So tonight, after dodging the bullet for months now, we had our first (and only) test screening with a general audience for “Clerks II”.
Let me say a few words about test screenings: I hate them. Fuck, do I hate them. I don’t mind the actual screening portion, where you’re sitting there with an audience watching the flick and listening to their reactions; that part’s totally cool. It’s when the screening ends, the lights come up, and the folks in charge start handing out survey cards for the audience to fill out… that’s when shit usually goes south for me. And even worse, twenty or twenty five people are kept behind to take part in what’s known as a “focus group”, where they’re asked pointed questions about the movie (“Did you like it?” and “What didn’t you like about it?” and “Would you recommend it to people, and if not, why not?”) and the filmmakers are forced to hide in the back of theater and listen to an audience eviscerate something they’ve worked so hard on for so long, without being able to get up and defend themselves or the flick. Of all the aspects of filmmaking that go into the gestalt of cinematic storytelling, this is definitely the least appetizing. I don’t know any filmmaker who enjoys it.
Now normally, one test screens (or is forced to test screen by the studio) in an effort to look for cuts or make changes in the flick, based on how audiences react to the screening. On “Jersey Girl”, we endured ten of these screenings, in a failed effort to make the movie more palatable to a mainstream audience. With “Clerks II”, the idea wasn’t to look for cuts or changes (indeed, the prints are locked at this point); tonight’s test screening was purely a marketing screening, set up by the Weinstein Company in an effort to shed some light on how to go about selling the flick.
Based on that, there was no real risk to us: if the audience hated the flick, we weren’t going to be forced to make changes. After all, the flick only cost five million to make, so the financial risks facing the Weinstein Company are minimal at best. And with the lion’s share of our foreign pre-sales taken care of at Cannes 2005 (a year before we’d screen at the fest to an eight minute standing ovation, plug, plug) the movie’s budget, it’s been revealed, was already taken care of; in essence, the movie’s in profit before opening day.
Still, any screening in which cards are gonna be filled out and comments about the qualities (or lack thereof) of the flick are gonna be made is nerve-wracking to a filmmaker. So when the lights dimmed in this Kansas City theater (chosen because the Weinstein Company wanted to see how the movie would play in the heartland), I was sweating it. This wasn’t a room comprised of hardcore fans. The audience recruit for the test screening didn’t list any of our previous flicks on the list of movies potential attendees had to have seen theatrically to be considered for inclusion. The “Qualifying Films” list (of which the audience Must Have Seen at least three) looked like this: “Bad Santa”, “Malibu’s Most Wanted”, “The 40 Year Old Virgin”, “Dodgeball”, “White Chicks”, “Team America: World Police”, “The Ringer”, “Old School”, “Anchorman”, “High Fidelity”, “Napoleon Dynamite”, and “Wedding Crashers”. Not a “Chasing Amy” or “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” anywhere in sight.
The Demographics they were looking for were 60% Male, 40% Female, 17-34 (60% under 25). Essentially, a mainstream comedy audience – something, I feel, our flick really isn’t.
The good news is that it was, apparently, an easy recruit. They had a line that wrapped the building of people looking to get in. 30 or 40 potential attendees had to be turned away. We had a packed house of close to 400. But when the “Clerks II” title card came up, there was no raucous applause (a normally great indicator that the room is full of friendlies).
However, that was about the only point in the screening when there weren’t applause.
Man, that screening rocked. The audience was with the flick every step of the way. It played even better, I dare say, than it did in Cannes (which I guess isn’t that surprising, since the entire audience, unlike the Cannes screening, was comprised of folks whose first language was English). There were only three walk-outs (one of whom was a mid-30′s woman who felt the film was “disgusting”), and they all left in the first twenty minutes (by which time anybody who feels the flick isn’t their kinda poison heads for the hills). After that first twenty minutes, nobody left. That’s rare for us and our flicks (especially considering how out there our flicks can get; this one in particular).
When the flick ended, there was resounding applause (also pretty fucking rare in a test screening). The audience filled out their cards, and twenty five folks were kept behind for the focus group.
The focus group didn’t seem to match the audience reaction we heard while watching the flick. Folks were a bit more reserved in their praise. But the majority of the focus group rated the flick “excellent”, “very good”, and “good”. Only one person rated it “fair”. Nobody chose “poor”. Marketing data gleaned from the screening: folks felt (thank Christ) that no subtitle (i.e. “Clerks II: The Second Coming”) was needed; “Clerks II” said it all. And much to the delight of the Weinstein Company, no one in the focus group felt that seeing the first “Clerks” was necessary in order to dig “Clerks II”.
That top two boxes score is key in the test screening process: it’s the figure that represents the percentage of people who rated the flick “excellent” and “very good”. When the scores are tallied from the survey sheets, there are two figures everyone immediately wants to know: the top two boxes score, and the “definite recommends” (the percentage of those surveyed who say they would definitely recommend the flick to friends). Based on the focus group, Scott and I felt that we were looking at a score of 70% in the top two boxes, but neither of us could imagine what the definite recommends figure would be.
When Laurie Eddings brought us the score sheet, she had a smile on her face. Scott and I had told her we thought it was a 70% top two box score, and Laurie held up the sheet and said “It’s better than that.”
The percentage of that audience who rated the film “excellent” was 56%. The normal average is 25%. The combined score of the top two boxes was 84%; the normal top two boxes average is 55%. We were 29% above the average (the average being the score that eveyone breathes easier at). 13% of the audience rated the film as “good”. 2% rated the film as “fair”. Only 1% rated the film as “poor” (likely the “disgusted” woman).
The “definite recommends” score “norm” is 45%. “Clerks II” got a 74% – nearly thirty percent above the norm. 74% of that audience said they would definitely recommend the film to their friends, with a vast lion’s share of the remaining 26% saying they’d “probably” recommend the movie to their friends.
Considering where we were screening, for this flick to score an 84% with a 74% definite recommend is nothing short of astounding. Mainstream movies testing in Kansas City score 84%; a sequel to a black and white indie flick that’s filled with some of the crudest, weirdest shit you’ve ever seen and heard in a movie theater doesn’t score an 84%. And yet, tonight, it did. In the fucking heartland. In middle-America.
Needless to say, we’re all thrilled.
So thank you, Kansas City, Missouri, for an amazing, very memorable night; you’ve made my life considerably easier. And thanks to Harvey for forcing us to do the test screening; it was definitely worth all the worry leading up to it. And thanks to the cast and crew for all their hard work; without them, there’s no movie to score in the first place.
But most of all, thanks to that mid-30′s woman who walked out in disgust. Because, for a second there, I was beginning to think maybe I’d gone soft in my old age. I’m relieved to know that my sense of humor is still not to everyone’s taste.
Fuck, this movie’s been a sweet-ass ride thus far. God-willing, it’ll continue through ’til July 21st (and beyond).