Screening Success: Marketing Research for Movies

In Marketing to Moviegoers, Robert Marich, delineates the structure of research departments within the film industry. The research conducted by film companies is largely secretive and consequently is an unfamiliar aspect to most moviegoers. The research conducted tends to rely on test audiences in order to ascertain as much market information as possible as an effort to minimize risk. It requires a skill in assembling a small sample audience that is representative of the larger target population. Marich lists eight classes of research that are regularly employed within the film industry:

Script assessment: a pre-production evaluation of the script for playability and marketability

Concept testing: a pre-production assessment of audience reactions to early ideas for a proposed film (still in development).

Title testing: like concept testing, this takes place at an early stage in the production process. Title options are assessed by a sample audience with the aim to choose a name before the production process is over.

Positioning study: a pre-production evaluation of the final version of the script conducted with the intent to identify what aspects should be emphasized in the marketing process.

Test/ preview screenings: a mid- and post-production evaluation of either the finished or partially finished film by a select sample audience. The selection of sample audience is an important process that must be conducted in respect to the target demographic.

Advertising testing: Before the campaign officially begins and sometimes during, marketing materials are evaluated to determine which are the most and least effective with various demographic target groups.

Tracking survey: A test devised to identify audience awareness of a selection of films set for theatrical release. This is done in attempt to forecast box office sales during the opening week and beyond.

Exit surveys: Once a film is released, its marketing team often seeks immediate feedback from audience members. This is done not only to gauge reactions, but also to isolate which demographic groups are supporting the film.

John Goodman in Coyote Ugly

The results of these forms of testing often have a heavy-handed effect on the final product that is officially released. From the get-go, a film is constructed with these tests in mind and continues to be into its final stages. Sometimes the changes improve the success or even quality of the film immensely; however, it is not a perfect science. Jerry Bruckheimer’s Coyote Ugly (2000) was quite successful in the box office despite some predictions of the opposite. The film targeted a female demographic so test screenings with women were conducted. Contrary to expectations, the female moviegoers did not respond with a desire for more gender-specific material, but instead praise was focused on John Goodman’s performance. Consequently, more scenes featuring Goodman were filmed and added to the movie. That’ll do, sample audience.

Neville and his zombified nemesis.

Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend (2007) starring Will Smith also underwent reconstruction based on the results of its preview screenings. The film, which is based on a novel by Richard Matheson, originally featured a rather dark ending that followed the book closely. I Am Legend follows scientist Robert Neville (Smith) as he searches for a cure to a virally transmitted zombie apocalypse. The original ending of the film reveals that the zombie antagonist is not so evil after all. Smith, who has been killing zombies throughout the narrative, also keeps some zombies as test subject to aid his search for a cure. One of these test subjects turns out to be the significant other of said zombie antagonist, hence his attempts to reach her. The zombies are humanized and Neville, and in turn humanity, is painted in a negative light. Test audiences reacted badly to this ending and consequently, the film was changed. So, upon its release, I Am Legend ended with Neville having a quick chat with Jesus and volunteering his own life in order to save the planet (minor changes). The film has since received criticism for these choices, many fans of the novel (and fans of not-cheesy endings) openly prefer the original ending that can be viewed as a DVD feature.

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