Movies and the Tension Between Art and Commerce

‘Footloose,’ a movie that would’ve looked much different with audience testing.

I really hope you listen to this week’s Bulwark Goes to Hollywood; my guest, Kevin Goetz, has decades of experience in the business of audience testing, and his book, Audience-ology: How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love is filled with fascinating anecdotes about test screenings, failed endings, rejiggered openings, and other little tidbits that will help you understand one of the most important parts of the film-releasing process. The book’s a breeze, just 200 pages or so, and I demand you order it today so you can read it next week.

Taken as a whole, Audience-ology is a good reminder of the common tension between art and commerce. Some directors understandably balk at this, rejecting the idea there’s any tension at all; as Goetz says Ang Lee told him once, “Picasso never audience tested his paintings.” There are other auteurs (Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino) who either don’t test or just show films to a handful of trusted friends for notes. And there are still others who use a service provided by Goetz and his company that screens films before completion for critics to get a sense of what the critical response might look like ahead of time.

But most movies are, at heart, designed to please audiences. They kind of have to be. They cost tens of millions of dollars to make and tens millions of dollars more to advertise. In the upper stratosphere of filmmaking, those figures are hundreds of millions. In short: There are enormous amounts of money at stake, and the primary goal of virtually all of these pictures is to create something crowd-pleasing enough to recoup that investment.

Sometimes a picture hits the testing phase already perfect: Forrest Gump was one such, as Goetz notes. Sometimes they’re almost perfect: Titanic just needed a few nips and tucks to help it speed along despite its 194-minute runtime. Sometimes they just need a mood reset, as when a song was added to the beginning of Moonstruck that let audiences know they were allowed to laugh at the movie rather than treat it as a melodrama. And sometimes they needed a whole new ending, as was the case with Footloose and Cocktail.

But other times things go … well, maybe a hair too far. I’m thinking, specifically, of the story in Audience-ology in which executives stopped a movie (I won’t say which so as not to spoil its appearance in the book) and literally asked 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, an exec tells Goetz. “But in this situation, we had to dig deeper.” Look, I’m all for giving the people a satisfying filmgoing experience, but this does seem like a bit much.

Anyway: read the book! Listen to the podcast! And keep in mind that filmmaking is, as Joan Didion put it in her classic essay on Hollywood, as much about the action that surrounds making a movie as it is about the movie that, finally, winds up being made and that you, the audience, and we, the critics, wind up seeing.



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 truly lovely personal remembrance of The Sentinel, Michael Winner’s trashy knockoff of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. It really hits the sweet spot for “great essays about movies I saw when I was inappropriately young that probably scarred me for life.”

I suggested that, if the Oscars are going to have a host this year, there’s only one reasonable choice.

The new Scream is very much a Scream movie! I reviewed it, spoiler-free, here. (And I have some more spoilery thoughts here.)

I don’t usually link to non-Bulwark stuff here, but fans of The Bulwark may enjoy JVL and me (and our friend Vic Matus!) tearing into The Matrix Resurrections on the Sub-Beacon podcast. Check it out on your preferred podcast application here.

Assigned Viewing: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

I try not to assign films that are only available for rental (and New Nightmare is available on Tubi, though with ads), but it’s worth revisiting this 1994 Wes Craven feature before you jump back into the Scream universe. It was, like 1993’s 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 these movies by moving it from the movie world and into the “real” world.

That was always the terror of Freddy Krueger, after all: he was a demonic figure that leapt from our dreams and into the real world. This film posits 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’re all wrestling with the idea that their filmic nightmare has come to life. It doesn’t entirely work—Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s Scream does the whole meta-horror thing better, I think—but it is a fascinating movie and probably my favorite in the whole Nightmare on Elm Street series … maybe even more so than the original.

Leave a Comment