If you think movies are art, we're going to have to disappoint you, especially if you're a film maker. Movies are products to be sold to consumers for the purpose of making a profit - at least, that's how studios see them. Therefore, studios are going to try to make their movies as appealing as possible to as broad an audience as possible.
Enter the Focus Group. In film, they are called test audiences. The studio will call together a group of random strangers, screen the film and monitor their response. If the test audience isn't happy, then the studio will do whatever is necessary to make them happy. You can either blame them for ruining a lot of would-have-been-good movies, or improving would-have-been-crap movies.
This trope is closely related to Executive Meddling.
See also Democracy Is Bad and Too Many Cooks Spoil The Soup.
Since this is an Ending Trope, expect spoilers.
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Parodied in Robert Altman's The Player. One minor subplot features the main character taking a movie pitch from an Auteur screenwriter about a wrongfully accused woman dying in the gas chamber. The screenwriter insists "no stars, just talent" and emphasizes that he refuses to change the Downer Ending because "That's reality". By the end of the movie, not only are the leads in this film being played by Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts, but the downer ending has been completely changed. The Screenwriter's justification? Test audiences hated it.
Parodied to the extreme by having Mel Gibson take Homer's suggestions for his remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, in spite of everyone else in the focus screening giving praise. Not surprisingly, the Homer'd up version doesn't do so well (though, in a deleted scene available on the season 11 DVD set, Apu and his brother, Sanjay, tell Homer that extremely violent American action movies are popular in India and that they actually liked it).
Another episode has Bart and Lisa go digging for buried treasure and uncover an film can containing a Happy Ending for Casablanca where Rick and Elsa stay together. One of the retirement home residents says that he worked for the studio and they tried and failed to sell the happy ending. When Lisa says it should be in a museum, the old man offers her some money to rebury it — and the It's a Wonderful LifeKilling Spree Ending.
Parodied in an episode where he reviews a remake of Pride of the Yankees. After Lou Gehrig delivers his famous speech, he is approached by the Yankees coach. Apparently, he and the boys have developed "Lou Gehrig's oil" — curing him instantly. Not only that, but a paperboy appears to announce, "Great Depression over! And Bill Cosby born!", whose comedy Lou Gehrig says he will look forward to watching. When Jay attempts to set the record straight, his show is pre-empted.
Also parodied with Phillips' Vision, a means that Duke invents because "some artsy director ruins a classic movie with a Downer Ending." Duke intends to put it back "the way God intended" - allowing Spartacus to escape with his family and friend, and have Elsa return to Rick at the end of Casablanca (with Sam there, too!).
Films — Animated
Pocahontas lost its love duet "If I Never Knew You" (save for an end credits version) because kids found it too boring; it was later animated and reinserted into the film for its 10th anniversary DVD. Several critics felt it significantly improved the film. Ironically "If I Never Knew You" was reinserted because so many Disney fans fell in love with it and called it one of Disney's very best love songs.
According to insider Jim Hill, Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame lost its own love song "Someday" for the same reason, even though its accompanying scene cemented Phoebus and Esmeralda's love, as well as Quasimodo's acceptance that she would never be his and willingness to accept the union.
In WALL-E, the scene where the titular robot gets electrocuted and dropped down a garbage chute by the film's Big Bad originally saw EVE in WALL-E's place, with WALL-E saving her from being jettisoned into space and managing to repair her, after which they set off to bring humanity back to Earth. In a variant of this trope, it was the filmmakers who complained about the scene as they felt it brought the whole film to an abrupt stop. They changed it to WALL-E getting damaged (and only able to be fixed by his spare parts on Earth), which they felt better glued all the little plot points to the movie's climax, gave an even stronger reason for the characters to return to Earth, increased the tension of the moment, and made WALL-E seem more heroic.
Averted in How to Train Your Dragon. The producers were concerned how audiences would react to the idea of Hiccup losing a foot in the battle against the Red Death dragon, but test audiences went up to them on their own account saying that they loved this powerful and daring twist for a family film and asked them to keep it.
Films — Live-Action
Misery is a rare example of this trope making an ending harsher rather than softer. Focus groups were extremely unhappy with Paul walking normally at the end of the film, so the ending was re-shot with Paul needing a cane to walk.
In What Dreams May Come, the original ending was the main character loses himself in his wife's personal hell. Test audiences didn't like it, so it was replaced with a more upbeat ending where he saves her.
The 2002 film version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Villefort is in the wagon and about to go to prison for life. The guard tells him that the gun on the seat was placed there as a "courtesy for a gentleman." The original version had the gun loaded, and he kills himself. The focus group didn't like that, feeling that the gun should've been loaded with a blank and Villefort should've spent the rest of his life in that awful prison. The creators were taken aback, but they had the alternate take with the empty gun, so all it took was a simple substitution to make the movie better.
The Muppet Christmas Carol had the "When Love is Gone" number cut out of the theatrical release after negative audience response. They put it back in for the video release, then they got rid of it again for one of the DVD releases.
Blade Runner: The original theatrical release featured Deckard and Rachael driving a car to happiness and freedom through lush green hills. This ending is a jarring non sequitur: implausible and theme-negating in a dystopian future-noir film. It's the direct product of a test audience screening. Oddly, the sequence is unused footage from the start of The Shining.
Brazil: The omission of the original ending, in which Lowry's escape was revealed to be a delusion after he broke under torture.
The movie version of the musical Little Shop Of Horrors originally retained the Downer Ending in which Audrey and Seymour are killed and Audrey II begins its spectacular conquest of Earth to the tune of the song "Don't Feed the Plants". This went over so badly with test audiences that much of the final section of the film — from Audrey II trying to eat her onward — was reshot and recut to change things to a happier ending; the original finale had to be jettisoned altogether.
Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness had its original ending (where Ash oversleeps after taking a sleeping potion and awakens in a post-apocalyptic future) changed after negative test audience reaction. A new ending was reshot and used for the theatrical release. Fortunately the new ending was just as silly and awesome as the rest of the movie. Army of Darkness could actually be considered an inversion; the original ending is a jarring Downer Ending, whereas the theatrical ending is closer in tone to the rest of the movie and generally fits better. The fact that this was the last movie in the series and gives Ash a relatively happy ending surely helps.
Fatal Attraction originally ended with Alex (Glenn Close) committing suicide and making it look like Dan (Michael Douglas) murdered her. American test audiences thought this wasn't a good enough punishment for the antagonist, so the ending was changed to Dan killing Alex by drowning her in the tub, but Alex doesn't stay dead — at least until Dan's wife shoots her. The original suicide ending has been shown in Japan.
Pretty In Pink's female lead wound up with a different guy than the producers intended because test audiences favored the bad boy over the childhood friend—although cast members assert this happened because they complained the childhood friend came off as too Ambiguously Gay. Some Kind of Wonderful, by the same writer and producers, came out the next year and essentially followed the original plot and ending with the genders reversed (and was arguably a better movie, though less popular).
Iranian film Taste of Cherry by Abbas Kiarostami ends with an idyllic scene featuring the production crew and some assorted others relaxing on a flowery hillside. It's lovely, but the footage seemed thrown in for no readily apparent reason. Test groups responded to it negatively and it was taken out of some theatrical runs, but restored for the DVD release. The director says he put it in there to remind us all that it's just a movie, and after the movie's depressing events he thought the audience deserved a break.
The 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead 2004 had extra footage shot and interspersed with the credits after test audiences complained about the original abrupt ending.
Snake Eyes: Before the focus groups got their hands (er, eyes) on it, De Palma had an chase through a flooded tunnel and the bad guy getting run over by a globe which has been lying on the ground since the start of the movie. When it came to theaters, the chase doesn't go through a flooded tunnel (thus at odds with Nic Cage's reference to it in the epilogue), the globe gets washed off by a wave, and the bad guy kills himself.
In Deep Blue Sea, test audiences so despised the female scientist heroine (to the point of loudly screaming "Die, Bitch!" throughout the film), as well as the killing of LL Cool J's character, that the final ending was changed so that the Black Dude lives while the scientist lady gets munched on by a shark at the very end.
The 1925 silent film of The Phantom of the Opera originally had an ending more in line with the original novel (where Christine kisses Erik (the Phantom) on the forehead and he dies in peace). Test audiences weren't pleased. In the replacement ending, he's chased down by an angry mob and drowned.
The film version of The Saint starring Val Kilmer. Originally Elizabeth Shue's character was going to die but the test screening didn't like it.
Originally Flight of the Intruder featured a court martial scene where Ed O'Neill played a JAG prosecutor. The test audience laughed at the sight of him and yelled "Al Bundy!" his character he was currently playing on the sitcom ''Married... with Children". The scene had to be reshot with Fred Thompson playing the part.
The original ending of Final Destination featured a somewhat happy ending. The hero sleeps with his love interest, gets her pregnant, then dies. The movie closes on the 2 survivors standing by his grave a year later. Test audiences hated it and said they wanted more Rube Goldberg deathtraps. Ironically, the second film revolved around that plot point, just with different players involved.
My Best Friend's Wedding originally ending with Julia Roberts' character hooking up with a random guy at the wedding reception, which audiences complained was an Ass Pull happy ending, so instead the ending was changed so that her gay friend George appears at the reception instead to comfort her.
The original ending to the film of 1408 featured the main character dying and becoming a ghost. The writers continue to consider this the "true" ending and restored it for the DVD release.
Jaws The Revenge: The original theatrical ending had Jake be eaten by the shark and the shark killed by impalement on the boat's prow. However, test audiences were very disturbed by Jake's death, so he (somehow) survives. They also changed the shark's death to massively exploding for no reason whatsoever when it's impaled. The former is ridiculous, but Word Of God has it that while the studio demanded changes, they didn't give production appropriate money to re-shoot. (The original intent was the shark to be impaled, die and sink - taking much of the boat with it.)
The Fly (1986). Fans were upset with the endings in which Veronica ended up with Stanis Boranz.
Sweet Home Alabama originally had an ending that extended the Meaningful Echo of Melanie and Jake's kiss in the middle of the thunderstorm and had them zapped by lightning again. Cut to everyone waiting in Stella's bar, where Jake, cradling a limp Melanie in his arms, walks in and announces, "Melanie Carmichael is dead." We see the news start to sink in among the community, including Melanie's parents, before Jake adds, "Long live 'Felony Melanie!'" Melanie then drops the act, and everyone cheers for the happy couple and the rebirth of their hometown sweetheart. Test audiences cried, "Dude, Not Funny!," and the ending changed to have the couple playfully handcuffed together and escorted into the bar by their sheriff friend.
Next Stop Wonderland had an extra scene tacked on to its ending when test audiences reacted badly to Erin not running off to Brazil with Andre. A scene was added in which Andre, once he realizes that Erin isn't coming, hits on the woman sitting next to him on the plane. Thus the audience can write him off as a womanizer and be happy that Erin meets Alan at the end.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was another positive example - the original ending to the film had Scott ending up with Knives as Ramona left on her own. After exposing it to test audiences, the ending was changed to its current form. Edgar Wright, Bryan Lee O'Malley, and most of the actors have all testified to being more satisfied with the new ending.
Additionally, when the film script was being written, the last volume of the graphic novel hadn't been finished yet. When Bryan Lee O'Malley, the original writer, decided to have a happier ending than he originally planned, they also changed the film's ending to match.
