Feedback: Notes on a Successful Legend of Tarzan Test Screening

Legend of Tarzan (Movie)

An LA film industry insider who is also an ERB fan managed to  attend an official Legend of Tarzan test screening and has shared some private thoughts about the movie. S/he knows I will post about my conversation, minus spoilers.  The source is a very reliable person who got interested in ERB after John Carter.  I’m sure the following is completely accurate as to the cut that as being shown fairly recently.  Small things may still change, but this is what the viewer saw.

Overall —  the screening was very well-received by the audience. “People seemed to really like it.”  The source did not see the scores given by the viewers when they filled out their questionnaires, but the vibe was very favorable and he heard no one speaking anything other than positive comments about it.  As an industry person, the viewer was encouraged — and as an ERB fan, it was a very satisfying experience watching the movie.  No doubt closer to the original than any modern attempt to adapt the book.

Against that overall background, here are specific notes, geared primarily for ERB fans:

  • Minor Surprise 1 — Backstory Changes: Although it’s generally very faithful to Burroughs and very “Burroughsian” in feel, there are a few aspects of the backstory that are changed, some of which are evident in the trailer and others which are not. Something that is not part of the trailer is that Jane and her father are portrayed as having lived/worked in Africa, with the father either a missionary or perhaps an anthropologist.  They helped one of the tribes in the past — no religious angle is presented, just that they helped.  So Jane, though American, is “of Africa” in this rendition and that feeds the “not a damsel” idea.  The other main backstory changes are visible in the trailer — i.e. treehouse instead of cabin Kala’s baby is not dead when she finds Tarzan; death of Tarzan’s father takes place out in the jungle, not in the cabin.
  • Minor Surprise 2 — George Washington Willams:  There has been a bit of buildup about the George Washington Williams character and the historical context, but the historical component was mostly evident in the setup and not too much thereafter.  For both GWW an Rom it’s more of a jumping off point than an attempt to really explore the history or these two real-character’s roles in the Congo.
  • “Like a  damsel?”: Speaking of “damsel” — in the line from the trailer where she says “like a damsel?” and then winds up to either spit on Rom or headbutt him, the source said it’s a headbutt and she crunches Rom’s nose.   Nice.
  • Flashbacks: In the trailer it spends a long time on the origin backstory but in the movie, this is all done via flashbacks which come out in snippets. There is no long sustained backstory.
  • Tone is Brighter Than the Trailer: The movie is less moody and dark than the trailers make it feel — there is a nice variation of lightness and dark.
  • Traumatic Upbringing: When Tarzan initially balks at going back — the impression given is that the whole upbringing by apes was very traumatic, and he’s gotten very comfortable and adapted quite well to life in England.
  • Two Tribes: There are two tribes — Mbonga’s tribe, which is featured in the trailer, and Muviro’s tribe, which is not identified as Waziri but seems to be Waziri (and Muviro is of course the name of the Waziri chief in Return of Tarzan etc).  (Note — I looked for Muviro on the cast list and couldn’t find him — then checked back with the source who is sure the character name is Muviro, but can’t recall for sure whether “Waziri” are ever referenced for the friendly tribe.)
  • Dodging the Racism/Imperalism Bullet: It seemed to this viewer that the “racism/imperialism” pitfalls are largely avoided, although there is no guarantee this won’t come up:
    • Samuel Jackson is a sidekick who is less than Tarzan physically, but on the level of intelligence, sophistication, and forcefulness as a character he is Tarzan’s equal.  He can’t keep up with Tarzan physically but no one can.  He’s no pushover and he pushes Tarzan.
    • One tribe (Mbonga) is presented as a worthy antagonist and obstacle that must be overcome, while the other (Muviro) is an allied tribe who has a history with both Tarzan and Jane and her father.  There may be some tropes and stereotypes in there that some will object to, but nothng was overheard during or after the movie that would suggest anyone was reacting negatively.
    • Although Tarzan clearly saves the day in a conflict with the Europeans, it doesn’t quite come off as “white savior”
  • Mangani Not Gorillas:  There is line — “They’re not gorillas, they’re mangani.”  And then some explanation that Mangani are more aggressive. Re the apes, the movie  appeared to be about 95% finished.  The parts that still appeared to be unfinished were some of the ape shots.  There were probably other things that were unfinished or will be refined, but they were not apparent to the audience. (See this post for more on this.
  • Mixed Demo: For this screening, people knew in advance that it was LOT, unlike a lot of test screenings where the audience doesn’t know what film it is beforehand.  It drew a mixed demographic — lots of people of color and lots of ethnicities and lots of variation in ages.  This is encouraging in that it has to be a “four quadrant” film that appeals to males, females, over 25, under 25, if it is to succeed commercially.  They had a particular interest in couples.  Seemed like maybe they were trying to get a read on how it plays as a date movie.

Oh yeah —

  • Cutoff age to be admitted into the screening was 54.  They didn’t want to hear from anyone older than that.  Sorry, fellow Tarzan-lovin’ Curmudgeons. We’re irrelevant.  😉

12 comments

  • Emcube,

    Thank you very much for the information.

    I was not aware of all the details regarding Chicago (May) screening.

    However, I remember the HR article, to which, to be honest, I did not pay too much attention. I believed in the gut feeling and – so far it seems good:) I did not see all the IMDb comments, so I’ll have to check it.

