When director Katrine Brocks and producer Pernille Tornøe first heard about AudienceFocus, the Danish Film Institute scheme, they had already been developing their first feature, 'The Great Silence’, with screenwriter Marianne Lentz, for two years.
They applied to conduct an audience research study in summer 2021, when the final draft of their screenplay was as good as ready.
"We needed to get out of our little bubble and we wanted to test if we were communicating our vision clearly enough," says Tornøe.
“We were interested in gaining a change of perspective, preferably at a time when there was still room for inspiration in developing the film. We would rather know sooner than later, when the film is released, whether we and the audience are on the same page about our vision."
Honing your pitch
'The Great Silence’, which started shooting in September 2021 with funding from the Danish Film Institute’s New Danish Screen talent development scheme, is a drama about Alma who is about to take her vows to become a Catholic nun. When her brother Erik drops in unexpectedly at the convent after years of separation, the scab is ripped off the family secret that has been keeping them apart. Alma begins to falter, doubting that she is worthy of God’s love.
The film has many themes going at once. For Brocks, one of the aims of the audience research study was to hone her pitch.
"The film is about sibling love, about faith and doubt, forgiveness and guilt, conditional and unconditional love. I realised I was a bit unclear when discussing the film because it touches on so many big subjects. The research was a good way to zero in on the film’s emotional core, on what makes it unique and universally relatable.
"The film is specifically set in a religious arena, and we couldn't decide whether to position it is a religious or a family drama. Where to put the emphasis? What’s most true in terms of the film’s core?"
Tornøe adds, "Because we’re working in an arena that few people are familiar with, we were concerned about finding the emotional anchor that would draw in the audience. You might have all sorts of ideas about what’s hard for the audience to get and what might even deter them from watching the film. But here we could actually test what information to give the audience early on to bring them into this universe and make them engage emotionally with it instead of wondering about factual matters."
“One of the biggest challenges in filmmaking is identifying when you’re telling too little or too much, making the audience feel ahead of or behind the film’s events. The study gave us a great opportunity to test that out," Brocks says.
As if they had already seen the film
Brocks and Tornøe worked with the Danish Film Institute and Maple Cph, a strategic consulting company, to design the study and define the central questions.
Maple Cph then conducted two-hour qualitative interviews with 16 participants deemed representative of the film’s potential core audience – people who go to the cinema relatively often, have one or more siblings and so on. The participants generously shared their experiences of the film’s themes, story, characters and relevance based on a one-page outline, a video of Brocks describing her personal approach to the film, a sketch created by the team during the development process at New Danish Screen, two scenes from the screenplay and three texts positioning the film.
Brocks and Tornøe were surprised at the audience’s ability to relate to the material based on such sparse information.
"It felt as if they had already seen our film. Of course, there are certain nuances they don’t get because they haven’t read the whole screenplay, but I think they got a pretty good sense of our project.
“I was particularly moved by some of the reactions to my personal starting point for making the film, the fact that I grew up in a Christian home. Some of them could relate to that in their own life, across the spectrum of gender, age and religious background. That our story seems to have universal appeal actually makes me hopeful that the film can have a broader impact than the niche arthouse audience we originally imagined would go see a low-budget first feature,” Brocks says.
The study showed that the audience latched on to the sibling relationship, an insight that inspired the two filmmakers to adjust-some of the film’s elements in the ongoing creative process. For instance, they decided to spend less energy on stunts and effects for the film’s supernatural level and take more time instead to establish Alma and Erik’s relationship.
"A lot of professional readers were involved in the screenwriting process, and their notes generally told us to enhance the drama and bring the conflict to a head. However, one of my principal epiphanies from the research was that the film did not have to be so efficient all the time," Brocks says.
"The participants told us that what’s so unique about sibling relationships is that they can be incredibly conflict-ridden and loving and intimate at the same time. That prompted me to not only highlight the conflict at the centre of the drama but also make room for tenderness, humour and warmth, so that the audience knows why they should even root for these characters. I’ve become more aware of not losing sight of the emotional core, which will hopefully make the film come alive and make it matter to others."
"In many ways, we imagine that the film's potential audiences are comparable to our professional readers. Only, they react more intuitively and don’t intellectualise the film right away like people who read screenplays for a living – or ourselves for that matter," Tornøe adds.
Sticking your neck out
Katrine Brocks and Pernille Tornøe emphasise that they did not let the insights from the study dictate to them what to do, but considered them inspiring feedback alongside the notes from film commissioners and other co-readers.
"A prejudice against this kind of process would be if you thought it means having to adapt to what the audience says in order to sell more tickets. That was never our aim. We wanted to be inspired and stress test whether the audience sees our vision the same way we do. As with other kinds of input, you might take a few pointers to heart, but otherwise you don’t have to march to the beat of that drum. All changes have to be filtered through Katrine," Tornøe says. Brocks concurs,
"I think you should approach the work with openness and receptiveness. Of course, we wouldn’t have incorporated certain comments if they hadn’t been constructive or usable.
"This has been an extra vulnerable process because we are making our first feature. That’s also why I think we got the insights at the right time. If we hadn’t had a final draft of the screenplay, I think we would have had less firm ground to stand on and might have been knocked off course a bit," Brocks says.
Dress rehearsal for the film
Both filmmakers highly recommend the AudienceFocus process.
"We were really happy about the initiative. It matched our process and our desire to create a dialogue with the audience. Whether it makes sense or not, however, obviously depends on the kind of film you’re making and the team you’ve got," Tornøe says.
"Meeting the audience early on felt like a dress rehearsal, which took the edge off our opening night jitters. The process has helped me articulate what our film is about. I feel better prepared for all the conversations I’ll be having about the film, both with our crew and cast and with our distributor, Scanbox, who have been very positive about including the audience so early on in the process," Brocks says.
"Every film is not for everyone, nor should they be. Naturally, we want as many people as possible to see our film, but just as important it should create value, reflection and dialogue. That’s not done by any one audience study, of course. But having gained awareness of our audience, we can now start talking with our distributor about the best way to create dialogue. We’re really looking forward to starting on that."