Although I knew that Hollywood was using conversion rate optimization to create better movies via the results from test screenings, I wasn’t aware of the scale of some of their efforts, particularly by one editor, Brent White.
The Woodland Hills screening promised something more practical than a sense of how “Spy” would fare in the wild: A microphone placed at the front of the theater would provide White with a recording of the audience’s laughter, against which to edit future versions of the film. If a joke didn’t send the crest of the waveform sufficiently high, it would either be tweaked or replaced with an alternate joke and demoted to the film’s “B-cut” — a version composed of jokes that hadn’t killed but that Feig wasn’t ready to trash. Some test audiences would unwittingly watch the B-cut, and if certain jokes went over great, “then I’ll steal them and drop them into the A-cut,” White said. Last year, Paramount Pictures went as far as to give the “Anchorman 2” B-cut its own limited theatrical release: Overseen by Bretherton, White’s deputy, it told the exact story as the official release, but with 763 different jokes slotted in. This way of working depends on new technologies but reflects time-honored practices. The Marx Brothers vetted “A Night at the Opera,” long before they ever got to the set, by precision-engineering its material on the vaudeville circuit.
The part about using a microphone to record the audience laughter and compare the waveforms of different jokes reminds me a lot of how we use Optimizely to compare the results of different versions of a website.
It does seem like a cumbersome way to collect data. In the future I can see the movie studios making these test screenings available online to a select audience and gathering the laugh data through a user’s computer mic – if the studios can overcome the pirating/leak issues that currently seem to inform many of their marketing decisions.