What It’s Like Behind the Scenes at a Test Screening

I went up to the concessions stand with my pink VIP ticket in hand. I stood in line like everyone else for a few seconds before glancing left to see a roped off register with signs reading “Reserved Entrance.” I made my way over.

“Hi,” the nice girl behind the counter said. “What can I get for you?”

“Um, what can I have?”

“Anything you want.”

I looked up at the LED menu. It stretched for miles. Popcorn. Hot Dogs. Ice cream. Sodas. Candy. Nachos. Pretzels. Too many to choose from.

“I’ll take one of everything.”

* * *

I’ve been working with Tremendum Pictures for a couple of months now and in that time I’ve learned one very important thing: this is what I should have been dreaming about all along. A couple of times a week someone will come up to me and say, “Man, how great is it you get to live your dream?” And I always say, “Actually, I’m not. I never dreamed this. I never dared.” Thank goodness someone else did. Or, rather, two someone elses.

Most of my time lately is spent working on a TV show I’m co-creating with Tremendum founders Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff, but I’ve also done some work as a production assistant and set designer on Chris and Travis’ movie, The Gallows, coming out July 10 from Blumhouse, New Line, and Warner Bros. I’m in “lucky to be here” mode and that’s not a bad place to be.

Friday evening, myself, Chris, Travis, and Production Associate Nate Healy piled into a car and drove down from Fresno to Long Beach for the final test screening of The Gallows. Unlike past test screenings, Chris and Travis, the writer-directors, weren’t scrambling at the last minute and staying up all night to make changes. Friday night was a night for relaxing, refusing the free drinks the hotel offered us when they found out what we were in town for (all four of us are Mormon), and playing board games until way too late. I don’t think “relax” has been part of Chris and Travis’ vocabulary lately. It was on that Friday night.

Out in front of the Edwards 26 in Long Beach. That's me on the left, then Brandon Jones, Nate Healy, and Travis Cluff.

Out in front of the Edwards 26 in Long Beach. That’s me on the left, then Brandon Jones, Nate Healy, and Travis Cluff. Photo by Chris Lofing.

The next morning, we got up, ate a hotel breakfast we probably should have passed on (I understand I did well in refusing the pancakes), and made our way over to the local Edwards 26 where we watched the movie through once to make sure there weren’t any picture or sound glitches. The movie’s sound designer, Brandon Jones, spent the entire test for the test screening jumping around to different seats in the auditorium to make sure everything sounded right from all angles.

The movie checked out and we had some downtime before the screening, so we busted out the board game BANG! and played in the open air admist the mall shops while waiting for lunch. The six of us (we were joined by another Tremendum associate, Rich Mirelez, just after the test for the test screening) drew some attention from an old man who stopped, hovered, and stared at the game for a little while in bewilderment before moving on.

At lunch we were joined by Dave Neustadter of New Line Cinemas, one of the producers on The Gallows. He picked up the tab. The big perk of these trips is that once we’re there we don’t pay for a thing. Normally, I’d try to refuse such kindness as I prefer to pay my own way, but this is just part of the deal. Besides, I figure New Line probably has more money than me. The Hobbits have been good to them.

After lunch, we walked over to the theater to see a big crowd out front, waiting to get in. The actual test screening is not managed by the studio itself, but by a third party company who recruits, organizes, and runs the whole show. They did a great job stacking the audience with the under 21 crowd, most of them big horror fans.

Soon, the big brass filed in, including studio heads from both Blumhouse and New Line. Dean Schnider, one of the producers on The Gallows and the guy who discovered Chris and Travis in the first place, introduced me to his boss as the writer of Tremendum’s next project. Not gonna lie, that was pretty cool.

As VIPs, we didn’t get wanded going in (they’re lucky I forgot my bomb at home) and we got our pick of goodies from the concessions stand. I asked for “One of everything” as a joke and quickly backed off of that with a laugh. Instead, I got a small popcorn, milk duds, and a Dasani water. Because I am pretentious and oh-so-Hollywood now. Don’t talk to me.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about actual Hollywood people so far: they’re pretty cool. Rather than the all-black clad, slicked back hair, sunglasses, and blue tooth headset types you might expect, they’re a pretty casual crowd dressed in t-shirts, jeans, and three-day-old scruff for the most part. If they’re feeling really fancy, they might toss on a plain button down shirt, open at the collar. They are excited, thoughtful, and, yeah, they cuss a lot. (Well, a lot for me. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve said the F Word, so my barometer might be a little different than the average person.) This all squares with my memories of the last time Hollywood invaded my life, back when my family was on Rescue 911. As Nate said as we drove back from the trip: “They’re just people.”

