Let’s assume you’ve achieved the impossible: you’ve stressed your way through pre-production on your first feature, shot it on a shoe-string budget, and waded through countless hours of footage, arriving, at last, at an assembly cut.
What now? It’s time for some fresh eyes. Most indie moviemakers are content to upload a private Vimeo link, pass it around to friends and family, and cull feedback through emails. And why not? It’s convenient and allows you recovery time between every heart-ripping comment—“This is wrong,” “Trim this scene,” “I don’t empathize with this character.” But there is another way. Enter the rough cut screening.
Baring—Not Selling—Your Soul
Rough cut screenings, also known as work-in-progress (WIP) screenings, and sometimes test screenings, are what major studios use to craft broadly accessible entertainment. One poor test screening of Paramount’s Annihilation was the subject of much debate in summer 2017 and reportedly left executives scrambling to quell a potential mess early, selling off international distribution rights to Netflix shortly thereafter. But auteurs, fear not—hosting a WIP screening needn’t be seen as selling out. You’re not homogenizing your art, but rather seeking to shine a light on issues that you and your editor might not be able to identify due to your proximity to the material.
The surface-level benefits of hosting a rough cut screening are clear. Nearly all films play better on a larger screen with a crowd, and as a moviemaker you will instantly sense the moments where the film works, or where scenes play out too long. You also guarantee a certain level of attentiveness. While you can’t prevent your friends from falling asleep, you can ensure that they won’t be pausing their laptop every few minutes to check on their boiling pasta, or toggling browser tabs to track NBA scores.
There are downsides. Hosting these screenings requires, and subsequently develops, a thick skin. You will likely lead a discussion where people will tell you to your face just what isn’t working in your project. In the theater world, you’re instructed to deliver criticism alongside a compliment, to soften the blow. But filmgoers are perhaps less savvy, and often only tell you what they loved about your film after you’ve already sunk wallowing into the floor post-discussion.
It can’t be overstated that the WIP process is not for the faint of heart. Independent moviemaker, archivist, and essayist Ross Lipman adds, “You really get raked through the coals. You’re throwing these things out at a time where you’re really vulnerable. You’ve just finished them, you want to think you’re done, but usually you’re not done.” It’s only when you reap the benefits of witnessing your film slowly take shape into a tightened, well-oiled final product from the amorphous mess of the original cut, that you can begin to fully appreciate this process.
A Room for Improvement
The logistical hurdle of finding a space is no small feat. But not all work-in-progress screenings need take place in a bona fide theater. Find a friend with a projector and a backyard, or gather in the spacious living room of a friend who owns a large flatscreen TV. The medium is not unimportant, but it remains secondary to the physical act of getting people together with the intention of viewing and discussing your work.
The Order of Business
Lipmans runs the actions of his post-screening discussions with a precision that recalls the Divine Liturgy. Before the discussion commences, the audience fills out a questionnaire in its entirety, to prevent opinions expressed during the discussion from influencing others’ written responses. Then the discussion takes place. If someone expresses a strong opinion, Lipman asks the others to mark down whether they agree or not. Other WIP ringmasters might opt for a show of hands. After the discussion, viewers use space at the bottom of the sheet for any additional thoughts that might’ve come to mind as a result of the discussion.
Majority Rules (Until it Doesn’t)
Bing Liu, director of the Sundance award-winning documentary Minding the Gap, hosted over 20 rough cut screenings beginning earlier in the process than most while he was still shooting footage. Getting feedback in this fashion “helped inform what I was trying to do with the film. Actually the decision to put myself in the film came out of a rough cut screening,” Liu explains. When particular feedback seems to be pulling you in multiple directions leaving you more confused than before, Bing recalls this advice from his executive producer: “If everyone at your rough cut screening is saying something similar, you should pay attention to it. If one or two people are saying it, take it with a grain of salt. And if the room is divided on something, that could be a good thing.”
Take Note: No Notes
Liu has begun requesting that viewers avoid taking notes. “You should watch the film as an audience member rather than taking notes, because that’s not how you would watch a film in a theater,” he explains. While the no-notes rule might prevent someone from documenting a very specific quibble, the benefit is that it allows them to soak in the movie uninterrupted, absorbing the piece whole, as it was intended. This leads to greater clarity and more informed opinions in post-screening conversations. “That’s the point,” Liu adds. “We want to focus on the big things the audience doesn’t have to take notes to remember.”
