Audiobook Review: Kevin Goetz Shares the Secrets of “Audience-ology”

Audiobook Review: Kevin Goetz Shares the Secrets of “Audience-ology”

“I’d rather be beat in the face with a donkey penis than watch this film.”

Since long before Letterboxd, ordinary moviegoers have had occasional opportunities to share their thoughts on new movies — and the filmmakers, often to their chagrin, have been listening. As Kevin Goetz details in Audience-ology, studios have long relied on preview screenings to gauge potential audiences’ impressions of their products. With comments like the one above, quoted by Goetz in the book (though he tactfully declines to mention which movie it was regarding), the studios get what they pay for.

Goetz runs Screen Engine/ASI, the leading company conducting audience research to help studios make and market movies. Audience-ology comes billed as a Hollywood memoir, with the author sharing insights from his extensive experience digging into audience opinions. The catch, for Goetz, is that in conducting research he and his company swear to secrecy regarding the movies they screen and the data they collect. How can you write a book about something you’ve promised never to reveal?

The answer, for Goetz, was to go back to his clients. Audience-ology is carefully constructed to tell screening stories from the perspectives of the producers who spoke to Goetz in revealing interviews. With plenty of water under the bridge, Ron Howard, for example, is cool reminiscing publicly about the way he accidentally discovered that his directorial debut, the low-budget comedy Grand Theft Auto, played to old ladies as well as it did for college kids. (It was added on as a bonus attraction at a test screening for Geritol TV ads.)

In addition to being a trove of amusing anecdotes — like the Titanic producers deciding to hold a test screening in Minnesota on the notion that it would come as close as possible to approximating the film’s freezing setting in the dog days of summer, a notion of which any actual Minnesotan would have disabused them — Audience-ology amounts to a robust defense of the screening system from the person perhaps best equipped to argue in favor of the sometimes controversial practice.

It’s no surprise that a guy who’s spent most of his career making a living from test screenings thinks they’re a good idea, but Goetz pushes his defense almost to the breaking point. He adamantly defends perhaps the most notorious film edit ever to be inspired by a test screening: the producers’ decision to push for a reshoot of the Fatal Attraction ending. (Spoiler alert! Stop reading here if you don’t want to find out what happened in both versions.)

In the original ending, Glenn Close’s character ends up dying by suicide; her ex-lover, Michael Douglas, gets charged with her murder. After that played poorly with test audiences (who, we learn, hate seeing suicide almost as much as they hate seeing a dog die), director Adrian Lyne and his cast agreed to shoot a new ending where Close invaded Douglas’s home, wielding a butcher knife in a slasher-style death match with her ex and his faithful wife (Ann Archer).

Goetz is frank, and probably absolutely correct: the original version of Fatal Attraction would have been a critics’ darling that struggled to attract an audience. The revised version was targeted by critics specifically for the discordant final scenes, but became a huge box office hit. The story of how Close pushed back against the change, which reduced her nuanced character to a B-movie villain and diverted the focus from Douglas’s culpability in the relationship, has become Hollywood legend.

Can $320 million worth of ticket buyers be wrong? Goetz, of course, is inclined to say no — but even if you don’t entirely agree that the new Fatal Attraction ending constitutes, bar none, “one of the most gripping moments in film,” Audience-ology will leave you with a newfound respect for a process that may have helped to save some of your favorite films by recommending relatively minor tweaks.

Grumpy Old Men, for example, fell flat with its first test audience…but director Donald Petrie realized the problem lay with a funeral-themed framing device that set the audience up to expect a bleak drama rather than a comedy. All he had to do was ditch the original opening scene and replace it with a credit sequence contrasting frigid wintry landscapes with Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “Heat Wave”; suddenly, the audience realized it was okay to laugh and the otherwise unchanged film became a perennial favorite.

In one of the book’s most fascinating revelations, director Renny Harlin describes a scene he discovered he had to cut from the 1993 Stallone vehicle Cliffhanger. It was a daring jump over a chasm; even though the stunt was actually achieved without special effects by a spectacularly skilled body double, audiences didn’t believe it. “They wanted Stallone’s character to be real,” Harlin tells Goetz, “but that stunt made him into a superhero. In that scene, he lost credibility.” The shot was consigned to the outtake bin, and the movie became a hit.

Goetz, who worked for years as an actor before building a new career on what started as a part-time job running audience feedback panels, narrates his own audiobook: a good call by publisher Simon & Schuster, even if the finished product suffers from a few distracting sonic shifts that might be the result of patch jobs to correct trouble spots.

Much of Goetz’s success in his day — er, night — job stems from his ability to break bad news tactfully, and as you listen to Audience-ology you can imagine huddling with the author after a test screening, running through the feedback cards and talking about what comes next. His tone is frank, but he’s a fan: like all salesmen, he succeeds when his clients do.

Goetz doesn’t talk about movies as being “good” or “bad,” he talks about them in terms of “marketability” (audience response to the movie’s premise) and “playability” (audience response to the film itself). Ideally, a movie has both. To make any money at all, it needs at least one of the two. And when it has neither? As Goetz’s favorite cliché has it, “don’t shoot the messenger.”

Jay Gabler