A Guide to Handling Test Audience Screenings for Your Projects

Find tips and tricks for hosting your own test audience screenings and how to improve your projects with the feedback.

It’s always funny to me to watch famous films (or shows) about filmmaking. Not just indie documentaries showing behind-the-scenes of modern avant-garde projects, but I love watching the fictionalized stories of big-budget classic Hollywood productions. One facet of big budget filmmaking (and the films that document or mockument them) always fascinated me: test audience screenings.

In part, it’s entertainment, of course, but in many ways, it’s a way to learn about how the big studios actually work—and often, you can see why they still do the things they do. 

Take, for example, the concept of test audience screenings. For many up-and-coming indie filmmakers, this might not even cross your mind as something you should try out. Yet, if you were to watch the drama unfold behind the scenes from some of your favorite Hollywood classics, these undoubtedly played a massive role in what scenes stayed and what scenes were cut.

Just because you’re not at that level (yet) doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include things like test screenings in your filmmaking process. It’s more attainable than you might think.

So, for anyone interested in conducting an audience test screening for their big feature or more naturally hosting some friends over to watch and review your latest short film, let’s get some tips to help you make the most of it.

Give Context and Set Expectations

Now let’s dive into some actual tricks for handling your test audience screenings. First and foremost, while it might be fun to just have friends over and show them a film, if you really want to get feedback and data from them to help inform your editing decisions, then you need to provide context and set expectations.

This means being clear beforehand on what your project is, what point of the process it is at, and what your goals are for the feedback. (If you’re just fishing for compliments, at least be up front about it. But if you do genuinely want to know people’s thoughts on how your characters are developing, the soundtrack is mixing with the audio, or if the dialogue is coming out naturally, then ask for your audience to be mindful of these things up front.)

Specific Feedback Over General

From there, the name of the game is specific. Trust me, no one benefits from broad statements or wide-ranging feedback. For example, “I thought it felt uneven and too loud at times,” is really hard to work with. However, “I thought the scene where we introduce our protagonist felt forced,” and “the sound effects were too loud in the train scene,” are much more helpful—and not that hard to solicit either.

If they want to give you general encouragement though that’s great, just remind them though that it doesn’t ultimately help the process. Overall, try to remind your viewers to remember that any feedback they give should be with the purpose of you making a specific change in your film to make it better.

Try Different Online Test Screenings

While hosting an in-person test screening of your film might always be ideal for receiving real-time and direct feedback about a project, there are of course many instances where IRL screenings aren’t an option.

However, thanks to the wonders of online video, there are plenty of virtual test screening options available to you. Many of them can actually help streamline the process of receiving specific, time-stamped feedback that’s easy to use (and review).

Here are some of your best options:

  • iScreeningRoom: An online movie testing website used by big studios and independent filmmakers alike which can securely host movie screenings with advanced controls for tracking the “who” and “where” for your target audience.
  • Frame.io: Recently acquired by Adobe, Frame.io is one of the most well-known video review and collaboration softwares, and it’s great for reviewing edits and collaborating in real-time. Its review format is also ideal for “screening” films, as it has the ability to make time-stamped feedback you can then view directly in your timeline. (Here are some helpful tips for giving—and receiving—feedback via Frame.io.)
  • Vimeo Review: Another great app for review and collaboration, Vimeo’s review tools are a simple and direct way you can upload a video, share a link, and receive time-stamped feedback on your film or project.

Take Notes Throughout

In all honesty, using an online screening app that allows for real-time time-stamped notes might be as good as it gets for receiving hyper-specific feedback that you can actually use. If you’re in a situation where you can’t receive these timestamp-specific notes (like in an IRL group screening, for example), you should definitely encourage viewers to still take notes.

Speaking personally, it’s really hard for me (or anyone) to remember every one of their thoughts about a project even a few minutes later (much harder when it’s an hour and a half feature). Provide your test screeners with a notepad and pen, or encourage them to use a notes app on their phone or computer while watching. This should help get more feedback recorded.

Let People Be Honest

Finally, regardless of your screening format, your number one goal for any test screening or review process is to let people be honest. Sure, it feels great to get encouragement and glowing feedback, but ultimately that’s not what’s going to help you and your project.

No one wants negativity, but if you can open yourself up to hearing (sometimes harsh) points about your project and what does and doesn’t work with it, you can actually go about making the changes needed to make your film better.

All images via Rob Zs.

If you’d like to read some more helpful guides for navigating the filmmaking process, check out these additional links below.

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