Although Tom Cruise’s name appears above the title of Top Gun: Maverick, a blockbuster film is a team effort. Telling stories that audiences crave is a collaborative process that applies to making hit movies and creating irresistible presentations.
From entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs to filmmakers like James Cameron and Tom Cruise, great storytellers rely on feedback to create content audiences love.
In the movie business, feedback comes in the form of audience testing. It’s a process where several hundred people are brought into a theater to see an early cut (rough cut) of a new film before its released to the public. Directors, producers, and studio executives then ask the audience for their unfettered and unfiltered opinions.
And yes, Tom Cruise, despite his massive appeal, puts himself and his films through the process.
Kevin Goetz would know because he’s sat in the same theater with Cruise and countless other filmmakers for such testing. Goetz’s firm, Screen Engine/ASI, conducts audience research for nearly two-thirds of all movies widely released in North America.
I caught up with Goetz recently to talk about his new book, Audience-ology: How moviegoers shape the films we love.
Goetz told me that the rough cuts of movies like Thelma & Louise, Fatal Attraction, and The Martian with Matt Damon did not have the final endings that moviegoers see in those films. The endings were changed before final release based on audience feedback.
The result of audience testing often turns an already good movie into a classic.
Goetz’s job is to interpret the audience feedback and convey it honestly to the filmmakers. In doing so, he helps content creators confront flaws in their films and fix them.
“If a painter doesn’t like her painting, she puts in the back of a closet. If a writer doesn’t like his novel, he puts it in a drawer. A movie uses someone else’s money,” says Goetz. “You are beholden to a lot of other artists to create a great piece of movie magic. By allowing moviegoers into the process at the right time, it enables the director or producer’s vision to become even clearer.”
My big takeaway is that despite their massive success, the world’s most famous filmmakers are active and eager participants in audience test-screening. For example, director James Cameron—known for his obsessive attention to detail—even placed the lights in the theater so test audiences could see the survey they were asked to fill out after watching a rough cut of Titanic. He was pleased to learn the test audience loved the movie. Based on their feedback, Cameron only made a minor change, trimming a few minutes from a chase scene.
Goetz’s firm gives test audiences a questionnaire to gauge their emotional feelings about a movie. Although the survey contains dozens of questions, one question is the most important: Will you recommend it to a friend?
According to Goetz, “It’s the most important because it correlates the most to actual results in the real world. If audiences will “definitely recommend” the movie, Goetz says it’s likely the positive buzz will turn the movie into a hit.
“Focus groups are an important part of the film screening process. They help studios figure out why their movies are good or bad—and not just if they’re good or bad,” says Goetz.
Great storytelling is collaborative, whether you’re making a movie or crafting a presentation. Just because you think your content represents your vision doesn’t mean your intended audience will see it as clearly as you do.
Stress-test your content with a real audience. Steve Jobs always did.
Jobs made presentations look effortless because he put a lot of effort into making them great. Although Jobs had a reputation as the idealistic innovator who didn’t let anything or anyone interfere with his vision, in reality he solicited and accepted feedback from trusted executives, friends, and peers—his own test audience.
Jobs rehearsed his keynotes for weeks before product launches. He allowed a few people to sit in the auditorium while he practiced every slide and every demo. He practiced his gestures, stage presence, and vocal delivery. Once he was done with a portion of the keynote, Jobs would lower his voice, walk off the stage, and listen carefully to what people thought about his performance.
Jobs wanted to know:
- What did they like about the presentation?
- What didn’t they like?
- What part was boring?
- What points needed clarification?
- What should be trimmed or deleted?
Great storytellers get feedback before they reveal the final piece of content to the public. Don’t assume that a business presentation, product launch, or investor pitch will connect with your audience in the way you intend it to land. Build your own focus group. Your test audience might know how to present your vision better than you do.