How Any Filmmaker Can Improve Their Work with a Virtual Focus Group

Focus groups and test screenings have long been staples of the film industry. But these days, any filmmaker can do it for free with a little technological know-how.

For the past six months or so, the Muse team has been hard at work on a feature documentary called The New Hustle. It’s all about modern entrepreneurship and what it really takes to build a successful company.

In case you missed it the first time around, here’s the film’s sizzle reel:

Production on The New Hustle wrapped in early December, and a rough cut came several days later. By mid January, the edit was fine tuned and ready for some honest, critical feedback.

So, armed with two handy pieces of technology and an audience hungry to see the film, the Muse team put on their hypothetical lab coats and set out to gather data.

Why would you convene a focus group for a film?

Before we get to the instructional part of this article, it might be a good idea to take a step back and talk about why a focus group is beneficial to the filmmaking process.

It all comes down to gathering objective data and multiple perspectives that we can potentially use to improve our projects.

After all, the goal is always to make the best possible film. Focus groups are just one of the many ways we can achieve that.

However, the main reason that a focus group is a powerful tool is that it allows people who aren’t involved in the creative process to view the film with fresh eyes.

When you’re wrapped up in the creative process, it becomes much harder to view the work critically and spot flaws. You become emotionally invested in the creative decisions that have been made, so it’s difficult to be objective about whether or not they were the right decisions.

The focus group audience, on the other hand, has no such emotional attachment. They see the film as it is, flaws and all. They’re basically a stand-in for the final audience of the film.

If something doesn’t make sense to the focus group, it probably won’t make sense to the general audience. If you find this out early, it saves you a ton of headaches and legwork down the road.

Lastly, not every film needs a focus group, and not every film will necessarily benefit from one. But for films with larger audiences in mind, and for films that are seeking wider release and more commercial opportunities, the focus group data could prove to be invaluable.

What you need to do your own focus group

Now that you know why you’d want to convene a focus group, let’s talk about how you’d do it as an indie creator without the vast resources of a major film studio.

For starters, there are two things that you absolutely must have before diving into this process.

  1. A workable rough cut of your film. It doesn’t have to be perfect. The one Muse sent out still had a few temp shots, unpolished sound, and no final color grade.
  2. Access to a small sample of your target audience. This could come in the form of an email list you’ve been building, social media followings, or knowledge of how to reach the right people.

This second piece is by far the trickiest for most filmmakers.

With Muse and Stillmotion, we’ve been building our email lists and social followings for years. This is something we’d recommend for just about any media producer in the digital age, as it affords you so many opportunities not only to sell your work directly to fans, but to build meaningful relationships.

Not every filmmaker has that luxury, though, especially when you’re just starting out. But don’t worry. There are still ways to get your film in front of the target audience. But the most powerful technique can be summed up as:

Go to where the fish are.

Presuming you know who your target audience is (which you definitely should if you’re looking to sell the film), you should also be able to figure out where they hang out online.

This could include facebook groups, subreddits, active forums, or anywhere else people congregate and talk about things related to the subject or genre of your film. Go to those places and look for opportunities to tell your target audience about the film, why it’s relevant to them, and how they can watch.

It always helps to be active and helpful in communities like these, even before you ask people to participate in your focus group. Be part of the community, contribute valuable insights, and generate goodwill and reciprocity so that people will be more likely to help you.

Still, chances are that only a small percentage of people will be willing to watch and give feedback, but that’s ok. It doesn’t take an army of people to get actionable data. You just need a handful of folks.

Two awesome tech tools for conducting your focus group

In years past, conducting this type of research digitally would have been impossible without a custom designed platform. These days, though, inexpensive (or even free) tools can be used in conjunction with each other to create a powerful focus group experience for your audience.

Here are the two tools that we used in our focus group for The New Hustle:

Comment Bubble

This tool allows users users to react to video in real time with pre-determined buttons based on what you’d like feedback on. They can also add comments by text, audio, or even video.

All of this data is attached to the timecode of the video, so if someone clicks the “confused” or “engaged” button, you know exactly which moments caused that reaction.

Here’s Comment Bubble in action:

Comment Bubble is still in a public beta at the time of this writing, so it’s completely free to use. That may change in the future, but I can’t imagine it will be priced so high that it won’t be 100% worth it.


There are lots of platforms for making basic forms, but Typeform is the ultimate way to survey people about anything. For starters, it’s beautiful (both from the point of view of the person filling out the form and on the back end where you create forms). It’s also insanely flexible, so you can create custom context-sensitive sequences of questions based on how people answer.

Here’s a quick promo video:

In terms of price, Typeform does have a free option, but it’s fairly limited in what you can do with it and how many people can respond to it. However, it’d be worth it to pay for a single month of Typeform Pro (currently $35) when you’re doing your focus group, and then stop it from renewing.

How the Muse team conducted its focus group

Alright, so now let’s see how all of this came together for The New Hustle focus group.

We emailed the entire list of people interested in the film and gave them access to a password-protected page on our website. This page had a Comment Bubble embed of the film and a Typeform questionnaire below it.

