Audience Testing: why it works

This article was originally published in IF Magazine #145 (Feb-March 2012).

Risqué romantic comedy Offspring has been a massive success for Channel Ten in its attempt to climb to the top of the Australian television ladder.

The series has helped steer the commercial network to second place behind Channel Seven after it premiered in August, 2010. But if it wasn’t tested at pilot stage, the AFI and Logie award-winning show would have died a dismal death and been scraped off the Ten slate.

“It tested remarkably well in a number of areas – but it tested remarkably poorly in two and it told us we made two big mistakes,” producer John Edwards says.

The two big mistakes related to casting and characters – two key ingredients in any screen project. The character was recast, the script reworked and four additional days of shooting saved the series. “I don’t think the show would’ve been a success had we not made those corrections.”

In the US, TV pilots are always tested before they’re commissioned by the networks in what is the world’s most lucrative small screen market. However, in Australian television, pilot testing is not as common. In fact Audience Development Australia’s chief executive David Castran says it has diminished over the past two years.

“I think that creatively, people don’t want their creative judgement questioned,” he says, indicating that people don’t know how to react to the information. “It’s hurtful because their show is like their baby – it hurts! But the fact is that a lot of the comments from the viewers are absolutely spot on.”

According to Castran, just nine of the 36 Aussie primetime dramas produced in the decade ended 2010 were outright hits. He argues that this is because they were all pilot tested. Such shows included Packed to the Rafters, City Homicide and Winners & Losers – which are all tested at least yearly. Many shows are also externally examined during and between seasons which is more common.

Testing, which can cost $20,000-$25,000, can be justified on such big-budget programs which can cost $750,000 per episode. Cost-cutting prompted by the global financial crisis has meant less research into TV programs, according to Castran.

It is a different case with feature films. Industry veteran John Berenyi – whose company tested recent films Red Dog, Burning Man and The Cup – says the depressed economy has made producers want to eliminate risk even more. “As it’s getting tougher to get funding and the economy’s shrunk, people want to make sure that whatever they do is done properly.”

Audience testing is essentially another form of market research – audiences are asked what they like and what they don’t, but most importantly, why. This also includes Focus Group discussions to thrash out elements which the filmmakers want to resolve. However it’s not the researcher’s job to tell the filmmaker and distributor how to fix the project. Their job is to explain what is and what’s not resonating with the audience.

A project should be tested for: playability, marketing potential and to find out how broad the appeal is. Its extreme makeover can include anything from scene cuts/extensions to clarifying plot points to even shooting alternate endings. It was the latter that US distributor Lionsgate insisted upon with Australian vampire flick Daybreakers.

“We all loved the ending, but when we played it to an audience we didn’t get the reaction we wanted,” the film’s producer Chris Brown admits. “And
so when we read all the audience responses – and there were over 250 of them – it became very clear to us that it just didn’t work for the audience. When something is unanimous it’s quite hard to come up with a reason why you shouldn’t change it I think.”

Distributors will conduct test screenings to get a grasp on both the target audience and the project’s box office potential. But importantly they do it to gain confidence.

Hopscotch’s Troy Lum says if they’ve invested in or produced a project then his team will often watch the film 5-6 times before the final cut.

“A distributor or the funding bodies may have a divergent opinion from the filmmakers and at that point a test is really good to break up a stalemate about a particular aspect of a movie,” he says.

While government funding body Screen Australia doesn’t deem it compulsory, the national agency does recommend the process. Nonetheless, audience testing doesn’t always work, according to Lum – if research companies don’t get the sampling right it can spell disaster.

“On an arthouse film, for instance, it’s hard to recruit the kind of audience that you would normally get in to see those movies. If you’re releasing some big blockbuster or some broad comedy then you can walk around a shopping centre and generally get your broad market that you would need to test a film like that, but for your more sophisticated film, I’m much more of an advocate for a small creative team working on it.”

For the past four years, Audience Development Australia has been conducting its pilot/concept testing and program evaluation online via special software that protects the production from piracy. However Berenyi, whose Melbourne company specialises in feature film testing, avoids the internet because he says cinemagoers’ behaviour differs in a theatre to watching it at home alone, particularly for a comedy.

Piracy also remains a concern for distributors. While many content creators will test a project even at the concept stage, many believe this is too early. “Audience testing is all about the film you’ve made – not about the film you’re about to make,” Brown firmly states.

Berenyi believes that Australia is ahead in audience testing because companies work as collaborators rather than adjudicators. He argues audience testing is only a threat to artistic integrity if it’s not done correctly.

Brown, who didn’t do an “official” test on his upcoming 3D shark film Bait, says filmmakers should not be intimidated by the process. “It’s not
something that’s imposed on us – it should be something that we utilise…I think it’s another tool in the arsenal of the filmmaker, to get the best and most effective product you possibly can to the audience.”

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