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The teenager is always right

The teenager is always right — How screen tests altered ”The Addams Family,” ”Fatal Attraction,” and ”Field of Dreams”

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Director Barry Sonnenfeld wanted to drop an old-fashioned musical number, a real showstopper, into the middle of The Addams Family. So he filmed a scene in which Uncle Fester and Gomez unleash a spirited rendition of ”The Mamushka,” written by Broadway legends Betty Comden and Adolph Green with composer Mark Shaiman. But in the movie’s final cut, Gomez and Uncle Fester sing only briefly. Why was the rest of the song snipped out? Perhaps the blame lies with a couple hundred Valley Boys who considered ”The Mamushka” a real showstopper. Their negative reaction to a preview of the movie evidently helped shape its final form.

So it goes in the demanding, secretive world of test screenings, where ”typical” American moviegoers get to tell the Hollywood bigs how to improve their products before they’re released. Test-audience members are often white males, 16 to 32 years old, who are recruited in L.A. suburbs, usually from colleges and shopping malls.

Like prospective jurors, collared passersby are asked a few preliminary questions: Are you or any of your relatives in the entertainment business? (Say no if you want to be included.) What movies have you seen in the last six months? (The correct answer depends on the film being tested.) After the show come questionnaires: How would you rate each performance? Is the film too violent? Is the pace too slow? Did you like the ending?

Both the process and the results are closely guarded. Officials of the two major screening firms — the National Research Group, which tests for most of the major studios, and Charles Walker & Associates — would not be interviewed for this story. Nor would execs at any of the major studios, except Universal, which uses its own testing staff.

It’s not that test screenings aren’t effective. They usually are. Among the legends of last-minute nips and tucks based on audience reactions are Fatal Attraction, which was given its famous bathtub-scene ending when audiences objected to Glenn Close’s manipulated suicide, and Field of Dreams, in which a scene was reshot so Kevin Costner could meet his father and call him Dad.

But there is growing criticism of test screening, based not so much on what its audiences say but on who they are. ”It just doesn’t make sense to test a movie that will have Hispanic or black appeal on a mostly white audience,” says Tony Middleton, manager of marketing and research for Universal. Trying to find ”a wider, more varied audience,” continues Middleton, is why Universal started in-house testing.

Such a desire is not universal in Hollywood, however, since 16-to 32-year-old males still represent most studios’ target audience. One former test-marketer reports being quietly admonished for a choice of audience candidates: ”They told me, ‘We’re not prejudiced ourselves, but the studios get antsy if we get more than 2 percent minorities in the responses.”’

Beyond race, there’s the question of taste. Should The Addams Family musical number have been trimmed? ”The short attention span of teenage boys shouldn’t deprive the rest of the audience,” argues author Mason Wiley (Inside Oscar). ”This sums up what’s wrong with Hollywood movies: They don’t make movies people want to see anymore.”