The Movie Whisperer

In Calendar today the LAT profiles focus group king Kevin Goetz, trailing him as he applies his listening skills to a test audience for the Jane Fonda-starrer ‘Monster-in-Law.’ It’s a rare look at the specific impact that audience testing can have on the content of a movie:

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.

It’s still an awful movie, but it did earn $23.1 million last weekend.