex for the first time, only for the guy to sprout Freddy’s finger claws from his hand and slash at his girlfriend.
What changed? The new kiss-off includes Jason (played by Douglas Tait in the additional shooting, rather than Ken Kirzinger) and sees the hulking killer emerge from Crystal Lake carrying Freddy’s severed head (Robert Englund), which then winks at the camera. Other endings that were considered but not shot involved a gladiatorial battle in Hell itself and a further crossover with Hellraiser‘s Pinhead.
I Am Legend (2007)
How did it originally end? Following a worldwide viral outbreak, Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) shares a mostly deserted Manhattan with an infestation of mutants. After picking up fellow immune humans Anna and Ethan, Neville manages to synthesize a successful cure, only to realize that the development process has made him appear as the real monster, at least through the eyes of the seemingly unfeeling creatures he’s been kidnapping and experimenting on. Hence the title, I Am Legend.
What changed? There are various other cases we could mention in which the preview process has affected Will Smith movies (Hancock in particular), but audiences roundly rejected the original ending. Instead of following the ending of Richard Matheson’s novel, Neville, um… “heroically” sacrifices himself to blow up a lab full of mutants while Anna and Ethan get away with the cure. Good job those zombie lads don’t feel anything, eh?
The Invasion (2007)
How did it originally end? Psychiatrist Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) discovers that her son Oliver is immune to the parasitic alien fungus that has invaded the earth, but by the end of the original version, it was unclear whether they would survive. Oliver Hirschbiegel helmed this fourth adaptation of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers, but test audiences didn’t take to the ambiguity of his director’s cut.
What changed? Warner Bros drafted the Wachowskis to rewrite the film’s third act and enlisted their V for Vendetta collaborator James McTeigue to direct 17 days of reshoots. It didn’t do much to boost the film’s reception with critics and audiences, but the released version has a clear-cut, more action-packed climax and a 12-month flashforward where normality is totally restored.
Jaws: The Revenge (1987)
How did it originally end? In the sequel that launched a thousand re-tellings of that Michael Caine anecdote about the house it built, the original ending of this batty revenge plot had its Great White impaled upon the prow of our heroes’ boat. As it perishes, its weight tears the front of the boat off, dragging it down to a watery grave while the surviving human characters thank their lucky stars.
What changed? Audiences who saw the first Jaws but not any of the other sequels in between know that there’s only one way to kill Jaws (which is definitely the name of the shark, just like Bruce Willis plays Die Hard) and that’s blowing him up. The trouble is, producers hadn’t shot an explosion and it wouldn’t make sense for them to add one. This didn’t stop them, and now we’re treated to the rushed and poorly shot spectacle of a shark exploding from a small electrical charge.
Layer Cake (2004)
How did it originally end? Doubling as a James Bond audition tape for Daniel Craig, Matthew Vaughn’s enjoyable gangster flick is also remembered for its unpredictable ending. But Sony didn’t like the sound of this and asked Vaughn to shoot the ending where Craig’s unnamed hero drove off into the sunset with Tammy (Sienna Miller) instead.
What changed? Ever the upstart, Vaughn secretly shot the scripted ending where the smartarse protagonist smirks at the camera and boasts about how clever he is, only to be suddenly shot dead. After both endings were screened for test audiences, Vaughn’s preferred ending won the popular vote and Sony backed down.
How did it originally end? If you’ve ever thought that the ending to Limitless was too neat and tidy, you’re correct. The original cut still ends with galaxy-brained political candidate Eddie (Bradley Cooper) being blackmailed by his former business partner (Robert De Niro) over his use of smart drug NZT, but there’s a more ambiguous edge to his retort. We leave him as he plans to take more pills in order to figure out how to get off the pills, suggesting a spiralling addiction.
What changed? Test audiences apparently took the “keep digging” solution at face value and wanted Eddie’s recovery to be more clear-cut. The original ending would have been darker, but also a huge improvement on the cop-out we got. Cooper continued this foolishness as a recurring guest star on the TV spin-off, in which he can literally see the future and dodge bullets.
Little Shop Of Horrors (1986)
How did it originally end? In keeping with the play that inspired it, the director’s cut of Frank Oz’s horror musical ends with a 23-minute sequence in which Seymour (Rick Moranis) and Audrey (Ellen Greene) are both killed by Audrey II. The plants then become hugely popular with consumers all over the United States, allowing them to grow to kaiju-size and take over the world, before finally bursting through the cinema screen to eat the audience too.
