Last week, at the premiere for Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? director Morgan Spurlock asked everyone who had worked on the film to stand up. I’d say a good 20% of the audience rose from their seats. “Wow, that is a lot of people. We should have had a test screening with this audience,” Spurlock joked — the point being that the crowd’s response would have been swayed by the biased folks amongst them. It was an interesting crack to make — especially considering Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein was in the room — because Spurlock actually relied significantly on test audiences after the movie was shown at Sundance.

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden I wrote a story for the Los Angeles Times in which I reported this fact, including how Spurlock removed a jokey, in-your-face animated sequence (which must have cost a ton of money) and changed a pivotal closing song, from the goofy “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” to the more thoughtful, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” Both elements from the earlier cut of the film rang so wrong to me — they made a film that was supposedly about bridging differences between the Muslim and Western worlds feel like a farce. But, thankfully, they were removed, and the film’s integrity, I think, restored. (Although, it’s true, Spurlock’s film does have a scene of an animated Osama Bin Laden channeling MC Hammer, but, hey, it made me laugh.)

I’ve always been the sort of film purist who believed that test marketing a film was just another tool for the evil corporate machine. I know so many feature directors who have battled with film companies that wanted to water down their films based on test audience results. The only director I recall advocating to me the benefits of test screening was M. Night Shyamalan, who has made some pretty cool movies, but he’s got a commercial instinct that I don’t entirely trust. Of course, most Hollywood directors use test screenings, and work with them. But they usually don’t openly embrace them.

And now, more and more, I am hearing that documentary films are being test screened. And although I initially shuddered at the thought, I’m becoming convinced that it’s not inherently a bad thing. (I am not certain, but I recall that the recent Young@Heart was test screened by Fox Searchlight.) Of course, there are different kinds of screen testing. There’s the sort that I am sure the Maysles brothers and, heck, I bet Robert Flaherty performed — having a small, close-knit group of people watch their films and letting them know what they think works and doesn’t. What I am talking about here is the movie industry standard, the sort that Hollywood uses, in which random folks fill out formatted cards that are then tabulated by marketers.

As of the time that I’m writing this post, I can’t say what the box office tally is for Spurlock’s latest movie. I can say, however, that the film is a whole lot better than it was at Sundance — and that I think the test screenings really helped. Of course, Spurlock & Co. might have also used some good old common sense: “Why Can’t We be Friends?” happens to be the song that plays while the closing credits of Lethal Weapon 4 roll. A room full of monkeys could have told you that that had to change.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen