Test Patterns

We just chugged through a week and a half of test screening the movie. Step one is, of course, getting people to watch it. In L.A., cold calling people to screen your self-financed micro-budget movie is pretty much asking them, "Is it okay if I show you my junk?" Mostly, they just run away.

In the end we got a pretty good mix of people, some of whom I haven’t seen in a year or two. The less they knew about the film the better. Out of twenty-three people we invited, sixteen responded. The rest went radio silent, and should we meet again, will presumably pretend it never happened. But the awesome people would come over to the edit bay and watch the film. We’d put out snacks, chocolate, trail mix, and water (No coffee, it's a diuretic) and hit the space bar. In the end we had eight screenings, from one to three people each. We thought about actually sitting in with our audiences, but after the first two times we knew we’d burn out quick. Besides, we didn’t want to be there when they had a question. We wanted to know what questions they had that still stuck out afterward. Being there would be their crutch, and in the end, not serve our purpose.

So when my phone timer beeped that the film was wrapping up we’d go back in the bay to pow wow. It was pretty easy to gauge the reaction entering the room—you could just tell immediately from their expression who liked it and who didn’t—and we’d have an informal conversation about what they liked and didn’t like. We’d chat and note any logic or confusion issues they’d mention. The next day I’d apply the changes we felt would help and generate a new version for the next screening. Repeat.

On the bright side, the film is tight on structure. Everything tracks and there are no logic gaps. Pat on the back for me there. Huzzah! Our score is killer and a stand out and mentioned by literally everyone. The characters stand out, and your favorite one depends on your world view, which is fucking great. The best note we got was a bold suggestion to drop an entire character. "You don't need him." And the minute he said it we knew it was true. The worst notes we got were from someone who pretty much hated the film, and lambasted me for twenty minutes about everything that was wrong about it. He stopped short of questioning the legitimacy of whether I actually held a high school diploma, but I know he was thinking it. Look, you’re never going to agree with all of anyone’s notes. What you’re hoping for is, like, two solid notes in a list of ten. Somebody has four good notes? That’s a bonanza! We’d grade the importance of everyone’s comments in this manner:

1. Something was mentioned only once? Might or might not be important. Filmmakers choice.
2. Two people mention the same thing? That’s a concern.
3. Three people mention it? Fix it. Now.
4. A note keeps getting repeated in the next screening? We haven’t addressed that sufficiently yet. Try again.
5. Stupidest criticism you’ve ever heard? Make sure your hand is in your pocket so you can flip them off without them seeing.

One of the curiosities of testing is that one person can skew the room; they’ll actively try to change the minds of other viewers who enjoyed it. Sometimes there’s warning signs. Like, whenever someone asks you how long the movie is they're gonna tell you to, “Take out 15 minutes." Seriously. It's like a drinking game. One person put me on blast and accused me of being “indulgent” but wouldn’t specify how. That’s not helpful because those kind of notes aren’t even actionable. If you tell me you don’t like something, I can address it. If you watch the movie and your response is, “It needs more butterfly jam,” I really can’t work with that. Maybe Spielberg can. He’s better at this movie makin’ thing than me. On a $200 million dollar budget they probably can afford the giant press necessary to crush 600,000 Golden Monarchs into a velvety preserve that will tantalize and delight on an English Muffin with all the grace of the Queen’s wave. But on our budget I’m standing on a street corner shuckin’ a candied apple that I’d obviously dropped in the dirt at one point. Non-industry people tended to love it, while insiders tended to like it but with lots of ideas that bordered on re-conceptualizing the film from ‘candy apple’ to ‘snow tire’ because, “Winter is coming.” Or maybe they just binge watched “Game of Thrones” before coming over. Who knows.

And therein lies the danger of test screening. It’s a powerful tool that can really open your eyes to problems you can’t even see anymore (Lose an entire character? Seriously? Genius.) or it can send you Down The Rabbit Hole chasing everybody’s notes in a misguided attempt to reach the mirage of perfection. I’ve personally edited features that were destroyed by following testing notes slavishly. But see, here’s the thing: One of the screeners early on described the film as “scruffy,” and we thought that was the perfect description of our film. These micro-budget films are all scruffy, in story and character. And ironically, that’s what gives them a lot of their charm. It’s what allows them to have character and story moments that aren’t on deck anymore in most studio movies.

Scruffiness is a feature not a flaw.

But there’s a cost to that too. Since the movie defies expectations, we found that for many people who watched it and liked it, they weren’t quite sure if they really liked it. But they’d talk about it endlessly. They’d call or email us days later to say that they were still thinking about it and reiterate that they really liked it. It was clear they liked the movie, and probably by a lot, but for some reason its originality made them cautious. It took time to accept they loved it. The early screenings were hardest on us, with equivocating, “It’s good,” responses. But as we implemented the notes we liked and started punching out improved versions for the next screening and the next and the next, the responses got better and stronger and more unequivocal. At the end of the fifth screening, as we walked back into the bay, our sole viewer turned to us beaming and exclaimed, “That movie is AWESOME!” I wanted to hug her affirmation like a security blanket. Have it tailored and wear it like a jacket so people see us on the street and say, “Hey, it’s awesome!,” and we’d make a pistol with our hand and reply, “Stay thirsty, my friend!” It was unequivocal and after an early string of "likes,” it felt desperate of me to devour the praise. But then, I am desperate for it. This journey has been so long and so hard and I want people to LOVE IT. And right now "like it" just feels like more rejection, even if it’s a “really like.” No wonder filmmakers delude themselves about the greatness of their efforts. It's a defense mechanism against the painful reality of not just failure, but the worse result, a shoulder shrug. Our movie is not a shoulder shrug.

After a week and a half of test screenings we have shown it to 16 people: 7 loves, 6 likes, 2 shrugs, and 1 hate. Pretty good, actually. Also, an unexpected parallel test revealed itself: Kit Kat’s and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are the bomb, Hershey’s dark chocolate, not so much. But that’s beside the point, I guess. In that two weeks we systematically focused and supercharged the movie. Nothing that was lost feels missed. Where it played pretty good before, it plays great now. And it feels good not to have people shooting us That Look anymore. Surprisingly, we don't feel vindicated. There's no 'I Showed You' left in us. It's been a long haul and the road we're on hasn't taken us there yet. But it will. We have faith now, something we haven't felt since principle photography two years ago. We just gotta keep our heads down. Keep working. Polishing. Improving. But for the first time since we started we feel good, like it’ll be all right now. And something new: Pride.

It’s hard to believe there was a day I almost quit. That I almost threw down the camera and walked away. Four hours of shut eye a night for three weeks straight and enough stress to blow up an elephant heart had me on the ropes. I remember looking at that camera in my hand and fighting the urge to just drop it. I don't know why I didn't. But I'm glad. Because we watch the movie now and it looks so easy. All the pieces connect effortlessly, like they were meant to. How is that possible? How can so much pain birth something so beautiful?

I once drove across Algeria. One night we were covering miles and miles of Sahara desert, the road lit only by starlight. Surrounded by monotonous gray-blue dunes that made it feel like you weren't going anywhere at all. Hours passed until a subtle yellow glow appeared on the horizon, growing imperceptibly brighter as we approached our destination, El Golea, still hours away. It feels like that now. I can see the end ahead. And yet, still so far away…

I hope it isn’t a mirage.

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