Joseph Farrell clicks furiously from screen to screen on his laptop, pausing every now and then to point out an impressive feature but never long enough to divulge any secrets. Developed by the National Research Group, Farrell's Hollywood market-research leviathan, the software program tracks every major motion picture released since 1982, cross-referenced by actor, director, box office, genre, studio, country and just about any other index imaginable. "I don't think any individual outside NRG knows just how comprehensive the work we do actually is," Farrell says with a faint smile. "We give each studio what it needs to know, but no more than that."
A shadow force in the filmmaking process, the National Research Group tests movie concepts, titles, television commercials, print advertisements, trailers and, most important, films themselves. Over the past two decades, hundreds of movies have been reshaped as a result of its research. Dozens have been re-shot, often with brand-new endings. These days, as many as nine out of 10 films released by the major Hollywood studios bear NRG's fingerprints. Not surprisingly, Farrell is regarded warily, if not with outright revulsion, by producers and filmmakers who feel their movies have been sabotaged by NRG's research.
Still, Farrell enjoys the confidence of virtually every studio head and marketing chief in town. Elusive, accessible only to insiders, he twice has been named--to his immense annoyance--to Premiere magazine's annual compendium of the 100 most powerful people in Hollywood. At the mere mention of this list, he bounds out of his chair. "It's a joke," he says, exasperated. "I don't greenlight movies. I don't determine how much money is spent. Am I talking all day long to people that other people would like to have the ear of? Yes. Can I decide on anything they do? No. All I can do is give them my best advice, and either they use it or they don't." All of which is true as far as it goes. And all of which misses the point.
A onetime seminary student and the brother of an Irish priest, Farrell is Hollywood's secular confessor. He is privy to the marketing sins, creative faux pas and blockbuster mistakes that have destroyed careers and toppled regimes. And in a town where the paranoia barometer perennially hovers at Nixonian levels, he is the rare individual with entree to the inner sanctums of every major studio. "I've seen some very funny things happen. But," he adds quickly, "I've vowed to be confidential about everything."
A well-preserved 64, with pale skin and fine features framed by white hair that's tall on top and closely cropped on the sides, Farrell has fashioned a singularly mysterious niche out of shunning the Hollywood spotlight. It's somehow telling that his wife, 30-year-old actress Jo Champa, is a movie star in Italy rather than the United States. (He has three grown sons from a previous marriage.) And while he sells art furniture of his own design, he does so under the name Guiseppe Farbino.
NRG works out of purposefully anonymous quarters on the Miracle Mile with claustrophobic corridors, lots of opaque glass and all the personality of a CIA front. From a window of his 29th floor corner office, Farrell has a panoramic view of the Hollywood Hills. A sliding door leads to the office of his longtime partner, Catherine Paura. The room's most conspicuous feature is the color scheme--green carpet, green tabletop, green computer screen and dozens of dossiers in green jackets. These confidential reports, alternately revered and reviled throughout the industry, contain the results and analyses of the questionnaires, or test cards, filled out by audiences at NRG test screenings. Typically reduced to a number grade, these NRG scores often play a leading role in deciding where a movie is cut, how it's marketed and when it's released.
"In general, I think research screenings are extremely valuable," says Bob Daly, who recently stepped down after a long tenure running Warner Bros. "Filmmakers are so close to the material, and they've been living with it for so long, that they sometimes lose their objectivity. I'd say that 50% of the movies we did at Warner Bros. over the past 20 years were improved by the process." NRG's favorite warhorse, certainly, is "Fatal Attraction," which got a new-and-improved ending when test screenings showed that audiences wanted Glenn Close's character to be punished. More recently, director Steven Soderbergh trimmed down an ambitious single-take scene lasting seven minutes in "Out of Sight" after a preview audience hated it. "There's no substitute for sitting in a theater with 500 people and seeing where you're losing them," Soderbergh says. "But chasing a number is a bad idea."