At the top of this page was a simple set of instructions:

This process is pretty simple.
Please try and do both steps in the same sitting for the most accurate reflections.
Step 1.  Watch the film and add tags as you go.
Below you’ll find a full version of The New Hustle. This is before sound design, color, or foley. We also still have some temp shots.
As you view, use the buttons below the film to tag any moments where you feel particularly engaged, excited, confused, bored, or you feel is humorous.
Step 2.  Fill out our brief survey below the film. 
This is where you can add more detailed thoughts on the characters and any suggestions to make the film better. 
We’ll compile your feedback and use it to inform our last round of production.
Your time with us here truly helps shape this story. So thank you for that. We’ll be sure to share our overall findings and the actions we’ll be taking with all of you who contributed.
That’s it–the whole process should take just about an hour. 

There are a few things to note here.

First, the instructions are very clear and simple. If someone were to land on this page and see instructions that were vague or complicated, chances are they’d leave and never come back. So take the time to boil your instructions down to the bare essentials.

Second, share any notes you need to about the current state of the film. If it’s not finished, tell people that. You don’t want anybody to think temp shots or sound design are a mistake.

Third, be genuinely thankful for your test audience’s time. Tell them why this data is important to you and what it will do for the finished product. And if you plan to follow up, tell them when you plan to do that.

Lastly, it’s also good to include an estimate of how long the entire process will take. If you’re sending this out as an email or social media, include the estimate there as well.

The exact Typeform questions we used in our survey:

And here’s a quick rundown of the Comment Bubble buttons we used, as well as all of the questions that were in our Typeform:

A screenshot of The New Hustle embedded inside Comment Bubble.

A screenshot of The New Hustle embedded inside Comment Bubble.

1. Before we dive in, please add your email in case we need to follow up for clarification (and so we can share our insights).
2. How much did you enjoy the film overall? 1–10 Stars
This question is context sensitive. How someone chooses to answer determines the next question they’ll see.
3a. If they give from 1–5 stars, the followup is: We’re sorry to hear that. Is there anything we could have done to make the film more enjoyable for you?
3b. If the answers is from 6–7 stars, they get: Not too bad. What is the single biggest thing you feel we could do to make the film better?
3c. If it’s from 8–10 stars, it’s: Awesome! We’re stoked to hear that. What is the single biggest thing you loved about the film so much?
4. What was your single biggest takeaway from the film? Did it shift the way you see something, your interest in something, or anything else you’ll likely remember for quite some time.
5. How much did you like (fill in the blank) as a character? 1–5 hearts 
5a. As a result, how did you connect with their company’s mission to (fill in the blank)? 1–5 stars 
6. Is there anything that really confused you about the film? Yes or No
This one is also context sensitive. If they answer no, they go the next question, but if they answer yes, another entry box appears asking them to explain what specifically was confusing.
7. Before we go, here’s your chance for any overall suggestions or comments you’d like to make.

And that’s it!

What to look for in the focus group data

We’re going to be sharing all of the insights from our focus group sometime in the next week or two, but before we wrap up today, I just want to point out a few of the things you might want to look for in your own focus group data.

First and foremost, make sure that your film is coherent and that there aren’t any parts that are confusing to multiple people. Between the Comment Bubble data and people’s Typeform answers, you should be able to nail down specific moments that are confusing to your audience.

Then, look for moments where people were actively bored or just disengaged (which you can identify when there are long stretches in the Comment Bubble analytics with no activity). These are areas where you might be able to tighten up the story, add some enticing b-roll, or just cut unnecessary shots or scenes. Listen to what the data tells you, but use your gut here.

Lastly, look for areas where people were really stoked about the film. Maybe they were particularly engaged in the story, thought a moment was funny or exciting, or connected deeply with a character.

If you spot patterns of high engagement, dig into these moments and figure out why they’re so effective. Reverse engineer them and see if you can use that information to improve other parts of the film that might be lacking.

Maybe you’ll find the way a character tells corny jokes really connects with the audience. And maybe you’ve got more of those corny jokes on a hard drive, and they could help liven up a dead scene.

The only thing I’d warn against here. Just because something was effective once, doesn’t mean it’ll be effective again. Like the other suggestions, use your best judgement.

Wrapping up

So there you have it, a handy strategy that any filmmaker can use to start a digital focus group, gather data, and then interpret that data to make their work better.

There are a ton of variations on how this strategy could be used for your particular project. It all depends on what feedback you’re looking for, how much access you have to your audience, and the tools at your disposal. It’s up to you to figure out the best way to implement all of this.

Regardless, you now have the tools necessary to gather data and opinions about your work directly from the people in your audience.

This kind of thing was once reserved for the movie studios with deep pockets, but now it’s available to all enterprising filmmakers, regardless of budget or experience.

As I mentioned earlier, we’ll be sharing the data and insights from our own focus group in a followup article in the next few weeks. I just got a sneak peak, and there’s some great stuff in there.

In the meantime, if you have any questions or ideas about running a digital focus group, share them down in the comments!

Part 2 of this series is now live! To see the focus group data from our New Hustle screener (and see how we're using it to improve the film) be sure to check it out.