What changed? The apocalyptic (and hugely expensive) ending was pruned in favour of a happier ending where Seymour defeats the plant and marries Audrey. For years, the original ending was only available in black-and-white bootleg form, but it was finally reinstated on the director’s cut that Warner Bros released on home video in 2012. Try watching it with someone who has only ever known the happy ending and watch them run the whole gamut from horror to hilarity.
How did it originally end? As seen in the theatrical cut, author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) survives being held captive by toxic fangirl Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), and kills her with a typewriter as he makes his escape. Some months after his ordeal, he’s frightened by a vision of her tracking him down at lunch with his agent. It’s more or less the same, so why did director Rob Reiner go back and reshoot the final scene?
What changed? Imagine being in the test audience for this particular film and telling the filmmakers that you want them to change the ending. As it turns out, this is a rare case of audiences reacting badly to a character being alright in the end. After some incredulity about Paul walking unaided, Reiner and Caan duly went back and had Paul walk with a cane instead.
Pretty in Pink (1986)
How did it originally end? Having gone through an iconic ugly duckling arc, Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald) still has to choose between two love interests – cute popular kid Blaine (Andrew McCarthy) and her quirky best mate Duckie (Jon Cryer). As scripted by John Hughes, she chooses Duckie and winds up dancing to OMD’s “Goddess of Love” with him at the school prom. However, female test audiences were especially critical of this outcome, and a hasty reshoot was organized at the eleventh hour before release.
What changed? Instead, Duckie encourages his friend to go and be with Blaine, which she does, to the strains of a new OMD song, “If You Leave.” More than 30 years on, there is still debate about whether or not the theatrical ending is the better of the two, making it the Blade Runner of teen movies. As it stood at the time, Hughes got to do a gender-flipped version of his preferred ending in the following year’s Some Kind of Wonderful.
Pride and Prejudice (2005)
How did it originally end? You’d think a classic period adaptation would have a relatively straightforward testing process, but it wasn’t to be. As in Jane Austen’s novel, the UK cut of Joe Wright’s film adaptation ends when Elizabeth Bennett (Keira Knightley) accepts a proposal from Mr. Darcy (Matthew McFadyen). A new final scene showing the couple enjoying a peaceful evening after their wedding was cut after British test audiences found it unintentionally hilarious.
What changed? American test audiences actually quite liked that romantic epilogue and so it made the cut. However, the Jane Austen Society of North America made it known prior to release that they really weren’t happy with this addition. In an ironic twist, the ensuing publicity prompted Universal to reinstate the ending and re-release the film for UK audiences several weeks later, after complaints from filmgoers who felt left out.
How did it originally end? The year is 1995. You’ve received an invite to a test screening for “a new movie starring Brad Pitt (Legends of the Fall) and Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy)” – what do you expect? Well, the film originally ended with an abrupt cut to the credits after Mills (Pitt) shoots John Doe (Kevin Spacey). According to David Fincher on the film’s DVD commentary, the infamous test screening prompted one viewer to opine “the people who made that movie should be killed.”
What changed? Fincher had been burned by studio interference on Alien 3, but along with Pitt and Freeman, he stuck to his guns on the ending. The studio wanted various changes, but the only concession Fincher made was to begrudgingly add a closing line of narration from Freeman’s Detective Somerset: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
How did it originally end? Another post-Miss Daisy outing for Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption was supposed to end with his character Red riding a bus towards the border to reunite with Andy (Tim Robbins) in Zihuatanejo. Having shown Red’s difficulty in adjusting to life outside of prison, cutting to black after he violates parole to make a dash for Mexico would have been more ambiguous.
What changed? During production, Castle Rock had insisted that director Frank Darabont shoot an ending where Red and Andy were reunited. Darabont was guaranteed final cut and was reluctant to include the ending until test screenings that included it showed it was the audience’s favourite scene. The uplifting quality of the film, and particularly this ending, has inarguably made the film more popular over time.
Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (2010)
How did it originally end? Edgar Wright once joked that another version of this film would end with Scott (Michael Cera) being arrested for murdering seven of his girlfriend’s exes. However, he originally had a different ending in mind. In the process of adapting Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comics, Wright and his co-writer Michael Bacall started to think that it might be better for their anti-hero to wind up with the girl he dumped, Knives (Ellen Wong), rather than Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
What changed? Not only did test audiences hate the ending but so did Wong, who felt that her character shouldn’t get back together with someone who cheated on her, even if they still end the film on relatively good terms in the theatrical version. Although the alternate version was released on the Blu-ray, the theatrical cut ends (just as the final volume of the comic series did in the same summer as the film hit cinemas) with Scott and Ramona tentatively getting together.
