Audience of One?

Fernanda Rossi December 12, 2008

Dear Doc Doctor: I cringe when watching my film with an audience. Is there a practical reason to attend all screenings?

Doc Doctor: To be or not to be there. That’s not the question. What matters most is why should anybody be subject to such drudgery. Filmmakers are confronted with having to sit through a screening of their own film with an audiencean uncomfortable task no matter the type of chairon two distinct occasions: when doing a rough-cut test screening and when finished and in distribution. In the first case, most filmmakers choose to stay; in the second, most run out the door the minute lights are dimmed to only return when the credits are rolling.

In the case of a test screening, some filmmakers leave alleging they have watched the documentary the night before while making the screen copy or something along those lines; some stay because they never got to see the film in its entirety. In any event, there is more than one reason to stay. The big screen reveals secrets untold by the small monitors in the cutting room.

In the rare situation that your documentary is solely intended for TV, a pass on a big screen or at least a large HD flat television set can’t hurt. Those things that were a dot in a computer monitor are now a full-fledged issue, which affects the overall perception, whether it’s a flicker in a face muscle, a person in the background or some sign that, once tiny, is now readable.

Rhythm and pacing are also affected by screen size. Plus an emotional response is better captured real time. A questionnaire might ask if that or this scene is long/slow/boring, or if the viewer found this or that funny/entertaining/interesting, but these issues will be only answered in retrospect, with the disadvantage of selective memory and only after the effect of the overall viewing experience had already taken place. Watching the film with the audience, however, allows the filmmaker and editor to sense the room. You can ask yourself and take notes of exact time codes at which people were laughing, gasping, wrangling in their chairs or looking at their time in their cell phonesisn’t it great, you can see the cell phone screen lights across big auditoriums.

And what to do with that information? Plenty. If getting unexpected laughs you might have to extend or create a pause so the laughter doesn’t overpower the next sound bite. Deep emotional moments may also need extra processing time. Nobody likes being kicked along many scenes when bonding with a character. Compulsive time watching and chair uncomfortability might signal a long, even unnecessary scene or a turning point that is too slow to come.

If your film is fully finished and the screening you’re referring to is a public show, the cringing is doubly founded. It’s fun to discover people react when expected, but why suffer when the opposite happens if nothing can be done about itthe film is finished and can’t be re-edited. Or can it? Many filmmakers choose to forgo the pleasure of the first situation to spare themselves the pain of the second one. Not all is lost. It’s very useful to take notes anyway: to perfect your marketing strategy, to have better rapport with your audience during the Q&A and, if nothing else, to learn for the next time.

If you need further encouragement, ponder the following: If a film shows in a theater and nobody is there to watch it, did the film really screen at all?

International author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 200 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers around the world. In addition to private consultations, lectures, and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. She is also the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer. More info and book at

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