    Regarding the accent – well, I think we shouldn’t expect true upper-class Victorian English accent (although Alexander does accents well), after all, as you said, the character did not spend his years with the English nobility:) If I remember well, Tarzan could read and write English, but he could not speak it at first.

  • @BC

    You’re right, it was in April, not May, but yeah, basically, you’re right. Whatever negative feedback I’ve seen from any of the test screenings is simply people saying the film just isn’t their cup of tea.

  • I knew about the age limits but it still amuses/confounds me. Do they think after a certain age people are no longer entertainment consumers or have valid opinions on upcoming movies? Especially regarding a movie where they really want a large age range to appeal to?
    As for the screening info, I’m not surprised by the tweaks to character backgrounds/personalities. It doesn’t seem that major and in order to get the LOT storyline they wanted it was going to have to be done. And the reality is, most people aren’t familiar with Jane’s background, how Tarzan really felt about civilization, or the actual GWW.
    I’m glad to hear of more positive reactions to the screenings. The first screenings were held in April (not May) of 2015 and while most attendees of LOT screenings have honored their NDA, most reaction seems to have been fairly positive. The few negative reactions that I’ve seen haven’t been ‘oh the movie totally sucked’ but more along the lines of ‘it wasn’t my type of movie’.

  • @Ana

    The first test screening in Chicago was held back in May last year I believe and the reason the news from it was not encouraging was because there was actually a power outage during it and people only got to see the first half of the movie. It was difficult to find people who would say anything about it because they all signed an NDA, but the word I got from a few people on Twitter was that they liked the movie (they were Skarsgard fans). The only “bad” word I heard was from one person (I don’t know which test screening he attended) but he said that he thought the opening of the movie was great but he didn’t really care for the rest of it (he did say that this was the first thing related to Tarzan he’d ever seen). One person on IMDb posted in detail about having attended one of these screenings and he seemed to like it. This whole “test screening didn’t go well” stuff came from the Hollywood Reporter article about how the film was supposedly in trouble.

    @ahcupcake

    According to another test screening viewer: Skarsgård does an accent, but only in that he always does an accent. It isn’t easily definable which is probably for the best. After all, his character spent his formative years with non-human primates, then a period in a human village in Africa where the people appear trilingual and then finally, another undefined period in England. Lord only knows what such a person would sound like in real life.

  • You’d think that they would figure that for the over 54 crowd this type of movies – something which was popular in our childhood and youth and which aims, and needs, the spectacular when it comes to the visualization of the story, and now for the first time done with modern special effects – might be a damn big draw. Especially if it’s done with at least some respect for the original sources.

    (Unlike something like Lone Ranger and a few other attempts which more or less went the road of deconstruction and made fun of the original, which didn’t work with the old fans who had liked the original and didn’t have much draw with the younger people who might not have never even heard of the original so could not find much amusement about the “making fun of” part because unless the thing is also brilliant all by itself – which most of those movies aren’t – in order to laugh at something that makes fun of something you pretty much need to be at least somewhat familiar with the original – way to go guys, you lost all segments of your audience).

    And there are a lot of us.

  • Can anyone who was at the screening tell me how Alex’s accent was? Good? Bad? Ok? Just curious cause he isn’t speaking in either of the trailers

  • Maybe their marketing surveys tell them to recommend movies like Hope Springs (btw, good movie and I like M. Streep) or America Graffiti (another good movie) for the age group over 54 or 60. Just kidding. I have a feeling that, sometimes, my Mom’s age group is a better company to go to the movies with then my peers or even my boyfriend (and I do like action and horror movies, in addition to some chick flick movie as well:)). People in the age group over 50 definitely know more about good movies then the newer generations who seem to be somehow less informed, or well read, which is strange (Disney Tarzan comments are a good example, unfortunately). When restricting the feedback from certain age group after test screening they should definitely consult some relevant studies and statistics: http://variety.com/2014/digital/news/movie-attendance-among-younger-digital-audiences-drops-15-in-2014-nielsen-1201377127/
    You should definitely surprise them by attending the screening en masse:)

  • Apparently,they don’t think it’s movies like Tarzan that will appeal to us. I wonder what kind of movies their marketing surveys say we go to?

  • Hi. Here is a 40-year old moviegoer. I agree with your comments, 13% is a lot of money as well. Come on, over 54 irrelevant??!! I so strongly disagree with them.My mother, who is 64, regularly watches many action movies and blockbusters with her lady friends in approximately same age group. The trailers are amazing and the cast is excellent. I was a child when Lambert played Greystoke and later when I first watched it, it was the only true decent Tarzan movie (OK, Weissmuller was fan to watch:)). Great to see that the most recent test screening for LOT went well, in LA of all places. I have had faith in this movie, even when the news came for the first screening (Chicago, last year in October, of I recall well) that were not so encouraging. I feel this will be amazing movie and I am really looking forward to this summer treat. And those references to Phil Collins music in Youtube comments…OMG:)

  • Over 54 irrelevant huh? I guess not enough of us go to the movies anymore to count. Too bad. With the baby boomers well and truly within this group we should be a considerable market force instead of a nonentity. It would be fun if we surprised them by turning out to see this movie.

Leave a Reply