Test screenings are important tools for filmmakers, letting them know if audiences are gonna riot about their ending or notice an extra who had his dick out the whole time while there’s still time to fix it. Sometimes, though, test audiences can hurt more than they can help. No movie is for everybody, so in the hands of the wrong audiences, a poignant work of art can become a paint-by-numbers mess where the paint is shit and not even different colors of it. Such as…
You might have heard about reshoots and cuts back when 2016’s Suicide Squad was nothing more than an illegally circulated trailer, but you probably thought that was a good thing because it meant less Jared Leto. What happened was Warner Bros. got nervous after Batman v Superman was criticized as too dark and seeing the success of lighter, funnier superhero movies, so they toned down director David Ayers’ vision until it featured a “Bohemian Rhapsody” needle drop.
Just to be sure, though, they conducted test screenings on both cuts, whose results revealed… nothing. Both versions tested exactly the same. This should have been good news — Warner Bros. could make the decision with a coin flip. Instead, they decided to cut both movies together, keeping the parts from both that test audiences liked the most and scrapping the rest. You know, kind of like how you choose which friends to hang out with based on which of them best fulfill your needs at the moment, provided you’re a sociopath.
It turns out the cut-and-paste method works about as well for filmmaking as it does for friendship. One of the primary criticisms of Suicide Squad is its inconsistent tone, shifting violently between grimdark grit and pithy one-liners set to a hip-hop beat. Along the way, important character backstories and relationship development were sacrificed, including information about Harley Quinn’s relationship with the Joker that made her a more sympathetic character and him a scarier villain. Yeah, it was such a mess that more Jared Leto could have been an improvement.
For those who don’t or can’t remember 1998, Disturbing Behavior was The Stepford Wives for teenagers in the Dawson’s Creek era, even featuring a Dawson’s Creek star. It should have been poised for success, and it appeared to be. Early test audience responses were generally positive, but there were a few problems. They thought the ending (in which the protagonists were forced to kill a friend who got Stepford Teened early in the movie) was too sad, a sex scene was unnecessary and some plot points were confusing. Easy enough to fix, you’d think — new ending, cut the sex scene, add some explanation, everyone’s home by dinner.
But MGM freaked out. Convinced that teens wouldn’t tolerate any length of exposition, they instructed director David Nutter (an X-Files veteran who went on to direct, among other Emmy-nominated and -awarded TV episodes, the “Red Wedding” episode of Game of Thrones) to add less explanation. Also, cut all the scenes with parents — teens “don’t like watching adults.” Also, no scenes over a minute long. Also, cut all the setups that lead to reveals and also the reveals that come after some setups. “Their attitude was ‘Let’s just get to the fright beats,’” Nutter said. No suspense, only scares.
The result was less the “atmospheric X-Files-style thriller” Nutter envisioned and more a “Scream-style teen shocker.” And it scored even worse with test audiences. That only made MGM double down, slashing scenes until the movie was barely over an hour long and prompting Nutter to consider taking his name off it entirely. All that fuss just to barely make back their budget and bore reviewers, while critics who have seen the original cut have said that “the once-confusing effort now makes complete sense and actually works as an effective study of teen paranoia and small-town conformity.” At least we have Riverdale for that now.
Admittedly, whether or not the first installment of Implausible Fatalities: The Franchise was improved by its test screenings hinges on whether you think horror movies should tell interesting stories or just be a series of increasingly gory and inventive death scenes. If you subscribe to the latter viewpoint, it’s one of the most successful in the genre, but you may wish to side with the critics who disagree that test screenings created “the perfect souffle” of a movie, as its creators refer to it.
Originally, the film included a less “hinted at” and more “boning on the beach” relationship between Devon Sawa and Ali Larter’s characters, culminating in him sacrificing himself to save her and, unknowingly, their unborn baby. The deaths stop after the baby is born, squaring with lore introduced later in the series that new life trumps death, but this is left ambiguous at first. Audiences hated it. They hated the love story, they hated Sawa’s death and they definitely hated ambiguity. What they did like were accidentally flying kitchen knives.
“We went for something a little deeper, and (audiences) just wanted to see more death,” co-writer Glen Morgan said, and director James Wong confirmed, “We know what works. What works is the death scenes.” Deciding they couldn’t do better than “medium popular with middle school students,” they chose the path of perpetual death and infinite sequels, then killed off Sawa’s character off-screen and did “babies conquer death” anyway. They apparently just had to reel the audience in with fishing line attached to an industrial fan first.
Gigli is a conveniently diminutive title because you don’t want shorthand to be longer than the original term, and “bad movie” has one more syllable. It’s snappy enough that it can describe anything — your couch might be the Gigli of furniture, you could eat the Gigli of sandwiches. If it sucks, it’s a potential Gigli. It was so bad that its reception probably had a hand in Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s breakup, which occurred just after its release. Oscar-nominated director Martin Brest never worked again, even though it wasn’t even a little his fault. What we ended up mocking was, like, two-thirds of the movie Brest shot.
According to one critic who saw an early screening, there were two key components whose removal tanked the movie. One was the early establishment of Gigli’s desire to leave the mob and find a “clean place,” which is shown to the audience as a “pristine tropical beach.” This makes his confession to Lopez’s character, Ricki, less bizarre and out of nowhere and also connects him to their politically incorrect hostage, both of them “in a sense searching for ‘The Baywatch,’ thus turning what may seem like a cheap TV/pop culture reference into something a little more meaningful.” The other was an entire third act revealing that Ricki was only posing as a professional hitwoman in an attempt to better understand her ex-girlfriend, a real hitwoman, which explains so, so much, and ending with Gigli getting shot and bleeding out on the beach, “which we see is the spitting image of his fantasy ‘clean place’ — he’s finally found it, and what led him there was, ironically, the life path he was hoping to escape.”
Was it a perfect movie? Probably not. There were always parts that weren’t going to age well (you know the parts). But it was a comedy, not a Scorsese movie, so test audiences didn’t like seeing a mobster (or, possibly more likely, Daredevil) die. That meant completely restructuring the movie — less focus on Gigli’s “clean place,” more on the love story, axing Ricki’s unmasking — but leaving remnants behind, like the nonsensical appearance of Ricki’s crazed ex (makes sense now, huh?), all without Brest’s consent. As a result, what could have been an okay movie went down as the worst of all time. More importantly, we were robbed of two decades of wedded Bennifer bliss, and for that, there can be no forgiveness.