When New Line opens its tween comedy “How to Eat Fried Worms” on Aug. 25, moviegoers will see a film that is slightly different from the one an audience watched earlier this summer. That’s because producer Mark Johnson and writer-director Bob Dolman modified their first edit after a test screening held some four months ago delivered less-than-stellar results. “You felt where it wasn’t working,” Johnson says.
The changes they made — tweaking certain scenes and adding a sequence involving a character to whom viewers had responded – must have done the trick. When a second test screening took place a month ago, the results were sensational. “The second screening came across as much funnier,” Johnson says. “It confirmed we did the right work.”
Whereas test screenings once were widely reviled by filmmakers, who resented how studio executives would use early audience reaction to exact changes to their visions, producers and directors now seem to find comfort in them. Perhaps it’s a matter of accepting the inevitable or attempting to predict an unpredictable public, but during the past few years, test screenings have become an integral part of moviemaking — not only by the major studios but also by independents.
NRG (owned by Valcon Acquisition B.V., parent company of The Hollywood Reporter) once dominated the test-screening business, but a handful of companies — including OTX Research, MarketCast and Dubin Market Research — have emerged during the past few years to compete in screenings and research. NRG recently launched a specialty division, the New York-based NRGi, that is devoted to independent film. Howard Ballon, president of NRG parent Nielsen Film and Home Entertainment, declined comment for this report.
As more players have come on the scene, testing methods have become more sophisticated, with market research often beginning before a film has received a green light. In such cases, a studio might survey moviegoers to determine interest in a potential franchise title. “Most studios build into their budgets some kind of stipend so that it is just part of the whole production,” one executive says.