The doctor of audience-ology

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.

In recent years, focus groups have gotten a bad rap. Partly that's because they are often filled with Harry Knowles-style knuckleheads, eager to compare every movie to their favorite Tarantino film. (When I observed an OTX focus group recently, I agreed not to critique the film, yet Knowles' Aintitcoolnews.com posted a review of the screening five hours after it was over, clearly written by someone who had been in the focus group.) But the process has also been undermined by studios who suggest leading questions -- "Don't you think the hero could be more likable?" -- to pressure filmmakers into buffing away any rough edges in their films. Tom Cruise once introduced a research screening of "Mission Impossible" himself, making it a lot less likely that anyone in the focus group would say, "Geez, Tom Cruise's quips felt a little ... lame."

Goetz insists he is not easily manipulated -- or intimidated. Knowing indie filmmakers are especially suspicious of research, he went to Sundance this year to demystify the process for young filmmakers. He and Zalis have been in Cannes this week schmoozing with filmmakers and overseas clients; one of OTX's strengths, along with its Internet research, is its overseas box-office tracking.

The courtship process has paid off. "The talent asks for Kevin by name, which is a real tribute to him," says DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press. "For filmmakers, the first preview can be a terrifying experience, so having someone like Kevin, who delivers bad news authoritatively but with compassion, can make a filmmaker feel there's hope instead of being plunged into despair."

Goetz's affinity with talent comes naturally. The Brooklyn native was a child actor, appearing in innumerable commercials and stage plays before getting an acting degree from Rutgers. "I was the Domino's pizza boy for two years," he says with genuine pride. He also did off-Broadway theater before moving to Los Angeles in 1986. While he was at NRG, he ran a theater repertory company in San Luis Obispo and produced a number of TV movies.

Even when overseeing a focus group, he remains a performer. Normally journalists are verboten at these events, but New Line let me see Goetz in action at a recent research screening for "Domino," a Tony Scott action thriller that stars Keira Knightley as a Beverly Hills brat turned bounty hunter. After the film was over, Goetz steered a group of 22 young viewers to the front of the theater, where their every breath was closely observed by Scott, the film's producers and the New Line brass. It felt both uplifting and vaguely unsettling to see everyone so apprehensive about the opinions of moviegoers who, by themselves, are at the mercy of every cynical sales tool the industry has to offer but as a group wield considerable power.

Goetz wore a suit with an open shirt and untinted glasses, explaining, "They need to see my eyes so they know I'm sincere and trustworthy. I want them to feel that I'm their best friend." A focus group is supposed to be qualitative research, telling the studio not just what the audience liked or didn't like but why they felt that way. But watching Goetz probe and parry, I felt as if I was watching a therapy session, plumbing the subconscious mind of 22 moviegoers. Goetz's first words to the group -- "give me a word that best describes your experience" -- seemed less of a question than a hypnotic command.

To all appearances, the calmest person there was Scott. Having made commercials for years, he knows the value of satisfying an audience. But as a final-cut director, he has the freedom to trust his instincts.

Personally, I'm a skeptic about the industry's over-reliance on research -- you wouldn't want a focus group dissecting an Almodovar film. But watching one assess a mainstream movie was an intriguing experience, if only to see how savvy audiences are about modern-day cinematic storytelling. Confronted with a visually striking film -- and "Domino" is nothing if not striking -- they were eager to embrace its originality.

Goetz was careful not to let any one member overly sway the group, quickly interrupting any long digressions. "If I only get one or two complaints, that I can discard," he says. "But if I get seven or eight people who agree on a problem, then we've got an issue, because you can be pretty sure the entire audience feels that way." Goetz consciously picked focus group members who didn't love or hate the film, but had mixed feelings. "You want people who hesitate, who have something keeping them from rating the film as excellent. That gives us something to solve."

Afterward, Goetz huddled with Scott, offering a brisk instant analysis. It's not surprising that filmmakers would look to Goetz as the therapist with a soothing explanation for their darkest fears. "What I do is diagnostic," Goetz says. "I'm the doctor saying to the patient, 'Here's what you have, and here's what you can do about it.' I think filmmakers appreciate it that I'm an artist first, a business person second. I understand the angst they go through."

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