Snake Eyes (1997)
How did it originally end? Nicolas Cage plays a corrupt cop who discovers his conscience while searching for the truth behind a political assassination in this underappreciated Brian De Palma thriller. Set in a single location on a very rainy night in Atlantic City, the film was supposed to end with a tidal wave striking the casino in which it is set, literally washing the bad guys away and nearly finishing Cage off too. However, the Old Testament ending didn’t go down well in previews.
What changed? De Palma has been fairly open about his opinion that the reshot climax, which sheds the biblical allegory in favor of a slightly more conventional run-around, is less effective than the one he had planned. Observant viewers will notice an uncuttable reference to the deleted sequence in the theatrical cut’s final long-running shot, in which Cage’s character tells Carla Gugino: “I keep dreaming I’m in that tunnel, underwater, only in my dream, I drown.”
Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1980)
How did it originally end? In a now-classic twist, Spock heroically plays out his solution to the Kobayashi Maru and dies of radiation poisoning in order to save the crew of the Enterprise. Spoilers got out during production and Star Trek fans embarked upon a letter-writing campaign to Paramount and the filmmakers, urging them to reconsider. This case prefigured the more recent petitions to alter certain other TV shows and movies in line with what the loudest fans want and proved just as pointless then as it invariably does today.
What changed? When general test audiences found the ending too depressing, producer Harve Bennett made modifications that gave them a little wiggle room to resurrect Spock down the line, including the final shot of his coffin landing on the Genesis planet. Leonard Nimoy reportedly didn’t know about these changes until seeing the film, but would eventually return for several more sequels, as well as the Kelvin universe reboots.
How did it originally end? Widely expected to be an enormous and costly bomb prior to release, the assembly cut of James Cameron’s romantic epic ran for a ass-blistering four hours. Among the scenes that made it into the first assembly cut was a cringe-worthy epiphany for treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), who witnesses the Heart of the Ocean being thrown overboard and giddily realizes what an idiot he’s been.
What changed? Before the film made it to a proper test audience, Cameron and Paxton agreed upon watching the cut back that this particular character beat felt out of place. As Paxton put it after the scene emerged online in 2018: “If you’re smart and you take the ego and the narcissism out of it, you’ll listen to the film, and the film will tell you what it needs and what it does not need.” Further test screenings brought the film down to a tight 195 minutes.
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
How did it originally end? The widely maligned Thor sequel had a rocky road to theaters, including a late-in-the-day third-act overhaul by creative consultant Joss Whedon. Among the points that caused upset with audiences was the death of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), which was initially played as permanent. Audiences simply didn’t accept this, perhaps because the twist came at the end of an elaborate rescue plan that involved Thor fake-losing his hand when a “Get Help” would probably have done.
What changed? It doesn’t solve the problem of the audience not believing that this death will have any consequences, but the reshot final scene does hold some intrigue. In a minor cliffhanger, we find out that Loki has not only survived but also cheekily displaced Odin (Anthony Hopkins) on the throne of Asgard. It’s a fun way of kicking the can up the road until Avengers: Infinity War, where Thanos promises “no resurrections this time” after snapping Loki’s neck. Meanwhile, Hiddleston will next be seen as Loki in his own spin-off series on Disney+.
28 Days Later (2002)
How did it originally end? After outrunning a horde of Rage-infected humans, Jim (Cillian Murphy) is shot while helping Selena (Naomie Harris) and Hannah (Megan Burns) escape Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) and his men. As his friends try to save him, he lies dying in a hospital bed, reflecting on how he wound up in a coma back at the beginning of the film.
What changed? Director Danny Boyle shot several endings involving Jim dying, but after test screenings, he chose the slightly more optimistic ending we got, with our surviving heroes holed up in a cottage in the Lake District, waiting for rescue as the infected die off. The original ending was added as a post-credits sting titled “… what if” when the film was first broadcast on Channel 4.
How did it originally end? The test process is very different for computer animation, so although there was a small but significant change, the final cut of WALL-E isn’t too different from what test audiences got. Our rubbish-clearing hero manages to bring humanity back to Earth and they all take their first steps on the ravaged planet.
What changed? Despite the optimistic ending, audiences weren’t 100% convinced that the tubby, shiftless people we’d seen relying on an outer-space leisure ark for the duration of the movie would have the skills to revitalize the planet. That’s why the tapestry-style closing credits sequence shows them learning the essentials, like farming and building, to the strains of Peter Gabriel’s Oscar-nominated “Down To Earth.” And they all lived happily ever after.