Things to remember when screening a rough cut

I’ve been trying to improve my screening technique. There’s definitely something to it. On the one hand, I like hearing criticism because it often makes a better product. On the other, sometimes the criticism is biased just because it’s a screening. Here are some biases to watch out for:

  1. Selection bias – The people you’re screening to may be people who never would have seen your movie anyway. Pushing someone into watching a film because it’s personal to you will produce different results than screening to your actual audience.
  2. Negativity bias – If you frame your screening as one where you’re looking for feedback to help you improve the film, then you’re inadvertently asking for negative feedback. Viewers may be inclined to see the bad and skip over the good.
  3. Consciousness Causes Collapse – If you’re in the screening room with the viewers, they may see the film differently than if they didn’t expect the film’s director to be in the room. Expect at least a few of these:
    • The manipulator – “Maybe I can influence the final product.”
    • The mother – “I don’t want to hurt his feelings.”
    • The hater – “I know how to push his buttons.”
    • The actor – “My part sucked, which means the movie sucked.” To make an omelet…

Arguably the most important thing, though, is that something in the film doesn’t remove the viewers from the experience. Whether there’s bias or not, the better you keep your audience engaged, the… better.

  1. Have everyone take bathroom breaks before the screening.
  2. Mix the sound as best as possible so the levels are constant. Keep everything between -3db and -12db or so on the mixer. You don’t want to get up and change the volume scene to scene, but the worst is when important plot elements are lost because a dialog was too quiet.
  3. Make sure your environment is controlled. Automatic fans could ruin a key scene, thus a whole section of the film (speaking from experience here). Dogs, kids, phones, late-comers, all these are distractions that will diminish the returns you seek from the screening.
  4. A film heavily reliant on computer effects is best served with at least rough renders. Explaining the scene without any of the important CG will be pretty awkward.
  5. They’ll still hate bad temp music. Pick good temp music, and preface the film with one “Music is temporary” disclaimer and they’ll be fine.

Carefully reconsider screening the film to anyone except financially interested parties, producers, cast/crew, and other key personnel. The rewards can be fruitful with all the unique insight to be earned from different viewers, but sometimes a narrow sample can be better.

One thought on “Things to remember when screening a rough cut

  1. While I think you have many valid points here, especially about making sure the environment is as controlled as possible, I think there is something to be said for showing your film to people who are NOT financially interested, producers, or cast/crew. That produces a different kind of bias, one that is at times helpful but also it’s a little like asking a parent to comment on his/her child. When you show the film to people who have no investment in it, yes you risk getting unnecessary negativity, but you also can get more candid truthful reactions to what your film IS, not what you hope it can be. People invested in some way will usually tend to lean towards seeing what they wanna see, not what’s there. And that can lean too much to the good or bad.

    I think it’s important to show it to people whom you trust and respect their opinions, even if they may not be your target audience. Is it possible you’ll get useless negative comments? Maybe, but that is the truly complicated part of the screening process: knowing how to differentiate between helpful constructive criticism and just plain unhelpful negativity. Hopefully the people you trust and respect won’t be so petty as to be like the one of the “types” you mention in your post, but it’s true, if they know you well then there’s always a potential for some kind of bias. I try to invite people who don’t know me, (maybe a friend of a friend) or my work so I can get a more honest reaction. But I’m also lucky in that I know a lot of people who are professional and won’t hesitate to be straight up honest with me. But all in all I think it’s good to have people that are also filmmakers, or creative in some way, and may in fact know more/have more experience than you. Even if that experience is just having seen more movies than you have. (Like how George Lucas showed his early cut of Star Wars to a lot of his filmmaking friends, including Spielberg) And it’s just as important to have people that are the opposite of that. This is all if you want the most thorough screening process, which, in my opinion, if you’re not gonna do it that way, why do it at all?

    Not to say that’s it’s not important to show it to interested parties, of course it is, but if you limit yourself to that group you limit what your film could be. Screenings are always a pain, but they can also be really rewarding. You finally get to see whether your film is working or not. You may not like what people say, but that’s where you have to discern which feedback could be used to improve the project, and which is just people wanting to impose their will on it. To me that has always been the hard part.

    And, of course, never lose sight of what you set out to do and how you FEEL about it. Film, like any art, is subjective, and while you want it to work for the outside world (you NEED it to work if you want it to go anywhere outside of your living room) you ultimately are doing it for yourself. So mind your gut! And listen to the film. It ALWAYS tells you what it needs/wants to be, even against your wishes sometimes. But when your feelings and the needs of the film line up, that’s when you usually get something really special.

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