I remember going to the famous Angelica Theater here in NYC to see the highly anticipated indie drama “Fruitvale Station” right after The Weinsteins picked it up and released it in limited theaters. Even during the beginning of a limited theatrical release the Weinsteins knew enough to test the film with an audience before going wider. There wasn’t a dry eye left in the house, but still that didn’t stop Harvey and Bob from sending out survey sheets to all of us in attendance. The film, directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Michael B Jordan who both went on to make the Oscar-nominated “Creed,” ended up winning multiple awards and earning well over $16 million in theaters on a $200,000 production and post budget. To say the Weinsteins’ test screening strategy worked would be an understatement.
“Then, we got our first film festival invitation and the lightbulb went off in my head. Forget just celebrating with a bunch of cast and crew members on some dingy red carpet. We were going to treat this like our test screening. Forget trying to win any awards, forget trying to receive any praise for completing yet another feature in our growing catalog. Brian and I were simply excited to see what this thing played like.”
Princeton Holt, ALIENATED Movie
For years Hollywood studios (and mini majors) have conducted these test screenings and have often fine-tuned their products to satisfy their target customers. Like it or not, the fact that Hollywood is a billion-dollar industry proves that there is something about this audience engagement technique that is clearly effective. Very few things can tell a filmmaker what works or does not work about their film better than a test screening. A room full of people that doesn’t only consist of your parents, your college buddies, and your girlfriend, can really be a great gauge for determining whether or not what you intended your scenes to be translates or not.
However, as I soon discovered, test screenings can be quite the pain in the ass. First of all, where are we supposed to find these people? Do we place an ad on Craigslist? And what is their incentive to come out to see a little movie that does not have Tom Cruise or Jennifer Aniston in it? My guess is that you’d obviously have to pay them. So after paying 50-100 people to give you feedback on your small indie film, then you have to rent the space, and possibly pay the projectionist for their time as well? Before you know it, you’ve spent thousands of dollars just to find out how much your film is not working. I can think of a ton of better things to do with my budget than that.
Yet, this was my stupid plan during post-production on ALIENATED. What’s even stranger, is I got our writer/director (my partner Brian Ackley) to agree with this plan. Neither of us gave a second thought to how the hell we were supposed to actually make this test screening happen. But when we did, it became apparent that this simply wasn’t a viable option for us.
Our film is about a man who goes outside one evening and sees a UFO in the sky. He can’t seem to figure out how to tell his wife about it. That was our premise before Brian wrote the script, and that is essentially the “hook” of our film. Of course like most micro budget films, it is much more about the characters than the event. We didn’t know if it was good for traditional Sci-Fi fans, or for character-based, micro budget film lovers (a very small audience), or what. Still, a traditional test screening set up just didn’t make sense for us on this one.
Then, we got our first film festival invitation and the lightbulb went off in my head. Forget just celebrating with a bunch of cast and crew members on some dingy red carpet. We were going to treat this like our test screening. Forget trying to win any awards, forget trying to receive any praise for completing yet another feature in our growing catalog. Brian and I were simply excited to see what this thing played like.
We learned which lines made our audience react in different ways. Which moments they responded to, and which they didn’t. It helped us learn what to tweak, what to add to our sound design, and most importantly, what kind of film we had, and for that matter, what kind of film we didn’t have. Then we were able to test our tweaks from the previous test by screening at the next festival. Now obviously you can’t drastically change your entire movie from festival to festival. Some festivals won’t be too happy that you duped them into showing a completely different film than the one you submitted. But if there are minor adjustments you made to enhance the viewing experience for their audience, then they too will be very appreciative that you are trying to make not only your film the best it can be, but also make their audience happy. And there is no better way to do this than by using your initial screening(s) to learn how the film you spent time and money creating is making an actual paying audience feel.
After these couple of “test screenings” we were lucky enough to secure a VOD/Cable VOD distribution deal with Gravitas Ventures. They saw the way we were marketing the film, they were impressed with our approach, our marketing schedule, and the fact that we did research on a couple of real audiences, not just friends or family. ALIENATED is not for everyone. But now we know the people it truly is for, and are now in a much better position to communicate, market, and engage with them than we ever could have been before.
Princeton Holt produced ALIENATED along with partners Cassandra Riddick, David Vaughn at One Way or Another Productions, and Fades 2 Black Media Group. The film is currently in select theaters and on VOD on March 31st.
Read Princeton Holt’s prior Film Courage post here.