Will Ferrell discloses why original ‘Anchorman’ ending was changed

Will Ferrell discloses why original ‘Anchorman’ ending was changed

While only a few A-list Hollywood directors have the final say on how their movies are edited and shown on-screen, there is one major player in the film business who has a huge impact on the final product: the audience.

In fact, test screenings and focus groups have a greater effect on movies than most people realize, as the new book “Audience-ology: How Moviegoers Shape The Films We Love” (Tiller Press), out Nov. 30, makes clear. Here, authors Kevin Goetz — the founder of Hollywood market research firm Screen Engine/ASI — and his colleague Darlene Hayman share how audience feedback changed six Hollywood classics.

‘Anchorman’: Don’t kill the dog!

When DreamWorks tested “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” in 2004, first-time director Adam McKay was “nervous as hell.” During the screening, the movie “killed, getting laughs all the way through,” Goetz writes. But when a focus group gave feedback after the film, the overall response wasn’t great.

No one understood why except for Terry Press, the studio’s head of marketing. “She didn’t mince words,” McKay says in the book. “She said, ‘Hey idiot, you killed the dog!’”

Press was referring to Baxter, Ron Burgundy’s dog, who is kicked off a bridge in the film by a biker played by Jack Black.

“People will watch any kind of movie in which a human gets killed, but killing a dog is a big no-no,” she said.

McKay arranged for reshoots, and a scene was filmed where it’s made clear that Baxter survives. The film was re-tested, the scores went up by 26 points (on a scale of 1-100), and “Anchorman” became a modern comedy classic.

‘Moonstruck’: Nix the opera

MGM/UA had high hopes for the 1987 romantic comedy starring Cher and Nicolas Cage, so studio executives were perplexed when the audience laughed far less than expected during the first test screening.

In fact, the crowd seemed hesitant to respond to “Moonstruck” at all. There was even an “undercurrent of tension.”

Audience comment cards explained why. “What became very apparent was that moviegoers hadn’t gotten the humor,” the studio’s Greg Foster told Goetz.

“They don’t know it’s funny,” film editor Lou Lombardo surmised from reading the cards. “We’ve got to show them it’s OK to laugh.”

The initial cut opened with a montage of activity backed by dramatic opera music, which Lombardo soon realized was “setting the wrong tone from the outset.” That night, Lombardo swapped out Puccini for something he was certain would signal comedy: Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore.”

This one change made all the difference. At the audience screening the following night, the laughter was in place, the film was a hit, and its star, Cher, went on to win an Oscar.

‘Fatal Attraction’: Kill the villain

At the end of the initial version of the 1987 hit “Fatal Attraction,” Alex (Glenn Close) took her own life by slicing her throat. Dan (Michael Douglas) was wrongfully arrested for her murder, and his wife, played by Anne Archer, was tearfully en route to prove his innocence as the credits rolled.

When the film tested, audiences didn’t like the ending. Studio executives realized it needed to change, though they agonized for weeks over exactly how.

Close, meanwhile, argued for the ending to be kept intact.

It was eventually decided that the studio, Paramount, would finance a new ending, but the filmmakers wouldn’t have to use it if it didn’t work. The new ending was a battle between the three main characters, with Archer ultimately killing Close.

When they tested it for an audience, the crowd “went wild, filling the auditorium with their screams.” The new — soon to be iconic — ending was kept, and “Fatal Attraction” went on to earn $320 million worldwide.

‘Footloose’: Don’t cut the victory dance

As hard as it might be to imagine, director Herbert Ross felt strongly that once Kevin Bacon’s character emerged victorious over his town’s anti-dance forces in 1984’s “Footloose,” the film should end there. The actual dance, he believed, didn’t need to be shown.

Producer Craig Zadan strongly disagreed.

“[Ross] told Zadan that if you make a movie about a family wanting a house, the moment of victory is when the family approaches the front door and puts the key in the lock,” Goetz writes. “You don’t need to show them walking through the kitchen, the living room, and the bedroom to make the point,’ he insisted. ‘The audience will feel good.’”

Zadan, on the other hand, believed that, “When you have a whole movie about fighting for a dance, the payoff is having the dance.”

