Late last week, Den Of Geek reported that according to their source, a not-quite finished version of “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” screened on the Warner Bros. lot and received a “standing ovation” from those in attendance. In fact, the movie was so good, that the studio was reportedly looking to ink Ben Affleck to a three-picture Batman deal. Villain Smash debunked that report with a fairly level-headed take on Affleck’s current slate at WB, and his role in the larger DC universe for the time being. However, this recent rumor is a good reminder that, like early tracking numbers, very early test screening reports tend to be inaccurate and/or hyperbolic.
I recently spent a bit of time digging around test screening reports of yore, and the results are pretty eye-opening. Big claims have been made about movies months before they’ve opened that often don’t quite pan out once they’re released. Let’s start with Zack Snyder‘s “Man Of Steel,” which five months before it opened was called by one source from a test screening “the best movie of the year” with others reporting they had heard the film was “the ass-kicking, action-packed and heartfelt Superman movie you can’t wait to see.” Of course, the final film largely wasn’t embraced that way by the fanboy set or critics.
And it isn’t just limited to superhero films or comic films: “Grace Of Monaco” (“Nicole Kidman may be throwing her hat in the Oscar ring for Best Actress”); “Dumb And Dumber To” (“Jim Carrey is back and it’s funny as hell”); “Scream 4” (“It was phenomenal…easily the best of all the series”); “August: Osage County” (“…easily one of the best films of the year”) have all had exaggerated early responses.
To get an idea of how random screening scores can be, last spring Disney chairman Alan Horn told folks at CinemaCon that “Million Dollar Arm” (that Jon Hamm baseball movie you didn’t see) tested higher than any movie at Disney or Warner Bros. ever, “and that includes the first ‘Harry Potter,’ which was so highly anticipated.” Total box office for “Million Dollar Arm”? $38.3 million worldwide.
Both inside and outside the industry, people like to see movies first, and excitement can steer the valuation of a film. Or, sometimes a randomly assembled group of viewers have an opinion that’s out of sync from how a movie will be generally received. But either way, this sort of talk is worth taking with a grain of salt. Or kryptonite.
As for “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice,” there is still a very long road ahead. While WB themselves might be pleased at the moment with the picture, they have a lot riding on the film — its success or failure (which is not an option, as far as WB is concerned) will determine the future of their DC universe movies. And there will certainly be more test screenings ahead, with responses swinging both positive and negative. What if the studio loves Affleck but early viewers take to another character or actor instead? Or what if viewers find Snyder’s movie too violent or grim? There are likely lots of little questions about the movie WB wants answered by test audiences before the movie opens. And Snyder will likely be spending the next seven months tweaking and shaping his picture to be the best, most widely pleasing it can be, while still retaining his overall vision.
For studios, test screenings serve a variety of functions, from how to market a picture to figuring out if it even works. And sometimes they can be totally off base. Let’s not forget that Alfonso Cuaron‘s “Gravity” had mixed to disastrous test screening reports very early on, before going on to win seven Oscars.
It’s easy to hear and find rumblings about movies early on. And while it’s sometimes fun to dive into that buzz, positive or negative, the best movie experience you’ll have is the one that’s all your own, not weighted by what others have been saying.