Cocktail had an entirely different ending. Adam McKay learned to never kill a dog in a movie, even if it is Anchorman. The original cut of La La Land had no music or singing for the first 12 minutes. These are some of the fascinating stories shared in a book that pulls back the curtain on a little known, yet incredibly important part of the filmmaking process.
As one of the Los Angeles Times’ 100 most powerful and influential people in Southern California, Palm Springs resident Kevin Goetz helps transform movies from rough cuts to blockbusters. His firm, Screen Engine/ASI, conducts focus-group research screenings for a majority of all movies that are widely released in America and around the world.
His book, AUDIENCE-OLOGY: How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love (Tiller Press), features first-hand accounts from Ron Howard, Cameron Crowe, Drew Barrymore, Ed Zwick, Renny Harlin, Jason Blum and other Hollywood luminaries.
Here’s an excerpt from Audience-ology: How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love.
In the spring of 1994, I made the second unluckiest bet in Hollywood history. It was with John Goldwyn, who is, well, a Goldwyn. His grandfather was the “G” in MGM, one of the architects of early-20th-century Hollywood. His father was the famous independent producer and distributor, a stately man who ran the show at the Samuel Goldwyn Company well into his 80s. Pedigree notwithstanding, John Goldwyn is an accomplished production executive and producer, but this was decades ago when he was working at Paramount Pictures, and the wager took place as we stood outside a movie theater.
To be clear, this was the second unluckiest bet in history. The absolute unluckiest bet had occurred almost 20 years prior, when a young director became convinced that his new science-fiction movie was a disaster and would bomb. He bet his friend Steven Spielberg, who was working on another sci-film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that Spielberg’s movie would make more at the box office.
It would have been an excellent bet, a sure-fire winner, except that the frustrated filmmaker’s name was George Lucas.
And his movie was a little passion project called Star Wars.
My bet with John Goldwyn in ’94 wasn’t nearly so rich. It wasn’t Star Wars money. In fact, it was only for a dollar, a lonesome buck. But it was similar to George Lucas’ bad wager in two ways: First, it was also a bet over box office revenues. I had wagered that a new movie from Paramount Pictures, where John was the head of production, would not make more than $200 million at the box office. At the time, only a few movies had ever earned that kind of money. Even Spielberg’s latest Indiana Jones movie hadn’t quite busted through the $200 million barrier, and while I liked Paramount’s new film, I thought my bet was safe.
But there was a second reason my unlucky bet was like Lucas’. Both of us broke a cardinal rule of the movie industry, a rule that given my particular place in that industry, I should have followed to the letter.
The rule is this: Don’t pass judgment on a film before an audience has seen it.
After all, John Goldwyn and I didn’t make our bet on any old night. It was screening night—the night that a test audience of real, live people would see the picture for the first time. And when John and I shook hands and sealed my very bad wager, those audience members still had their asses parked in the theater seats. The credits had yet to roll. They had yet to fill out the comment cards that I would pass out after the preview, cards on which they’d assess the movie and give the studio its first sense of whether it had a hit.
I remember that night clearly, just like every other night when I’m present for the birth of a motion picture into the world, the moment at which the film leaves the director’s hands and becomes the property of the audience. I remember the studio heads shuffling into the back of the theater, anxiously wringing their hands. The executives had believed this movie—and I quote—“had Oscar written all over it” from the time they’d first read the script. But I was skeptical because I had heard similar sentiments plenty of times before. People close to a film can get caught up in their own delusions of grandeur. And what about that title?
“That is one of the strangest titles I’ve ever heard,” I thought as I continued to chat with John. “What does that even mean?” I asked him. But he was unflappable, insisting that the movie was something special and destined to be a hit. We were about to see if moviegoers agreed.
I recall the director storming out of the theater, fearful that if the response wasn’t as strong as he hoped, the studio might change his movie—his baby—based on the feedback. He had believed in this picture so fully that he’d even deferred a large portion of his own salary so the studio would have enough money for the production costs.
Then there was the moment when the lights dimmed, the projector whirred, and the screen lit up with the moving image of a feather floating down onto a park bench, where two people sat, including the simple-minded yet bighearted character who was about to transport us through rock ’n’ roll, Vietnam, and ping-pong diplomacy in China.
Most of all, however, I remember what happened after the screening, when it was time to do my job. I was conducting a focus group of 20 moviegoers who had stayed behind to talk about the film. At one point, an older male participant raised his hand and said, “I’ve seen God tonight, and his name is Forrest Gump.”
The picture, of course, became a smash success with audiences and critics alike, earning six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Robert Zemeckis. Forrest Gump went on to make $330 million at the box office in the United States alone—and lost me a buck.
This is not your typical book about the movies. You won’t find stories here from the director’s chair or from the star’s trailer or from the chic lunch spots in L.A., where gossip is served up faster than a $44 McCarthy Salad at the Polo Lounge.
This story takes you to one of most secretive places in Hollywood—a place where famous directors are reduced to tears and multimillionaire actors reduced to fits of rage. A place where dreams are made and fortunes are lost.
It’s told from the back of the movie theater at the end of the night, set when the lights are on and the projector is off and the popcorn is stale. It’s the chronicle of how people—real people, like those gathered for the screening of Forrest Gump—have, a few hundred at a time, written and rewritten America’s cinematic history by showing up, watching a rough cut of a new film before anyone else has seen it, and giving their unfettered opinions so directors and studios can salvage their blunders or, better yet, turn a good movie into an all-time classic.
Excerpted from Audience-ology: How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love, with permission. Copyright 2021, Kevin Goetz. Reproduced by permission of Tiller Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.