Kevin Goetz MGSA’84 was a young actor trying to make it in Hollywood when he discovered an intriguing side gig. The job was with a company that conducted test screenings of movie rough cuts and then compiled, analyzed, and interpreted viewers’ reactions for the filmmakers.
Goetz MGSA’84 had a flair for the work, especially the crucial part of deciphering audience opinions and sharing the feedback—ranging from euphoric praise to brutal takedowns—with directors, producers, and studio executives. He soon became a highly requested focus group moderator at these screenings.
“I found out I was good at getting to the truth, to the heart of the matter, and delivering that message with a certain kind of candor, yet also conveying it with kindness and empathy,” he says.
Since then, Goetz’s deft people skills, sharp analytical abilities, and deep understanding of moviemaking have made him a central figure in the film research industry. Dubbed by the media as the “doctor of audience-ology,” Goetz is the founder and CEO of Screen Engine/ASI. The company has test-screened thousands of movies, including such iconic films as Titanic and Forrest Gump, and recent Academy Award winners such as 12 Years a Slave, Green Book, and Nomadland.
The audience cut
Goetz’s first book, published in November, tells the inside story of his profession through first-hand accounts from some of the biggest A-listers in Hollywood, including Ron Howard, Cameron Crowe, and former Paramount chief Sherry Lansing.
Co-written with Darlene Hayman, Audience-ology: How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love (Simon & Schuster, 2021) reveals how some of the biggest blockbusters in movie history were revised based on feedback from test audiences. The 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction, for example, originally had the “other woman,” played by Glenn Close, killing herself after an affair with a married man played by Michael Douglas. Test audiences who viewed early versions of the film weren’t satisfied with that ending. So, the filmmakers wrote a new scene in which Close’s character is shot to death by the protagonist’s wife, played by Anne Archer, in a bloody bathroom free-for-all.
“Fatal Attraction changed its ending and went on to make hundreds of millions at the box office,” Goetz says. “If it hadn’t made that change, I am pretty confident in saying it would not have done half of that.”
Some changes are subtle but still have a significant impact. In the 1987 romantic comedy Moonstruck, the filmmakers removed dramatic opera music from the opening scenes. In its place, they substituted Dean Martin’s sweetly kitschy “That’s Amore” to better convey the movie’s lightheartedness.
Movie research, Goetz explains, goes back to the early days of Hollywood when Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton would screen comedic sequences of their latest work at local theaters after a scheduled feature. Test screening research became huge in the 1970s in line with the rise of big “tentpole movies” like Jaws and Star Wars, which had wide release nationwide rather than the traditional roadshow theatrical release.
“They had to create a nationwide awareness super quickly, so they used television advertising,” Goetz says. “This changed the stakes and created the need for extensive research and studies. Test screening research had always been there, but now it became much more elaborate.”
Goetz’s company, headquartered in Century City, California, employs about 300 people and conducts testing worldwide, including through its online screening platform and at its facility in the San Fernando Valley, which houses two theaters and several focus group rooms. The business relies on effective research and insightful interpretation. Within 24 hours of a screening, Goetz’s team prepares a 40-page report for the studio and filmmakers.
For Goetz, the “doctor” moniker is appropriate. “Most filmmakers have spent years on their ‘babies,’ birthing them, nurturing them, and now for the first time, introducing them to the world, to an audience that we have recruited,” he says. “I have to give the prognosis and suggested remedies for their child.”
Although it’s a calling he never expected, Goetz was nonetheless well-prepared for it. As an acting major at Mason Gross School of the Arts, he learned that the essence of acting is seeking the truth. And as a movie researcher, he continues to apply those same truth-telling techniques.
“Like building a character, it’s all about peeling back the layers to get to the ultimate truth,” he says. “But for the fact that I was an actor, I would not have honed that skill to the level that I had.”