Filmmakers resist putting pix to the test

Few of the 2006 summer tentpoles were test-screened

Before setting sail, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” was never test-screened. Likewise, Ron Howard decided not to put “The Da Vinci Code” through research screenings before an anonymous audience.

In fact, outside of “Cars,” none of the 2006 summer tentpoles was test-screened, usually considered de rigueur for mega-budget pics.

Fearing negative Internet buzz, additional studio interference and a loss of control, directors like Howard or “Superman Returns'” Bryan Singer are winning their demands to skip testing, even as studios complain that the result are movies that are overlong and overwrought.

The irony this year is that the more a studio seems to have riding on a pic, the less likely it is to have been screened.

For pics that rely heavily on CGI, there often isn’t enough time to go through the rigorous test screening process — or so the argument goes. Jerry Bruckheimer mainstains he would have liked to test “Dead Man’s Chest,” but the special effects were finished so close to its press screenings and premiere that there just wasn’t time to line up a research audience.

“I think test screenings are absolutely invaluable,” gripes one studio exec. “I think not doing them is a mistake. Who paid for the movie, after all?”

Since the days of silent film, studios have screened their movies before anonymous audiences as a way to gauge reaction to such things as length and ending, as well as to provide marketing execs with a detailed roadmap of how to tailor their advertising campaigns.

The screenings have always run the risk of premature reviews. On Jan. 1, 1915, a test screening of “Birth of a Nation” was held in Riverside, Calif. While the film had a provocative racial subtext, there were no blacks in the audience. A local reporter for the Riverside Daily Press snuck into the screening and reported that D.W. Griffith had “treated his subject fairly” — an opinion that has been challenged by many observers over the decades.

In one of the more famous examples, Joe Farrell, the former Nielsen NRG exec who for years was the grand guru of research tests, analyzed the results of the screening of “Fatal Attraction” and advised Paramount to reshoot the ending so Glenn Close’s character is killed, rather than commiting suicide.

Some of this year’s pics changed significantly through the testing process. Pixar pushed back the release of “Cars” by a year after seeing the results of test screenings. After testing “The Break-Up,” Universal decided to return to Chicago and reshoot a happier ending. That’s why Vince Vaughn looks noticeably thinner in the latter part of the movie.

Many helmers, however, have come to despise the process, not only because of interference from studio execs but because of fears that a movie’s content will leak on the Internet.

Last month, the plane flying Paramount execs back to Los Angeles had barely gotten off the runway in Minneapolis, where they had test-screened Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” before a review was posted on the Web. The same thing happened when Martin Scorsese’s upcoming “The Departed” was summarized on Ain’t It Cool News, which also has reviewed the serial killer drama “Zodiac.”

“When the site started 10 years ago, we definitely saw it as a way of invading the test-screening process,” says Drew “Moriarty” McSweeny, the West Coast editor of AICN. “I make no bones about that. We wanted to return the power to the filmmaker. I think it has worked to a huge degree.”

Singer and Howard screened rough cuts of “Superman Returns” and “Da Vinci,” respectively, during what’s come to be known in Hollywood vernacular as a “friends & family” test screening.

Singer is said to have cut a little over 15 minutes from “Superman” after showing the pics to a small cadre of trusted confidantes.

But even with those cuts, both pics weathered criticism that they were overlong, as did the “Pirates” sequel.

For their part, though, most studio execs would rather test, even if word leaks on the Internet.

“The cart shouldn’t be leading the horse,” says another marketing exec. “You can’t freak out over the Internet and let it overshadow getting the movie where it needs to be. As an executive, you get too close to the project. And face it, a friend or family member can’t be entirely objective.”

The question now is whether filmmakers will have even more power in dictating whether they will allow future projects to be test-screened.

Why? Even though though “Pirates” and “Code” didn’t go through testing — and the reviews may be proof of it — their box office performance doesn’t seem to have suffered.