Audience-ology | Kevin Goetz

Summary of: Audience-ology: How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love
By: Kevin Goetz


Prepare to dive into the captivating world of movie testing with Kevin Goetz’s ‘Audience-ology: How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love’. In this illuminating book, Goetz shares his deep expertise and experiences in audience research and how it has evolved over time. As an insider who has founded and nurtured a successful movie-testing agency, he unveils the crucial role audience feedback plays in fine-tuning and crafting hit movies that people love. You will discover how test screenings guide filmmakers in fixing issues before a movie’s release, identify potential stars, and comprehend the significance of demographic data. This fascinating read also sheds light on engaging case studies and intriguing behind-the-scenes stories from Hollywood.

Film Feedback: The Power of Listening

Kevin Goetz founded Screen Engine/ASI, a movie-testing agency that conducts feedback sessions with test audiences. By gathering and interpreting their impressions and candidly relaying their conclusions to filmmakers, he helps them fix any issues before films reach theaters and streaming platforms. Goetz’s experience at a National Research Group (NRG) introduced him to audience testing, where a temporary music soundtrack accompanies an unfinished movie for targeted demographic groups to watch and fill out a questionnaire. He moderated discussions at NRG for 16 years and later became head of movie testing at OTX before founding his own production company, Brooklyn Boy Makes Good (BBMG), and Screen Engine/ASI. Goetz believes that listening to paying public opinions can improve not just films, but everything.

How Test Screening Revolutionized the Film Industry

Test screening was pioneered by comedian Harold Lloyd between 1919 and 1920. He used graphs to determine when and how the audience laughed to re-edit his films. Studios later began using testing questionnaires as a way to identify potential stars and diagnose a film’s hit-or-miss moments. Pollster George Gallup introduced a scientific approach to collecting audience data, but studios preferred to test in-house. By the 1950s, demographic data such as age and gender were gathered alongside audience surveys. By the mid-1970s, audience research had become a standard aspect of major film releases. This development changed the film industry, as studios released films widely to invest in bigger marketing budgets and create more prints due to the cost of adding advanced special effects.

Movie Testing Made Simple

Goetz’s movie testing process involves the use of various gadgets, a carefully-selected audience, and tailored questionnaires to help filmmakers determine their film’s potential success.

Movie testing in Hollywood is a carefully crafted process that enables filmmakers to anticipate the success of their movies before they hit the cinema. Gregg Goetz, CEO of Engine Room, has devised a simplistic method of movie testing that involves the use of gadgets such as biometric wristbands, tablets, and night-vision equipped recorders. These ensure that they’re in control of the screening environment and that the print is not reproduced without their permission. The company recruits participants primarily online, using a pool of millions of movie-goers to offer up to potential screeners.

Before the screening, each participant signs a non-disclosure agreement and are informed that the film is not the final cut. After the movie, the viewers complete tailored questionnaires, enabling the production team to identify and fix any issues with the film. Data analysts then collate these results overnight, and the filmmakers are given a report within 24 hours.

The most essential data is distilled to a precious “two inches of real estate” on the survey card, where the movie’s overall success is indicated through the language used by the participants. Filmmakers focus on the percentage of screeners who rated the film “very good” or “excellent,” as the more people who enjoyed the movie, the higher the chance that they’ll recommend it. Data is then tabulated by demographics based on age and gender, and Goetz personally interprets the results for the filmmakers to provide recommendations for modifications that could boost their film’s ratings.

Audience Preferences Drive Movie Success

Test audience research can transform a good movie into a blockbuster. Using the examples of Cocktail and Fatal Attraction, this summary illustrates how Hollywood producers and studios rely on test-movie screenings to make essential changes. While a weak ending can dampen test scores and affect overall success, a carefully crafted finale can transform a film from good to great. In the case of Cocktail, producer Robert Cort recognized the audience’s preference for a happy ending and rewrote the film’s conclusion. The result was a box-office success. Similarly, a new ending for Fatal Attraction, with a deranged Alex trying to kill her ex-lover’s wife, instead of committing suicide, boosted audience scores and made the movie earn $320 million globally. The lesson learned is that respecting and understanding audience data can take a movie from being flawed to becoming a classic.

The Importance of Test Audiences

Filmmakers aim for perfection when releasing a movie and test audiences help accomplish this. Test audiences are selected based on “psychographics”, where attitudes, likes, behavior, and other psychological tendencies categorize people. This selection helps create a fine-tuned group of people reflecting the intended audience. However, this process is not always perfect and filmmakers may miss target audiences, as seen in the case of Shawn Levy’s Pink Panther. The initial cut featured risqué dialogue, which led to confusion among viewers due to the film’s blend of adult comedy and family slapstick. Levy and Steve Martin, the lead actor, removed sexual references and doubled down on physical humor, improving the film’s reception. Despite potential shortcomings, test audiences are still valuable to filmmakers to allow them to better understand their target audience. For example, a successful targeted audience was for Martin Scorsese’s period love story, The Age of Innocence, which aimed at educated, affluent viewers. Although the initial test audience had a negative reception from a different demographic, the movie went on to earn five Oscar nominations and found a larger audience.

The Power of Audience Response

Jason Blum, founder of Blumhouse Productions, learned not to underestimate low-budget horror films after passing on The Blair Witch Project, which grossed $140 million despite its $1 million budget. He recognized the potential of another shaky, low-budget horror film, Paranormal Activity, and previewed it for horror fans. Two Dreamworks executives expressed interest in reshooting the movie and Steven Spielberg suggested an alternate ending, which test audiences loved. Paranormal Activity went on to earn $108 million in the US and almost $900 million worldwide. Blum credits the movie’s success to the power of audience response and the importance of giving a full audience the chance to preview a film.

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