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Beyond Test Screenings: The High-Tech Laughtrack

Craving for feedback moves filmmakers past comment cards

Test screenings and their trappings — comment cards and focus groups — are a tried-and-true Hollywood staple.

But one unintended consequence of the digital revolution is that even test screenings have gone high-tech, especially for comedies.

It’s routine now to record the audience at test screenings, bring that laughtrack back to the editing suite, sync it with the movie on an Avid, then study which jokes killed and which died. Sometimes the studio even shoots infrared footage of the aud to gauge physical reactions.

The laughtrack has profoundly changed the whole test-screening process.

“Whereas the industry standard used to be one or two test screenings for your upcoming film, some of the new top comedy brass are trending toward literally dozens of test screenings,” says Shawn Levy, helmer of Fox’s The Internship. “The laughtrack lets you know, unequivocally, what jokes are sacred.”

The filmmakers check when the laugh starts, how powerfully it resounds, whether the joke lands with a few folks and whether the laughs step on other jokes.

“Sometimes we’ll get notes from executives going, ‘My recollection is that that didn’t play,’” says Internship film editor Dean Zimmerman. “And we’re like, ‘OK, well, we have the laughtrack to prove that it did or didn’t.’ The laughtrack really becomes our bible.”

Skip Longfellow, supervising sound editor on Internship, went as far as calling the test screening a hidden art form for the sound team, which places mics carefully to get the best sampling of laughs with a minimum of bleeding over the movie, all while remaining inconspicous.

Videotaping and recording auds for genres other than comedy is less common, though on Warners’ The Great Gatsby, editors Jason Ballantine and Matt Villa relied heavily on the test-screening process to get genuine feedback.

“The biggest throw of the dice,” says Ballantine, “more than entrusting these people with giving you legitimate feedback, is entrusting these people not to get on the Internet and hang shit on the film or break confidentiality clauses.”

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