Diversify Your Test Crowd
It’s important to have a clear understanding of the intended audience for your project, and ensure you screen it for them. Logic dictates a proposed crossover hit be tested in front of a crossover audience. But the truth remains that we often surround ourselves with like-minded people who share common interests. It takes effort to reach outside this pool. Lipman adds, “You’ll go to a screening and everybody is already a moviemaker. That is not a goal for my new film Between Two Cinemas. I want the film to be able to speak to a wider audience, so I bring in different people. Some might be scholars, historians, journalists; there might be filmmakers, people in the industry, or even people with no background in film at all. I want people in the room who I consider to be part of the community I hope will like the film.”
If you’re motivated and have the infrastructure to host multiple WIP screenings of your work, your dear friend who’s been to all them is going to view a new version differently than someone experiencing it for the first time. Keep those fresh eyes fresh! Should you have the luxury of institutional support, use it as a resource for corralling outside perspectives. Liu took advantage of his Sundance Institute Documentary Fund support to allow them to bring new faces into the fold, even hosting a screening in their L.A. office.
Control the Room
As ringmaster of the post-screening discussion, you are refining a practice over time. Intentionality is key to keeping a conversation focused. Discuss with your editor and any collaborators exactly what you are trying to get out of this particular screening. What are the big question marks still lingering in the cut where outside voices might assist? If you enter with a clear head regarding your goals, then you will be more adept in steering the conversation out of the weeds, keeping the strong (but potentially valid) opinions of an outspoken viewer from derailing the entire discussion. Liu witnessed a master at work when he attended a late rough cut screening Steve James hosted for his Oscar-nominated Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. “I didn’t know a filmmaker could control the room in a rough cut screening the way he did. He knew what he wanted out of it, and he knew how to figure out what people actually thought. The way in which he played the room against each other got more honest feedback,” explains Liu.
The questionnaire is another handy tool in controlling the narrative. Choose your questions wisely, and update them from screening to screening. If you feel this cut corrects an issue brought up in a previous screening, ask the viewers directly in the questionnaire to ensure you do in fact properly address the issue.
What Works For You
Feel empowered to experiment with the process. Matthew Anderson raised $15K on Kickstarter to fund his first feature, the queer road-trip relationship drama Baja Come Down. He later discovered a Kickstarter initiative allowing moviemakers to host a rough cut screening of the work at the Kickstarter HQ in Greenpoint, NY. Dangerously close to picture lock, Matthew jumped at the opportunity to show the film to some east-coast friends, collecting their impressions. Forgoing the typical post-theater discussion, Matthew instead opted for post-screening drinks to encourage one-on-one conversations. He agrees with Lipman about the danger of influence during open discussions, “If everyone is in the same room talking, one person voicing their opinion could plant an idea in someone else’s head, and prevent them from sharing how they initially responded to the work. Having one-on-one conversations is important to learn about each individual viewer’s experience with the film. That’s more valuable and more pure to me than what could potentially happen in a group scenario—where people could be attaching their experience to another person’s.”
Know Your Vision (and Stick to It)
Anderson further explains what his WIP screening revealed for him. “It can illuminate your own work to yourself. You can use that to alter aspects of the film you may not have. It’s good for the process, as long as you take feedback in as balanced a way as possible, knowing that not everyone’s opinions should influence the next step in making the film.” It’s imperative to maintain perspective on your project and understand that these are other people’s opinions. This is your film. Remind yourself of this before and after every WIP screening. You can always choose to either implement or ignore any advice you receive. Don’t let someone else make you make their film.
Once you hone in on how to host WIP screenings and discover the quality of the feedback—and subsequently, your film—growing exponentially, you’ll begin to find the small acts of tweaking a questionnaire or curating a perfect guest list infectious. Try the more casual post-screening drinks model or even experiment with letting someone else lead the discussion. Consider these all guidelines and nothing codified.
“You want to think you made something great, and rough cut screenings force you to admit your film is not perfect. But that’s part of the process—If you don’t push yourself you will never get to that next level,” says Lipman. Embrace your inner-masochist as you prepare to have the flaws of your work pointed out, and try to enjoy the process. Your work will be better for it.