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02.08.2006 12:00AM
Digital Cinema Blog: Preview Audiences View 'Closing Escrow'
Here's the latest in an occasional series of blogs exclusively for HD Notebook on the production and post production of the motion picture "Closing Escrow" (being billed as "a comedy about real estate"), a SAG Modified Low Budget Feature that is now being produced in HD in Los Angeles. Director Armen Kaprelian blogs about the film's ongoing focus groups' phase:

"The last six months of my life have been saturated with every detail of this film. Securing the investment, assembling the executive team, directing, editing, and issuing paperwork for my investor's tax returns have all made me very intimate with this project. Maybe too intimate. Though the vision for the story is still there, my objectivity towards it is not. Conceptually, we always believed that Closing Escrow would be a great film. But now that we've completed it, what you see is what you get. It will either connect with an audience or it won't. And, the only real way to tell if we did our job right is to test with an actual audience.

"First step is to have thick skin. It's not a good idea to show friends and family who are there to support you. Though their support is precious, unfortunately, they don't make up the most objective audience. I'm sure that every crappy movie ever made had a supportive environment around them. But what is that ultimately worth if you end up with a crappy movie? You've got to seek input from critical folks. It's not always a pleasant experience but, nonetheless, a very important one.

"Because we haven't 'onlined' yet, we burned a DVD from our compressed Photo JPG roughcut that actually looked pretty good on our 56-inch HDTV. We had also prepared a questionnaire with specific questions seeking to confirm that our plot points were being digested properly. We didn't need to ask any questions about the comedy because we'd be able to observe that directly. They'd either be laughing or throwing tomatoes.

"The first two groups Kent Llewellyn (co-director and editor) and I put together were made up of industry folks that we knew would give us their honest opinion. Plus, we knew that they'd be able to communicate in industry terms that we'd understand.

"As we pushed 'play' for the first group, my stomach unleashed its colony of butterflies, but that's part of the thrill. You only get those when you're doing something significant. If you never feel the butterflies, you're probably not challenging yourself enough.

"As the screening progressed, we breathed a huge sigh of relief to see them enjoying all the comedy that we had become numb to in the edit bay.

"The interesting thing is that watching your own movie within a group environment enhances your own sensitivity to things that you may not have noticed before. Your eye now sees things differently. I think the group environment adds a level of accountability that is missing in the edit suite. Keep a pad of paper with you during the screening (or a Treo 650 if you're a nerd like me).

"Once the film had finished, we asked people not to talk to each other at all. We wanted their personal impression of what they had just seen. We gave them about 20 minutes to answer the questionnaire. Afterward, we opened it up for group discussion since that is how the film will ultimately be consumed in the market.

"It's important to really listen to the input. It can be easy to take a negative answer personally but you can't do that. Not all of their input is going to be relevant but it is always helpful. If they didn't like something, ask them why not. Have them explain their response in as much detail as possible. It will help you identify if they just want to be heard saying something or if they actually have a point. If they do, roll with it. If they don't, thank them and move on with the discussion.

"The day after, we'd go back to the bay to reinsert some scenes that we had previously removed and then cut some unnecessary scenes. We found that the group was really responding well to the actor's performance and we didn't necessarily need to follow that up with another scene to help 'develop' their character. That was a relief since we were running a few minutes long in our early cuts.

"However, that decision was excruciating. It's like asking us to pick our favorite child because the scenes that ultimately 'hit the floor' are absolutely hilarious. It's a hard decision to make and you have to find that balance where you ask yourself: 'Is this scene progressing the story or is it just a really funny joke on tangent?' It's a question we had to ask ourselves often because our performances were largely improvised.

"I gave our actors a lot of room to explore. We found a way to incorporate most of that 'funny' into the film, and some of it didn't necessarily fit within the story. I imagine those 'cut' decisions would have been harder before DVDs came along. (Our 'Deleted Scenes' section is going to be sweet.)

"We've since done six more focus groups with six different demographics. Each time, we'd make a few tweaks here and there. The groups were made up of men and women, young and old, film industry people, real estate agents, and homeowners. And yes, we caved and finally let some family and friends see a later, more developed cut.

"Once you've received the responses from a large enough sample group, you'll know if you're heading in the right direction. And we are relieved to know that we are. Not only are people laughing and identifying with the characters, we also had a handful of viewers purchase the remaining shares of our LLC. That is as much of a confirmation as anything.

"The honest truth is that at this point you can't trust your senses anymore. You need to have your decisions confirmed by the audience that ultimately reflects the market you want to serve. And that is what a focus group will do for you. That doesn't mean that all of their input is to be addressed. After all, you're still the filmmaker and will be held accountable for how it turns out.

"We'll be locking our roughcut in the next couple weeks and should have more to discuss at that point. I apologize for any 'gramatical' errors in this blog. I didn't have time to test it with an audience."

~Armen Kaprelian


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