< Founding Father of Hollywood Focus Groups

Transcript

Friday, December 23, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

If I were a truly creative person following my muse, I wouldn't care what you think, right? That's why creative Hollywood types seem united in their loathing of the test screenings, focus groups and audience surveys that always precede a big studio release.

There was a time before those market predictors were there forcing crowd-pleasing happy endings onto tragic movies, but as the cost of moviemaking soared, so did the risks and the need for research-based reassurance.

Enter Joseph Farrell, founder of the National Research Group in 1978. He died last week at the age of 76. An L.A. Times film writer, Rebecca Keegan, wrote about his impact on Tinseltown. Welcome to On the Media.

REBECCA KEEGAN:

Hi.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So, test screenings and market research certainly existed before Joseph Farrell.

REBECCA KEEGAN:

That's right. I mean, Gone with the Wind in 1939 was seen by a test audience. So this isn't the first time, in 1978, that research principles are applied to Hollywood. But what Joseph Ferrell did that was really kind of revolutionary was he codified it and he brought the principles that were being used in politics and in other industries to Hollywood.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So how did he do that? Who was he?

REBECCA KEEGAN:

He was an attorney. He was also a sculptor. He had gone to Harvard Law School and he was working for the Harris Poll, which was a political polling agency. He was asked to open their West Coast office, and that's where he began to see a real unmet need in Hollywood for hard data about how films would perform and also about how trailers and posters were working.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Wow, a lawyer, a pollster and an artist. Was he able to calm the artists in Hollywood down?

REBECCA KEEGAN:

When you ask studio executives who worked with Joseph Farrell in the 80s and 90s, what they would tell you is that he had the sort of special knack for taking this hard data and translating it in a way that artistic personalities could understand.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Let's talk about a movie that features focus groups and test screenings, Robert Altman's The Player. In it a screenwriter pitches an uncompromising feature, with no stars and an ending where the main character is wrongly executed, because that's the way life is, he said. Now, after some test screenings, he is cynically transformed.

[CLIP FROM THE PLAYER]:

ACTOR:

The audience is gonna love it.

ACTRESS:

You S - you sold it out! I can't believe it, how could you let him sell you out? I mean, what about truth? What about the reality?

ACTOR:

What about the way the old ending tested in

Canoga Park? Everybody hated it. We reshot it, now everybody loves it. That's reality.

ACTRESS:

But you had the ending which was…

[END CLIP]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

I just wonder whether or not the cynicism that Altman displays in this film reflects the attitude in Hollywood among auteurs towards these market predictors - focus groups, test screenings and so forth?

REBECCA KEEGAN:

Filmmakers from Altman's generation - I mean, he really was from the auteur era in the 1970s, when this practice started to become more common - were really kind of disgusted by it. I mean, they thought their movies should reflect their voice and not the voice of some random people in a mall. I think it depends which filmmakers you ask.

Some filmmakers I've talked to about focus groups include James Cameron, Judd Apatow, Mike Mitchell, who directed the new Alvin and the Chipmunks movie [LAUGHS], and they have all talked about it as a tool that was useful to them. For instance, Judd Apatow uses test screenings very enthusiastically to find out what other people think is funny. Just 'cause he and the writers and actors he works with are laughing, are other people laughing? Bridesmaids, which Judd Apatow produced -

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

 - A blockbuster

REBECCA KEEGAN:

 - the highest grossing movie in Judd Apatow's career, there's a key scene in Bridesmaids where the bridesmaids get a bout of food poisoning in a dress shop.

BROOKE GLADSTONE

Well, that is a truly memorably disgusting scene!

REBECCA KEEGAN:

Yeah, it's really raunchy.

[BRIDESMAIDS CLIP]:

ACTRESS:

You got food poisoning from that restaurant, didn't you?

ACTRESS:

No, I had the same thing that she had, and I - I feel fine. [GAGGING] Oh, excu -

ACTRESS:

Oh my - okay.

ACTRESS:

Oh no!

ACTRESS:

Why is this happening?

ACTRESS:

Nothing's happening.

[INTESTINAL SOUNDS]

ACTRESS:

Oh my God.

