Test audiences fall about at 'Four Weddings' follow-up

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The Independent Online
NOTTING HILL, the new film from the team which made Four Weddings and a Funeral, is already marked out as a huge box-office hit - eight months before its release. Audiences at trial screenings in Britain and the US have been wildly enthusiastic about the film, which stars Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.

The four tests, staged secretly for selected audiences, saw the film "score" approval rates of between 82 and 94 per cent. "They have all gone very well indeed," said the film's producer, Duncan Kenworthy. "It is quite extraordinary how consistent people's responses are." Members of the audience were each chosen according to their age, to reflect the kind of cinema-goers the film will reach. The recruits were all people who told market researchers the film sounded like the sort of thing they would normally pay to see.

"Our intention is to recreate the experience of a natural audience," said Michael Edison, owner of National Research Group, the company which organised test previews. "The age groups we select alter, depending on the film itself. It is a process of finding out what works with an audience so that you can make some informed decisions." Because Mr Edison's techniques are "market sensitive", he declined to say which age groups were selected for the Notting Hill screenings.

Shot on location in West London, Notting Hill is planned for general release in Britain next summer. The director has not yet completed the editing process, and the screenings are specifically designed to highlight areas of the film that need tightening up. Mr Kenworthy denies that the process degenerates into one of directing by focus group. "It doesn't replace the vision behind the film with some sort of objective set of statistics. It's just that, like Four Weddings and a Funeral, this is a comedy and so it is important to find out whether it makes people laugh."

The screenings held during the editing stage of Four Weddings were particularly helpful, he pointed out. "That film originally ended with Andie MacDowell and Hugh Grant kissing in the rain, but we found that in the screenings people felt the film had become more serious in the closing section and we wanted to remind them that it was a comedy. As a result Richard Curtis, the screenwriter, came up with the idea of using all those final photographs of the characters at their own weddings. It worked and it is something we would not have thought of otherwise."

So far, screenings of Notting Hill, which will run for just under two hours, have led to the re-editing of a few sections of dialogue. "We needed more space in a couple of places to allow for people's laughter. It is no good if they miss the next line," said Mr Kenworthy.

The real danger with allowing limited trial screenings is that audience members may make details of the plot public. "I know that in America it is now very hard to find an audience that won't immediately post the story on the internet," said Mr Kenworthy.

It is the film-maker's horror of premature publicity that reputedly saw a Disney executive take the showreel of Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer around in a briefcase manacled to her wrist.

But he is not taking the good omens on Notting Hill for granted. "There are plenty of stories of films that test well and do badly," he admits.

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