* * *

The Gallows synopsis on IMDB:

20 years after a horrific accident during a small town school play, students at the school resurrect the failed show in a misguided attempt to honor the anniversary of the tragedy – but soon discover that some things are better left alone.

* * *

Watching The Gallows with a crowd is the best possible experience. The energy coming off the audience was insane and, even though this was my fourth time seeing it, it was my favorite viewing of the movie without question. People were FREAKED OUT. This movie is intense, suspenseful, funny, emotionally involving, surprising, and just flat out SCARY.

Afterwards, Travis talked to the crew filming the audience with night vision cameras about how it went and was told that they got the best reactions they’d ever seen. Travis asked if this was their first time doing this sort of thing. He was assured it was far, far from the first time.

The theater was dead silent as questionnaires were handed out and the audience put their opinion of the move in writing. This is what were all waiting for. Does the movie work or not? You can’t argue with black and white.

While a bunch of strangers held their fates in their hands, Chris and Travis went from producer to producer, to studio head to studio head, taking in their notes and petitions for last minute changes. In two weeks, The Gallows will be submitted to the MPAA for a rating (going for a PG-13), and that means Chris and Travis only have that long to finalize the picture.

After all the questionnaires were filled out, a select group of people were asked to stick around for a focus group to offer up a more detailed analysis of the movie with questions like “Which scene did you like best?” and “Where would you rate the movie on a 1-to-5 scale?” Chris and Travis were on edge the entire time, just waiting for either worst fears to be realized or to have it confirmed they’d sealed the deal.

When the focus group finished, the numbers on the questionnaires came back. The real test is in the numbers. A movie like this, it’s all about word-of-mouth and if the audience doesn’t go for it, then you’re sunk. If The Gallows could hit a certain benchmark, then it would be in the same league as Blumhouse and New Line’s successful horror films like Paranormal Activity, The Purge, and The Conjuring.

The numbers were read off.

The Gallows doubled the benchmark. The focus group didn’t lie and everyone’s instincts about it were validated. People love this movie.

Everybody went nuts. Dave Neustadter turned around, cocked his arm back, and gave me the single hardest high five I’ve ever received in my life. He did the same with Brandon and Rich. No exaggeration, a full ten minutes later, Brandon turned to me and asked if my hand was still hurting like his. It absolutely was.

Everyone gathered around Chris and Travis to congratulate them. I got a little fanboy thrill as, at one point, I was in a circle of people that included Couper Samuelson, one of the producers on the Oscar-winning Whiplash; the head of Blumhouse, Jason Blum; and the head of New Line (and writer of one of my favorite films, Frequency), Toby Emmerich. I was basically invisible, but it was a pleasure to be there and hear these guys express their excitement for something my friends had created.

After everybody slapped backs, a few of the producers and the rest of us stuck around for some dinner. Again, New Line paid, but by then I was so full of popcorn and candy that would have been better eaten by a much, much younger version of myself that all I had was a cup of soup.

GallowsFinalTestDinner

Photo by Travis Cluff

This might have been my favorite part of the day. Everyone was in a great mood and just reveled in the fun that comes from seeing years of hard work come to fruition and paying off in spectacular fashion. These people really celebrate success, and that’s just not something I think we do enough of in the 9-to-5 world. I loved it. I loved that even though a lot of these guys have been doing this for a while, they still couldn’t help but be as giddy as those of us for whom this is all new.

Travis teared up a little at the table as he reflected on going from losing everything after being taken advantage of in a bad business deal, to winning on an episode of Wipeout in a desperate attempt to make some money, to meeting Chris, filming The Gallows, and then selling the movie. Theirs is the ultimate underdog story. Chris and Travis are a couple of nobodies from Fresno who have been scraping pennies together and working all hours of the day for the past four years to live this insane dream. If any two guys deserve success, it’s these guys.

I can’t help but be grateful that I get to be a part of any of this. I feel like I’ve been scooped up from the muck of unemployment, set high on the table, and asked to just partake of blessings I’m not totally sure I deserve. The time is coming fast for me to prove my worth in a more substantial way, and that’s great. That’s fantastic. I want that. I’m all in.

And I can’t friggin’ wait for July 10th.

Congrats, Chris and Travis. It’s not much longer now.

Travis and Chris

Travis and Chris. Photo by Nate Healy.

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2 comments

  1. If you surround yourself with great people then great things happen! My son did just that.
    I am glad your a part of the tremendum team. Monte Lofing

    Like

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