I really hope you listen to Bulwark Goes to Hollywood this week; my guest, Kevin Goetz, has decades of experience in audience testing, and his book, Audience-ology: how moviegoers shape the movies we love is filled with fascinating anecdotes about test screenings, failed endings, revamped openings, and other little tidbits that will help you understand one of the most important parts of the movie release process. The book is a cinch, only about 200 pages, and I’m asking you to order it today so you can read it next week.
Taken as a whole, Hearing-ology is a good reminder of the common tension between art and commerce. Some directors understandably balk at this, dismissing the idea that there is any tension; as Goetz says, Ang Lee once told him, “Picasso never tested his paints.” There are other authors (Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino) who don’t test or only show films to a handful of trusted friends for ratings. And there are still others who use a service provided by Goetz and his company that screens films before they are completed to reviews to get an idea of what the critical response might look like in advance.
But most movies are, at heart, designed to please the audience. They kind of have to be. They cost tens of millions of dollars to manufacture and tens of millions more to advertise. In the upper stratosphere of cinema, those numbers run into the hundreds of millions. In short: there’s huge amounts of money at stake, and the primary goal of virtually all of these images is to create something popular enough to recoup that investment.
Sometimes an image reaches the already perfect test phase: Forrest Gump was one of them, as Goetz notes. Sometimes they are almost perfect: Titanic just needs a few tweaks and tucks to help it speed up despite its 194 minute runtime. Sometimes they just need a mood reset, like when a song was added at the start of Dreamer this let audiences know they were allowed to laugh at the film rather than treat it as a melodrama. And sometimes they needed a whole new ending, as was the case with Free from all ties and Cocktail.
But other times things go… well, maybe a hair too much far. I am thinking in particular of the story of Hearing-ology in which executives stopped a movie (I won’t say which one so as not to spoil its appearance in the book) and literally request audiences what they thought should happen next. “Most of the time it’s intuitive and the research backs you up,” when you’re trying to fix an ending, one executive tells Goetz. “But in this situation, we had to dig deeper.” Look, I’m all for giving people a satisfying cinematic experience, but it seems a little many.
Anyway: read the book! Listen to the podcast! And keep in mind that filmmaking is, as Joan Didion said in her classic Hollywood essay, as much about the action that surrounds the making of a film as it is about the film that ultimately ends up being made. and that you, the audience, and us, the critics, get to see.
In other podcast news, we discussed Licorice Pizza on Across the Movie Aisle this week and, in our bonus episode, paid tribute to a quartet of recently deceased greats.
Zandy Hartig wrote a very beautiful personal memory of The Sentinel, Michael Winner’s trashy counterfeit The Exorcist and Rosemary’s baby. It really hits the sweet spot for “great essays on movies I saw when I was too young that probably scarred me for life.”
I suggested that, if the Oscars were to have a host this year, there was only one reasonable choice.
New Scream is really a Scream movie! I saw it again, without spoiler, here. (And I have a few more spoiler thoughts here.)
I don’t usually link to non-Rampart stuff here, but fans of the rampart can enjoy JVL and me (and our friend Vic Matus!) heartbreaking The Matrix Resurrections on the Sub-Beacon podcast. Check it out on your favorite podcast app here.
Assigned display: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
I try not to assign movies that are only available for rental (and New nightmare is available on Tubi, but with ads), but it’s worth revisiting this Wes Craven feature from 1994 before returning to the Scream universe. It was like 1993 Last Action Hero, meta before being meta was cool, a comment not only on the slasher genre but also an effort to recapture the horror of those movies by moving it from the movie world to the “real” world.
It was always the terror of Freddy Krueger, after all: he was a demonic figure who leapt from our dreams and into the real world. This film poses Freddy making the leap from our dream factory, Hollywood, and into the “real” world. Heather Langenkamp, Wes Craven, and Robert Englund all play themselves, and they all struggle with the idea that their cinematic nightmare has come to life. It Doesn’t Work Entirely – Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson Scream does the whole meta-horror better, I think – but it’s a fascinating movie and probably my favorite overall Nightmare on Elm Street series… maybe even more than the original.