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.