How Aquaman Was Changed by Test Screenings

After a number of dramatic situations behind the scenes of DC Extended Universe movies, Aquaman seems like a relatively tame affair thanks to new information about the test screening process. Aquaman is a major milestone for the DCEU, becoming the second movie in the franchise to garner an overall positive critical evaluation, while also becoming the highest grossing DC movie of all time.

The franchise has been profitable (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman are all in Warner Bros. top 20 all-time earners), it’s been marked by behind the scenes issues, critical slogging, and financial underperformance, all coming to a head in Justice League, where Zack Snyder was replaced as the director, a significant portion of the movie was altered in reshoots, and the final product both failed to woo critics and bombed at the box office.

Related: Aquaman’s Box Office Success Was Better Than Anybody (Even DC) Expected

All eyes were on Aquaman as the next step, so the fact that it saw a positive critical evaluation and won big at the box office is a good thing for the franchise. Thanks to a behind the scenes glimpse of the test screening process, we now know what Aquaman was like during production as well. Fortunately, it’s nowhere near as messy as Suicide Squad or Justice League, with James Wan seemingly being allowed to make the movie he wanted to make (mostly), there’s evidence that Warner Bros. learned some big important lessons from Justice League, but may still have a way to go in the way they manage production of DCEU movies.

How The Test Screening Process Works

In order to iron out any kinks in their movies prior to release, many movies go through a test screening process so the director and studio can get an idea of how audiences will react, taking some feedback into account to potentially make a movie more palatable to general audiences. Details of the test screening process aren’t normally made public outside of leaks from some attendees that don’t honor their non-disclosure agreements, but thanks to this new insight from the Fire and Water podcast guest Neil Daly, an independent freelance market research analyst and focus group moderator, who facilitates test screenings and moderates focus groups for DC movies, we know a little more about the process Aquaman went through.

The test screening process targets all major demographics to make sure it has appeal to all 4 quadrants – males under 25, males over 25, females under 25, and females over 25. The studio has a list of questions they want to know about the movie, so someone like Neil will select a focus group of around 20 members from the audience after the screening for a more focused discussion. Based on the feedback, the person running the screening will then give a presentation to the studio with the findings and the studio will then make adjustments to try to accommodate for specific changes they’d like.

Related: Aquaman’s Post-Credits Scene Has A Flashpoint Tease: What It Means For The DCEU

Test screenings are hardly a perfect process, and while they can help to get some early feedback on a movie, incorporating that feedback doesn’t always guarantee the movie will be a hit. In fact, while some directors value them as an important tool during a movie’s post-production process, others don’t desire the feedback as it can water down a strong vision, and obviously usually leads to major story leaks ahead of time.

Page 2: What Was the Impact of Aquaman’s Test Screenings?

What Was the Impact of Aquaman’s Test Screenings?

According to Neil Daly, Aquaman was screened 4 times in 2018. Once early in post-production when only around 10 percent was fully CGI rendered, another at an unspecified point, then the last two screenings happened back to back in the fall. The early screening, since it was far from a finished film, was to evaluate much higher level story and character concepts, with later screenings merely ironing out the details for the final edit.

The biggest takeaway from the first screening was that audiences wanted more humor. Daly says the early cut of the movie had a lot less comedy than the version seen theaters, but test screening audiences weren’t really connecting with Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry/Aquaman and wanted more dry wit from him, comparable to the kind of humor Robert Downey Jr. gives Tony Stark.

Related: Zack Snyder and Jason Momoa Help Suicide Prevention Campaign Reach $50k

An example of this kind of humor is when Arthur says “I could have just peed on it” after Mera uses her hydrokinesis to remove sweat from his forehead to activate the message in the Kingdom of the Deserters in the Sahara. The character was already deviating from the version seen in Justice League. Daly said Wan worked with Snyder to make sure the character was consistent with what the original Justice League director planned as opposed to Joss Whedon’s more misogynist version of the character.

It’s not clear if the jokes added to Momoa’s character also create incongruencies with Snyder’s version of the character, but early Justice League trailers show Aquaman making jokes like “dressed like a bat. I dig it,” which is the same kind of humor in question here. So while it’s certainly more, it does hew closer to Snyder’s version of the character than Whedon’s.

Some Test Screening Recommendations Were Ignored

Black Manta in Aquaman

Of course, the test screening findings are merely prescriptive, so not every suggestion was followed. One finding from the screenings was that audiences were finding the movie’s runtime too long. While that is a concernWarner Bros. reacted to for Justice League, mandating a 2-hour runtime, Daly says the studio learned its lesson after Justice League “blew up in their face” and didn’t implement similar runtime requirements on Wan.

In fact, Wan actually wanted the runtime to be shorter than the final movie. Audiences loved Black Manta, but many thought he had more screentime than necessary, and James Wan agreed. According to Daly, a lot of Black Manta was shot during production simply because they weren’t sure they’d ever get a sequel, but once it became clear over summer 2018 that Aquaman would be a big hit, and surely earn a follow-up movie Daly says the studio was encouraged to cut the movie down, particularly Manta’s part:

Related: Why Aquaman and Wonder Woman Get Good Reviews But Not Batman and Superman

“long before the movie was locked, they knew they had a good movie here. They didn’t need this much Black Manta and test screenings showed this. Somebody in the executive studio, including my discussions with [them] was: You’ve got a hit here. Cut the movie down. You could cut 20-30 minutes out. Limit the Black Manta sequences and save them for another movie. You’re going to do a sequel.”

Mera Aquaman and Orm

Wan agreed with this approach, but, while Daly says the end product is very close to being exactly what Wan wanted, Black Manta is one area where he didn’t get his way. Reportedly, Geoff Johns told him “You cannot cut a single frame of Black Manta. I love him in and figure out some other way to shorten it. We’re not cutting any of Black Manta.”

While it’s hard to argue with the Aquaman‘s financial success, crossing $1 billion at the box office and becoming the biggest DC movie in history (unadjusted for inflation), the movie has still seen some criticism for some disjointed humor and moments of bad pacing and superfluous Black Manta plot.

Interestingly enough, the humor was the area where Wan and Warner Bros. made the most changes based on the test screenings, whereas the pacing and unnecessary Black Manta plotting was advice they ignored, so it just goes to show the test screening process – while it can produce some good discoveries about a movie – doesn’t necessarily ensure every kink is ironed out. Who’s to say what the movie had been without the test screenings, but if the humor had been toned down and Wan was permitted to trim the plot down to be as streamlined as he wanted, most of Aquaman’s complaints would have been addressed.

Next: Why Aquaman Is The First DCEU Film To Pass $1 Billion (And Not Batman)

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