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The BBC's Madeleine Holt
"The verdict of a handpicked audience can count more than the director's"
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Saturday, 25 March, 2000, 00:48 GMT
Testing times in Hollywood

By the BBC Arts Correspondent Madeleine Holt

Winning an Oscar is a sure-fire way of increasing a film's takings at the box office. But it is not the only way American studios try to get a return on their money.

Right from the start they put movies through a rigorous testing process while they are being made - getting selected audiences to say what they think of particular scenes and performances.

Testing has been used in Hollywood for years - but until recently it was mainly a way of working out how best to market a film. It was only employed long after a movie was finished.

That has all changed now.

And this pseudo-science of film-making is spreading to Britain.

In the last two years the main British film commissioning company, Film Four, has introduced tests and focus groups to fine tune most of its movies.

Most of the mainstream British movies of the last few years have gone through the process.

Lucrative business

The company that carries out most of the tests in the US, NRG, has - in just five years - built from nothing a lucrative business testing British films as part of the production process.

But this situation has developed not without concerns from the creative community - both in the US, and now in Britain.

The director of the Oscar-nominated film, The Talented Mr Ripley, Anthony Minghella, believes testing as part of the film-making process only works if used sparingly.

Anthony Minghella: testing should be used sparingly

He told the BBC: "What is much more difficult is when the film-maker loses control of a preview process and it is used as a hammer to bash the film with.

"I think of movies as an art form and ultimately what makes movies work is an intensely personal vision.

"You cannot have a personal vision if it is shared by 500 or 1,000 people at a screening."

Cutting risks

But the position of studio bosses is clear cut. The spiralling cost of production have made it much harder to take a risk.

Scott Neeson of 20th Century Fox says: "When you are investing $30-80m in a product, you want to make sure the product has a defined audience and is enjoyed by the audience."

Some US critics are warning that Britain will lose its tradition of more eccentric film-making once tests become as widely used as they are across the Atlantic.

And, ironically, there's little to suggest that testing is a watertight way of ensuring you have a hit on your hands. Otherwise, everyone would be making hit films all the time.

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