One of the few enjoyments I tend to get these days is when I drive for rideshare companies, not only because it’s the one way I can seem to make any money in a manner most would consider legitimate, but it also gives me a chance to learn a few things. As you may know, I’ve become a huge consumer of podcasts; they are effectively my soundtrack, nightlight and Xanax replacement. I subscribe to quite a few that are typically released during the week; it’s all I can do to keep up with my current regular load. But last night, I had a rare window of opportunity to try something new, and a highly respected friend and business colleague recommended to me one called DON’T KILL THE MESSENGER. And as is sometimes the case, I had a direct connection to the show’s host.
Kevin Goetz has been one of the most prolific and successful market researchers in the entertainment industry for decades, initially focused on theatrical movie testing. For all the success I’ve had on the television side, I’ve rarely had reason to work with people and companies that specialize in that world. As David Bloom explained in a 2021 FORBES article profiling Goetz and his current company Screen Engine/ASI, that world predated both of us by decades.
As he points out, test screenings date back a century, to Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin in the film industry’s earliest days. Even then, those pioneers would take bits of his silent films and test them with audiences at Hollywood Boulevard theaters in Los Angeles before releasing the full films.
But, as Bloom continued, the concept of testing to passionate creatives has always been a double-edged sword, something I’ve seen quite often in my world:
The business has evolved remarkably since Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, but the terror of the test screening has not. Goetz quotes Oscar and Emmy winner Ed Zwick (Shakespeare in Love, Thirtysomething), who says, “It’s like seeing your lover naked for the first time” when test audiences first see a project that may have been many years in the making. “A test screening is judgment time, the moment of reckoning, the moment of truth,” Goetz writes. “For the audience, it’s a few hours of their day. But for the people involved in making the movie, it’s often the climax of many years of their lives. It can also be their career-defining moment, and the results determine how the next chapter of their career will play out.”
When I first joined FX, the network was in the midst of producting a series of made-for-television movies that my boss Peter Ligouri ambitiously wanted to produce as if they were going to be released in a theater, and that included the testing process. He was working with the esteemed producer Bob Cooper, whom he had worked with at HBO, which treated their original movie business in much the same manner. It was Ligouri that urged me to break ranks with my trusted TV vendors and seek out Goetz and his company. His bosses had historically carved out relationships with studio heads and often shared insights over uber-competitive private poker games. Goetz’ strategy for ingratiating himself to potential clients was a much healthier one; he just happened to work out at the same Malibu gym in the wee hours of the morning that Ligouri sweated in, a skill set that, weighing 280 pounds at the time, I did not share. I was cocky and nervous; I’ve never liked ceding control to what I saw was a shotgun wedding.
Goetz supervised several of those theatrical test screenings, and he not quickly gained my respect and trust, he also taught me quite a bit not only about the nuances of report cards and four-quadrant results but the unique aspect of conducting post-screening focus groups in the same room with nervous producers and directors attempting to discreetly watch their fates play out from the back row of the theater (where I’d sit). Moderating those groups required more instinct and mental agility than the more reserved one-way mirror, scripted groups I’d run, and both he and his talented minions taught me how to be more nimble and respectful of both respondents and artists. The passion I have developed for seeking to allow the artist the freedom of expression but educating them on how and why testing can be their friend is a mindset I share with him and champion as eagerly as he does.
So I dove into his podcasts one after the other, interviews with prolific producers, directors, actors and behind-the-scenes people he has cultivated relationships and respect with for decades. And one after the other was, to me, equally educational and fascinating. The mutual respect was palpable. I drove quite a bit last night; the rain thankfully held off, opportunities for passengers were consistent and, frankly, I didn’t want to stop listening. I burned through six of his podcasts in one night.
Goetz has also authored a well-received book that I can’t wait to delve into, which Bloom’s profile piece described as follows:
Kevin Goetz of Screen Engine/ASI, has co-written Audience-ology, a book of war stories and lessons learned in working with movie studios, directors, producers and executives to turn rough cuts into market winners. By his count, Goetz has seen more than 7,000 movies in a combined 20,000 test screenings over 35 years in and around the business (he’s also an entrepreneur, former actor and continues to produce films).
Only a few of those movies were mine, and many of them weren’t up to snuff. But what I learned from Goetz I applied to my own work and philosophy. And it was those qualities that ultimately saw Goetz survive a somewhat ugly incident with a former employer that dominated the trades more than a decade ago. As THE WRAP’s Brent Lang wrote in 2010:
Online Testing Exchange (OTX) sued the executive in Los Angeles Superior Court on Tuesday, charging the former president of its motion picture group with using the company’s data to launch a rival firm, Screen Engine. The suit accused Goetz of breach of contract, misappropriation of trade secrets and intentional interference with contractual relations, among other alleged offenses.
(Read the full complaint here).
An emergency injunction barring Goetz (above) from using any data he retained while an OTX employee for the duration of the litigation also was granted on Tuesday, Vincent Bruzzese, Goetz’s successor, told TheWrap. Representatives for Goetz, however, claim that no injunction or restraining order was granted and that discussions over the data in question are ongoing. Because the court order was administered verbally by Chalfan in the courtroom, a typed version of the order did not exist at the time this article went to print. The judge’s decision yesterday confirms that Screen Engine LLC is free to continue its business without any interruption or change in its operations,” Screen Engine’s counsel Gary W. Nevers said in a statement.
But as Lang’s colleague Daniel Frankel wrote several months later, Goetz was not only still in business, but he was thriving:
Goetz said that despite ongoing litigation with OTX – which includes injunctions on the use of data he culled while working there – business is “bursting at the seams,” with the Screen Engine conducting up to a dozen test screenings per week. “My clients wanted to follow me wherever I was going, which has been great,” he told TheWrap. Goetz said he has quickly built a client list that includes the bulk of Fox and Fox Searchlight’s motion picture research. Executives also said that Sony and Universal are also heavily subscribed to the new company’s business, mainly because of their relationship with Goetz.
Goetz eventually combined his company with the esteemed TV research company ASI, which had a legendary Sunset Boulevard “Preview House” where I ran hundreds of my own test groups and was often a venue for premiere parties and screenings. He has hired some of the best TV people around to help him run his expanded business, one that is very much in business today.. OTX was eventually sold, is currently merely the 18th largest market research firm and a shadow of the business it was when Goetz ran it. Because its clients respected HIM more than the name of the firm he was employed by. And isn’t that what business should be about?
So yes, I’m a fan. And if you were a creative, or someone who believes they need a connection with their audience to achieve success that picketing alone can’t achieve, you would be wise to listen to Goetz and his team, starting by downloading his podcasts and getting his book.
All of us messengers deserve to live. I’d just like to live a bit better than I am these days merely driving. And I’m in a lot better shape now than I was when I first met Kevin Goetz.
Maybe he’s free for a workout sometime soon?
Until next time…