But the studio agreed with Ross, and Zadan remained angry about it throughout the production.

“You have no idea how you’re screwing up this movie,” he told anyone who would listen.

“It’s not going to work.”

The first test screening proved him right. The audience went wild for every minute of the film until the last five minutes, when the mood collapsed. The test scores reflected their disappointment.

Ross finally realized his mistake, and joined Zadan in campaigning for the studio to fund a re-shoot. But with filming over, the sets dismantled and the cast scattered, re-assembling everything was, Zadan later said, “a nightmare.”

In the end, however, the studio relented, recreating the shoot, which had taken place in Provo, Utah, on the Paramount lot. With the new ending, “Footloose” became the seventh-highest grossing film of 1984, and two of its songs were nominated for Oscars.

‘Thelma & Louise’: Leave the ending a mystery

The initial cut of “Thelma & Louise” was exactly the same as the version that hit theaters in 1991, with one exception. At the very end, after the title characters (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, respectively) conclude a crime spree by driving their car over a cliff, the pair are seen again for a split second, driving merrily down the highway.

According to Foster, director Ridley Scott hadn’t intended to depict them having survived. “He just wanted to show metaphorically that their spirits lived on,” Foster told Goetz. But the test audience “went apes–t.”

“Afterward, during the focus group, Foster listened as moviegoers expressed outrage at that scene,” writes Goetz. “‘It’s baloney,’ they said. ‘You’re glorifying what they did!’

“They felt the ending was inauthentic and didn’t represent the spirit of the story.”

Before the film was tested for a different crowd the next day, editor Thom Noble went into the projection booth. Because the offending scene was at the very end of the film and this early test version didn’t have end credits, Noble simply took the film reel and “surgically removed” the scene.

The new screening was a “giant success,” said Foster, noting that, “It’s often one little thing that makes the difference.”

Cocktail: Let Tom Cruise be Tom Cruise

As Tom Cruise’s follow-up to “Top Gun,” a lot was riding on the success of 1984’s “Cocktail,” which found him playing a New York bartender named Brian Flanagan. Studio executives were stunned, then, when test screenings ended in dead silence.

Viewers liked Cruise’s character, and thought most of the film was a fun ride. But late in the film, Brian’s boss committed suicide. Cruise’s character found him, and the film ended soon after.

Producer Robert Cort told Goetz that “all the air went out of the room” at this point in the screening, describing a “sense of morbidity” in the theater. A post-screening discussion uncovered no solutions until the research company’s Joe Farrell made the casual comment, “I guess the audience just doesn’t want to know that Tom Cruise can’t have it all.”

“Cort froze, as if a lightbulb had turned on,” Goetz writes. “‘It was clear that we had written a character and cast an actor who embodied the can-do spirit that an audience wanted,’ remembered Cort.

“He replied to the group, ‘Man, it’s the movies. He can have it all. We have to rewrite the ending.’”

The suicide remained, but it was followed by Cruise’s moral victory over a new antagonist character, his girlfriend’s father, who tried to bribe him not to marry her. In the new version, Cruise and his girlfriend got married, she became pregnant with twins, he opened his own bar, and “Cocktail” became one of the year’s highest-grossing films.

‘La La Land’: Gotta dance

The first test screening of the 2016 movie “La La Land,” which won six Oscars before being mistakenly presented with a seventh for Best Picture (“Moonlight was the actual winner), left audiences baffled.

While “La La Land” is a musical, in the first cut no one sang or danced for the first 12 minutes. So when the roommates of Emma Stone’s character broke into the song “Someone in the Crowd,” the audience didn’t understand what was happening.

“The rules of the film hadn’t been set up at the beginning,” producer Marc Platt told Goetz. The film already had its solution in the can. An extravagant musical number set in a Los Angeles traffic jam, “Another Day of Sun,” had been filmed, but was left on the cutting room floor for being “stylistically different from the rest of the film.”

After the initial screening, the scene was placed at the very beginning of the film. That was the only change made, and that was enough to set the tone for success.

Source: Tiller Press, Everett Collection, Paramount Pictures, MGM, Lionsgate, Buena Vista

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