[SOUNDS CONTINUE]

ACTOR:

Oh -

ACTRESS:

You know, I don't really care which dress we get. It doesn't matter to me. I just need to get off this white carpet.

ACTRESS:

Oh, God!

ACTRESS:

No, okay - no, not the bathroom. Everybody go outside …

          [END CLIP/SOUNDTRACK UP AND UNDER]

REBECCA KEEGAN:

It tested through the roof with audiences.

There are many scenes and many jokes in that movie that they were debating. This one, because it tested so well, stayed in the movie.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So what did the director of Alvin and the Chipmunks get out of this process?

REBECCA KEEGAN:

Well, he talked about the challenge of finding [LAUGHS] jokes that both an eight-year-old and a forty-year-old would find funny. And through test screening they were able to see do these two different groups of people laugh at the same things? When do they? What kind of jokes do you leave in?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So there's a big scene of the chipmunks with food poisoning?

[LAUGHTER]

REBECCA KEEGAN:

There's not. But there is a pot joke in there-

[LAUGHTER]

- which parents may get on one level and kids will just think is entertaining 'cause they'll see Theodore staggering around and being silly.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Mm-hmm. Can you think of some famous examples of test screenings that utterly transformed a film?

REBECCA KEEGAN:

Probably the most famous example, and this is one that Farrell worked on, is the movie Fatal Attraction. And spoiler alert, folks, but the test audiences did not like the original ending, in which Glenn Close's character - she's not punished enough was what the audiences felt. So the new ending led to her demise in a bit more dramatic way and was more satisfying for audiences.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Test screenings also had an impact on Pretty in Pink.

REBECCA KEEGAN:

Yeah. If you ever wondered why did Molly Ringwald not end up with Duckie and she ended up with the Jon Cryer character -

[BOTH AT ONCE]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The John Cryer character that everybody thought she should be with.

REBECCA KEEGAN:

Yeah, although some people thought he was maybe not really into girls. And, in fact, a number of years ago Molly Ringwald herself said she thought that character might be gay.

[PRETTY IN PINK CLIP]:

ACTRESS/MOLLY'S FRIEND:

You can't do this and, and respect yourself.

MOLLY RINGWALD CHARACTER:

You know, you're talking like that just because I'm going out with Blane.

ACTRESS/MOLLY'S FRIEND:

Blane, his name is Blane! Oh, that - that's a major appliance, that's not a name!

MOLLY RINGWALD CHARACTER:

Just 'cause I'm going out with Blane doesn't mean I can't be friends with you!

[END CLIP]

REBECCA KEEGAN:

Molly Ringwald ends up going with the

hot guy, instead of the nerdy guy, as a direct result of what test screening audiences wanted.

[OVERTALK]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And it was a big hit.

REBECCA KEEGAN:

It was a big hit.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Certain niche films aren't intended to have mass market appeal. So when you do a test screening, do you pick people to watch it for whom the movie was intended?

REBECCA KEEGAN:

Sometimes test screeners do that. They do select the right demographic:  the age, the gender, nationality. There are some movies that are just not appropriate for a focus group process.

For instance, there's this new movie out, Shame, which is rated NC-17. It's about sex addiction, it's got some awards season buzz. It's just not a movie that a group of people in a room who, you know, nothing about besides their age and where they live are gonna necessarily embrace. It's a hard movie to watch for many people.

I think this process is used best when it's on these big, broad movies that are intended to be seen by wide audiences. And for the smaller art house movies that don't need to make that much money, it's probably not as useful.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Your opinion:  Joseph Farrell, good for the art of movies, or bad?

REBECCA KEEGAN:

Good for the movie business, not always perhaps good for movies.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Rebecca, thank you very much.

REBECCA KEEGAN:

Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE

Rebecca Keegan is a film writer for the L.A. Times and author of The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron.

BOB GARFIELD:

That's it for this week's show. On the Media

was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Liyna Anwar and Hannah Sheehan, and edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Rob Grannis.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Katya Rogers is our senior producer.

Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD:

And Brooke, here our Senior Producer Katya Rogers from England writes, "Insert Happy Christmas message."

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

No, no, Kat. Merry Christmas, everybody.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Happy - holiday.

KATYA ROGERS:

Go ahead, mock me.

[LAUGHTER]

[FUNDING CREDITS]