Spring 2007

Failed Tests

Filmmakers and executives would do better listening to their instincts than test screenings, suggests David Mamet in an excerpt from his new book, Bambi vs. Godzilla.


David Mamet
(© James Bridges/Sony Pictures Classics)

I once did an action picture. One sequence was supposed to take place on a rooftop in Dubai. It was shot on a rooftop in Los Angeles. The Dubai background was added by a computer. The computer background was as real, photographically, as the actors in the foreground, but the composite shot, to me, always looked false. After the film was released, it occured to me: the foreground and the background could not both be in focus. Whether or not the viewer was aware of this consciously, the shot, to the unconscious, has to look wrong.

(I gained this insight from watching some excellent feature cartoons, or animated features, as I believe they are now called. Some brilliant animators have begun to throw the background out of focus, mimicking film.)

The movie business humbles the overly theoretical financially as well.

Every studio pays myriads of number crunchers, market analysts, and various other experts to predict and strategize. The breakaway hits, however, have usually been films which were originally discarded as “too.”

“Too” what? What matter? Too original, too predictable, too mature, too infantile, too genre, not sufficiently genre, et cetera.

Harry Cohn famously commented that he knew when a film was doing well by the feeling in his ass. I’m with him. For, finally, the decision to green-light a film or to pass on it is made by some man or woman sitting where the buck stops and guessing.

Napoleon frowned on councils of war, as he vowed never “to take counsel of his fears.” Executives, coming now, as they do, in the main from the ranks of businesspeople rather than show people, have never had the opportunity to learn how to rely on their instincts. So the film business is currently plagued by audience research.

What is wrong with audience research? It doesn’t work. If it worked, there would be no flops.

But wait—is it not common sense to ask a potential viewer if she would see such-and-such a film, to ask a preview viewer what he would like to change? It may be common sense, but it is useless. Why?

Consider the difference between the barbershop and the jury room.

In the barbershop, beauty parlor, subway, and so on, we gossip. There is much enjoyment in knowing better than the principals, in realizing the error of prosecution, the defense, the Defense Department, the indicted captains of industry and their mouthpieces. We form and express our vehement opinions based on information that is incomplete and, most probably, skewed or, indeed, manufactured.

Why not? That is the purpose and joy of gossip—to strengthen community norms through essentially dramatic discourse.

In the jury room, however, we are sworn. We struggle, individually and as a group, to put aside prejudice, to put aside pleasures of gossip, the proxy exercise of power, vicarious revenge, et cetera, and to act according to a set of rules.

The jury is continually taught and admonished to use reason, as the stakes—the fate or condition of another being—demand it.

In audience testing the situation is reversed. Appreciation of drama, an endeavor which has been correctly and necessarily consecrated to a form of gossip, has been degraded into a mock trial. The tester insists that we put aside our not only personal but necessarily inchoate reactions to a drama and apply an idealized norm of human behavior.

This norm is idealized both in the projection of a putative imaginary viewer (over whom we are to exercise responsible control) in our self-idealization. For the questioned viewer asks himself not only “Is this the sort of movie I like?” and “Is this the sort of movie ‘someone like me’ might like?” but also most corrosively, “Is this the sort of movie someone like me would proclaim to like?”

At this point any subjective experience of the film is banished by reason. What remains? The power to teach or admonish—both of which are death to any art.

The filmgoer has been turned into Babbitt, responsible for the film rather than a member of the audience. As a newly responsible member of a jury he will, of course, take the safest course.

What is the safest course? To rationally exclude that which may not be explained. This is much the wisest course for the surveyed, which is why the executive has enlisted him. His refusal to be moved by the film, his characterization of the disturbing or unusual as anathema, has relieved from the troubled mind of the studio bureaucrat the responsibility of taste, which is to say, of choice.

To succeed, a film must treat the audience member as an audience member, not as a commissar of culture. The commissar gets her thrill not from the film but the power to admonish. (That’s why moviegoers fill out the cards after a screening, engaging in a process that would be recognized as an imposition were it not for the honor of the thing.)

But the real filmmakers have to listen to the lessons of their ass.

Will they fail? Certainly. Both artistically and commercially. But (a) they have no other choice and (b) realizing that their final choices must be essentially subjective, they may learn to trust their instincts. Also (c) they’ll have more fun.

Is it not necessary to gauge the audience? Sure thing. The way to do it is to sit in the back of the theatre while the film is being screened and watch their reactions when their attention is off themselves; that’s the way to see if the film, and any section of it, works or fails.

For that is the state the eventual viewer of the films will be in: disbelief suspended, attention on the screen—wanting to be thrilled, pleased, diverted, hoping along with the hero, and fearing the villain, and to lead the moviegoer to that state, one cannot ask for his opinion but must pay attention to his actions.

David Mamet has directed and written Heist, State and Main and The Spanish Prisoner, among other films.

Excerpted from Bambi vs. Godzilla by David Mamet © 2007. Reprinted with permission by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Available in bookstores now.

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