Greatest Movie Mystery of All
What’s the one thing TV networks poll for, direct-to-video filmmakers never experience, and yet it’s something filmmakers and performers both covet and dread? Give up? It’s Audience Reaction! The visceral, unvarnished response of an unprompted audience is the most honest adjudicator of an artist’s work. Without a live, breathing audience in a theater, there’s no way to truly determine what’s funny, frightening, exciting, suspenseful, or sad. Without the immediacy of an audience’s live reaction, a filmmaker never really knows if he or she has struck gold or pyrite.
It’s a potent experience for some directors, a sweaty palmed, angst ridden inquisition that pokes a pointy stick at your heart. Some directors stand at the back of the theater pacing and cringing. Others step out of the room. Some grab a quick peek from the projection booth. Others pre-medicate and pray. The brave and stubborn sit there and take it.
Famed director Frank Capra couldn’t handle a live audience. Sitting in a theater with viewers made him physically ill. Yet Capra still needed feedback. He needed to know how an audience experienced his films. Even though he dreaded it, he needed the unvarnished truth if he was ever going to grow and improve his work. Hiring an assistant to record audiences during a test screening, Capra could later judge how viewers reacted to any given scene.
As much as filmmakers craft and tinker to emotionally engage an audience, an audience’s true reaction remains a great unknown. Filmmakers hope to communicate and entertain, but for all the preproduction, rewrites, money, time, and effort exerted by a cast and crew, filmmakers can only hope to achieve their intended result.
For indie filmmakers on limited budgets, test screenings conducted by a professional service are out of reach. Screening at a film festival becomes a happy alternative, an invaluable opportunity. To be able to slip into a theater as a relative unknown and gauge an audience’s reaction is one of the primary reasons film festivals exist. Exposure to the industry is terrific, connecting with a distributer is beneficial, but screening before a live audience is heady stuff. Attending a recent festival with my own films, an audience member asked directors intent on web distribution why they bothered with festivals. What was the point? “Because you’re here,” we answered. “Because we don’t make films in a vacuum for ourselves. We make them for an audience.”
Online distribution in the digital age is a godsend to indie filmmakers. Indisputably, it has become the global engine for film distribution but unless indie films are first shown to an audience, filmmakers are working in the dark. Audience reaction remains the great mystery and it always will. Dare you face a live audience? Why not? You can either fear the unknown or embrace it.