Contemporary (Era of Release) Classic Film Reactions?
February 23, 2022 3:13 PM   Subscribe

I was watching some Youtube film reactions recently and started to wonder--What's the closest you can get to watching video, hearing audio, or reading text reactions of moviegoers from around the release date of classic films, let's say pre-1990? Example films for reactions: North by Northwest, Jaws, and let's throw in NZ film The Quiet Earth for fun. Critics OK, normal moviegoers preferred though. Links & tips appreciated!
posted by circular to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Film historian here.

Audience reaction is actually one of the holy grails (or missing links; choose your metaphor) of film history. Historically/archivally speaking, we have a lot of information -- in the US, much of Europe, in Japan, and various other countries and regions -- about box office returns, about critical responses and reviews, and about how exhibitors (movie-theater owners) felt about certain movies, but these data are focused on ticket sales.

(Exhibitors shared their comments on films' box-office potential in various trade journals. They're pretty interesting to read, should you ever find any. They give a real insight into the exhibition business.)

Regular old moviegoers' responses to films, especially in Studio Era Hollywood (roughly 1920-1960, but extending to later eras, too) are very hard to learn. Film history would be so much richer and, frankly, more accurate, if we knew what viewers thought about the movies they saw!

On occasion, in doing archival research, I've been fortunate to stumble across "comment cards" for certain films. Comment cards are essentially questionnaires designed by studios; they were given to audiences at test screenings in order to gauge audience response to films that were "in beta": basically completed, but still for the moment existing in perhaps two versions, both deemed generally "releasable." The results of comment cards at multiple screenings could, in theory, help studios choose which version of a film to release, but my sense is that they were more widely used to guide marketing and advertising campaigns.

(I did a very crude search and found this mildly humorous Reddit thread that includes a comment card, filled out by a none-too-happy viewer, at a preview screening of Videodrome. That at least gives a sense of what these documents were like. [I remember going to preview screening, I think at the Mall of America, of Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy, and filling out a similar form.] Tickets to test screenings are typically given out free, so filling these cards out was basically the "price of admission.")

I realize that you are likely more interested in video or audio responses to films, but your question points to a rather interesting deficit in film history, as I mention above. And this, in my opinion, is why sites like Rotten Tomatoes and certain sections of IMDB are, for all the dross they offer, rather valuable: they provide historical data on what regular moviegoers think about movies. Of course, these and other sites offer modern viewers' takes on older films, too, but we're still missing the data on how, say, 1946 audiences felt about The Best Years of Our Lives, or how 1960 audiences felt about Psycho, etc., etc.
posted by Dr. Wu at 4:33 PM on February 23, 2022 [22 favorites]

Best answer: I was going to suggest the same research approach as Dr Wu as I suspect studio archives probably would contain at least aggregated information about what came back on test screening comment cards.

It's also the case that in the 80s and 90s test screening audience reactions were used in commercials, at least for kids' movies. National ad campaigns were based around footage of kids coming out of test screenings and making candid comments about what they liked in the movies on camera. Of course you would only see the glowingly positive comments, and kids were highly motivated to rhapsodize about the movie in hopes they would get on TV, but they're an interesting snapshot of what the intended audience of a film was thinking in the immediate aftermath of viewing it.
posted by potrzebie at 7:03 PM on February 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Audience reacting to the climactic scene in the original Halloween. Just audio but it's synced to the scene.
posted by mannequito at 8:18 PM on February 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A slight side-comment, off of Dr. Wu's remark: Exhibitors shared their comments on films' box-office potential in various trade journals. They're pretty interesting to read, should you ever find any. They give a real insight into the exhibition business.

The Media History Digital Library has a lot of scanned trade journals--also fan magazines, technical journals, etc. Highly recommended!
posted by theatro at 5:53 AM on February 24, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I got a bit derailed by the UKR situation but wanted to say thank you to everyone for the responses, they are helpful and much appreciated!
posted by circular at 2:51 PM on February 26, 2022

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