The value of test screening your indie film

December 10, 2012
posted by sheric

No amount of marketing will save a film that needs improvement. Many times I am sent films that need a few more editorial passes or maybe some reshoots to get it at the level it needs to be in order to release successfully.  Mostly these rough cuts are accompanied by a caveat from the filmmaker that this is a temp sound mix or color grade, but that isn’t really what I am looking for. I want to know that the story doesn’t have structural problems, that the pacing isn’t flabby, that the acting is strong. Coloring and music can be easily fixed, but poor acting will make the film hard to save and no amount of clever marketing is going to work for a film that isn’t strong.  It isn’t worth spending significant time and money on marketing a title for a film that really won’t find an audience, not even on the torrent sites.

Test screening the film while in post production is a good way to gauge what an audience will think of your film. While Hollywood studios do this on a regular basis, they usually select a cross-section of the population because they want their film to appeal to a mass audience. They also can use it as a way to badger a director to change endings that fit their point of view, change a story to fit better into a certain, more lucrative demographic or figure out how best to market a title that needs to appeal to a very diverse audience. I am not advocating using your test screenings like this though. You NEED to make sure that the film stands up to audience scrutiny by your core audience, those for whom you made the film. These people are not your friends, the cast, or your family because those people generally offer enthusiasm, not unbiased opinion. What you are looking for is real feedback from people who should like the film you have made, but have no vested interest in sparing your feelings.

I recommend the director and editor view the film with the audience to gauge the feeling in the room. Did the jokes work? Did the tension build? Was there whispered confusion among the audience members at a certain point in the film? What parts seem to need work and what parts already work? Was there a restlessness that indicated the audience was growing disinterested?  Hiding at the local bar while the film is screened means you are hiding from the people most likely to love your work. Don’t do this. You have made the film for them and you should want to know if your vision came through. This can also bring clarity to both the director and the editor who can sometimes find the editing suite combative.

Besides watching with an audience and taking your own notes on what you felt they reacted to (good and bad), you also want to give them a questionnaire to fill out so you can analyze their feedback. A few of your questions will concern pacing (were there places that lagged?), confusion over the plot, and perhaps most importantly, would they recommend this film to their friends? If the bulk of your marketing effort is going to focus on using social media, having people recommend the film is going to be crucial to the success of that effort. Ideally, they will want to sign up to your email list so they can keep up with the news of the film so make sure you ask for this information. You may also want to engage in a post screening discussion because more issues may be clarified for you in conversation rather than only on paper.

For indie filmmakers, employing an agency to handle the test screening process will be financially wasteful. For the purpose of making your film stronger, chances are you can handle organizing these small screenings on your own. You’ll need about 15-20 people in your core audience, NOT a diverse group. Your limited resources are going to be spent on connecting only to this audience while your distribution partners later will help you to expand beyond it. Therefore, it is very important that the film resonates with these people specifically.

This will probably mean overbooking the screening because there will always be those who don’t show. You may find potential test screening audiences on, craigslist,  churches, community centers etc. Wherever you have pinpointed in your marketing plan that your audience is likely to be reached (this also helps you test the soundness of your marketing plan!) I don’t really recommend online test screenings because you can’t gauge the room for those screenings. After months of sitting alone with your film, it is time to venture out and see how it plays to a live audience. I am betting your perceptions of your film really will change once you are sitting in the room with strangers.

If you can, test screen again after making changes and hopefully you will find problems solved or gain different perspectives on the story. These can help you in figuring out the stance to take when presenting the film to industry people as well as your own marketing. Ultimately I am suggesting that you not attempt to distribute the film in any way until it has seen a test screening or two to insure that your story reaches its greatest potential.


photo credit: <a href=””>cavale</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>cc</a>



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