When New Line Cinema had its first research screening of "Monster-in-Law" last fall in Westlake Village, the air was thick with the jittery anticipation that accompanies the unveiling of a key summer film before a real audience. The romantic comedy, which opened at No. 1 with $23.1 million at the box office this weekend despite pans from many critics, was something of a gamble. The film, about a young woman whose romance is nearly wrecked by her boyfriend's shrewish mother, teamed Jennifer Lopez, still on the rebound from "Gigli," with Jane Fonda, who hadn't made a movie in 15 years.
Having seen a rough cut of the film in the editing room, New Line production chief Toby Emmerich was especially nervous. "I knew there were things that still didn't work, but I'd be lying if I said that I knew how to fix them."
Enter Kevin Goetz, the Dr. Phil of Hollywood focus groups. Unknown to the outside world, Goetz is a familiar figure in the veiled world of movie business market research. The 42-year-old head of screenings and qualitative research at a company called OTX is one of a handful of experts who provide studios with market research about trailers and TV spots as well as tracking information about audience interest in upcoming films. After 16 years at NRG, the industry's best-known research company, Goetz joined OTX in 2003, where he and the company's chief executive, Shelley Zalis, have played a pivotal role in making the company a formidable NRG rival.
He doesn't look the part. Research geeks are supposed to be frumpy and dour from too many hours in front of the computer. Goetz is always in high gear, radiating the amped-up enthusiasm of an actor auditioning for a road company production of "Rent." After "Monster-in-Law" was over, Goetz oversaw a focus group of 20 carefully selected moviegoers who spent roughly half an hour critiquing the movie.
Under Goetz's careful questioning, it soon became apparent that a big chunk of the group found Fonda's character unlikable, and nearly everybody had problems with the ending of the movie. "I never tell studios how to fix the film -- I simply interpret what the audience is saying," Goetz explained later. "The movie played well, but it was obvious that the energy started to dissipate at the end. With a comedy, you really need to end in a big way, almost with a punctuation mark."
Persuaded that the film needed work, New Line spent a hefty $5 million doing 10 days of reshoots this January. To make Fonda's character more sympathetic, she is now seen being fired from her job as a Diane Sawyer-ish celebrity TV interviewer; in the original version, she quit in disgust. In the original film, she attempts to poison Lopez, who is allergic to nuts, by putting almond paste in the gravy at dinner. The new footage has the gravy being spiked by accident.
The film's new ending has more emotion and more laughs, with Fonda being humbled by the arrival of her own imperious mother-in-law, a new comic character played by stage veteran Elaine Stritch. Instead of tearing each other's dresses up, Fonda and Lopez share a teary female-bonding scene. When the studio tested the new version this February, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The ending got an enthusiastic response.
"Kevin's role in helping us find a better ending was invaluable," says Emmerich. "It really makes a difference when you actually hear people say 'I got bored at the end' or 'It didn't feel emotional enough.' "
Even though studios still rely on raw numbers for many of their decisions, there is nothing like the visceral reaction of a focus group -- the ultimate jury of a movie's peers -- to shape studio thinking about a movie's commercial potential. "The Amityville Horror," released last month, reshot its ending after a focus group voiced dismay that there was no big scare at the film's end. In "American Pie 2," the focus group so vehemently disliked a new character, played by Chris Penn, that the studio essentially cut him out of the movie.
After seeing "Bad Boys 2," an action film that ran a bloated 146 minutes, I asked producer Jerry Bruckheimer why he couldn't get director Michael Bay to cut the film. He said that when the focus group was asked if they felt the movie was too long, too short or just right, they said just right. End of discussion.