Test Marketing

The most unpredictable and disturbing aspect of postproduction has come in frequent and ever-earlier test market screenings. Preview audiences are solicited, usually at malls or busy shopping areas, and asked to attend a rough-cut screening of an upcoming release. They are selected by demographics: age, gender, race and income levels are the primary determinants.

These individuals are asked to fill out very specific rating cards on various elements of the movie: pacing, performance, likeability of the primary characters, music, sound and action. The scores they give these areas are usually on a scale of 1 to 10; their final rating of a film as excellent, good, fair or poor; and most importantly, their willingness to recommend a film to their friends and family are tabulated, and end up having an enormous impact on the movie’s release pattern.

Poor test scores can mean a film will never be theatrically released, or only minimally so. They will translate into lots of TV advertising, or none at all. Re-shoots that were once dismissed now become essential. Some movies benefit from this process; more are damaged by it. The producer and director can fight with all they have, but the power of the mass marketing machine trumps all objections, and films are often edited to maximize their opening weekend appeal.

The Bottom Line

New technology may have changed how editors handle their daily work, but it hasn’t changed the critical function they perform, the equivalent to what Michelangelo used to describe as his approach to sculpture: remove the stone that prohibits us from seeing the statue that has always been there.

The larger concern is with the seeming change in aesthetics. The accelerated pace of storytelling is changing the tastes of movie audiences. Increasingly rapid editing drives most action, horror and thriller films, creating kinetic sensations that are more and more devoid of story context and meaning. Many critics and academics believe that subtlety in the art of editing is being lost.

The filmmaker cannot be consumed with the larger question of what is happening to moviemaking – he or she must focus on the film at hand, and how best to present and improve it through the editing process. Only once did I replace an editor during the postproduction process. By hiring a multiple Academy Award nominee, I immediately saw the specific vision and the means to realize it that a truly great editor brings to the process. He wrote new sequences, was present when they were shot, and incorporated them into a story that he helped make coherent rather than puzzling.

The wise producer will have saved some money, irrespective of what is formally budgeted for re-shoots and pick-ups, to get the insert or close-up that can make all the difference in a scene or an entire sequence’s effectiveness. Editors can have inspirational ideas of how to fix scenes that otherwise seem unworkable, and their suggestions should be taken seriously and addressed when possible.

Editing technology continues to evolve at a fast pace, although AVID, Final Cut Pro, and Adobe Premiere Pro remain the industry leaders in visual image editing. Whatever emerges from this strange blend of computer programming and creative montage, the essence of editing will remain the same.

Editors will continue to make their choices based on the values of the director, the personal taste of the individual editor and the traditional practices that have evolved in the art of editing. As in the past, the best work of an editor will usually go unnoticed, just the way most editors want it.