According to Lillian Gish's memoir, D.W. Griffith may be the Trope Codifier. She wrote that he went on the road and spoke to audiences when Intolerance made its premiere in several cities. He then took notes on which scenes got tepid responses and edited them out before going on the next city. That's why the Babylonian and modern stories are longer than the Jesus and Huguenot sections. (All four stories were originally roughly the same length.) In 1919, he released a new movie fashioned out of all the footage from the Babylon section with newly shot scenes that give the Mountain Girl a happy ending.
The original ending for Eves Bayou (and the one used for the Director's Edition) left ambiguous who started the infamous kiss between Louis and his daughter Cecily. When test audiences disliked this, the ending was changed to reveal a more definitive version of events.
Dark City: Test screening audiences were "troubled" by the notion that the entire city wasn't sucked out into space once the Shell City Wall was breached. Thus, a last minute SFX addition of Bumstead and a Stranger drifting through a force field was created.
Bad test audience reactions more or less shaped Anchorman into an entirely different movie. Originally, the film centered around a group of bank robbers calling themselves 'the Alarm Clock' - yes, the footage that became the direct-to-video film 'Wake Up, Ron Burgundy!' When this story failed to strike a chord with audiences, all references to the Alarm Clock were removed, and a sizeable chunk of the film was reshot to include the familiar panda subplot. Also, Baxter (initially a large, masculine dog) became little, fuzzy and cute, adding another memorable element to the film.
In the original ending of Freddy vs. Jason, after Freddy and Jason are defeated, Lori and Will are back at her home making love for the first time. Will becomes violent in the middle of it, and then grows blades out of his fingers. Lori screams as he slashes her to death. The test audiences thought the acting in the scene was terrible, and were confused about what it meant, asking questions like "Does this mean Freddy won? Where's Jason? Is this a dream? Is Will turning evil and is now some sort of Son-of-Freddy?" It was then replaced with the current ending, where Jason walks out of the water holding Freddy's decapitated head, and Freddy winking at the audience.
Tremors movie originally ended with Val and Rhonda saying awakward goodbyes to each other and Val driving away, only for his friend Earl to change his mind halfway through and turn back for the Girl after all. Cue credits. The test audience however started chanting "Kiss Her!" during the awkward goodbye scene and so a new ending was shot, with a Big Damn Kiss and a Relationship Upgrade while credits start to roll. Definitely an improvement over original, which can be seed on the DVD.
When the pilot for Justified was shown to focus groups, they loved the character of Boyd Crowder as portrayed by Walton Goggins and hated that he is killed at the end of the episode. Despite the fact that they tried to be very faithful to the Elmore Leonard short story the show is based on, a decision was made to reshoot the ending of the pilot and keep the character alive. The complicated relationship between the show's hero Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder has since become the keystone of the show and is responsible for much of its popularity and critical acclaim.
For an after-the-fact non-movie version, look at A Chorus Line. The original ending featured the girl not getting the part because she was over-qualified. This more realistic version was jettisoned a few weeks into the run in exchange for a happier ending; ticket sales increased dramatically.
Ayn Rand's play The Night of January 16th, a courtroom drama, subverts this trope by having the jury in the play empaneled from members of the audience. It's written with two different endings for both verdicts; they both express a value judgement of the jury.
While technically done after release, Fallout 3's Downer Ending was replaced by a continued storyline in DLC, complete with destruction of the remaining Enclave base after widespread disappointment at the original.
Similarly, Mass Effect 3's somewhat widely loathed endings were replaced by ones with slightly longer cutscenes and voiceovers as well as an additional one, everyone dies as Shepard refuses to use the crucible. Aside from the longer cutscenes and the new ending, most of the Diabolus ex Machina present in the original ending was retconned.
The Simpsons episode "Burns' Heir" originally had a scene where Homer, after trying to convince Bart to come home, is driven away from Burns' mansion by a "Robotic Richard Simmons" that plays KC and the Sunshine Band's "Shake Your Booty" (Simmons was "dying to do the show", but declined when he found out he'd be voicing a robot). It was cut because it often didn't get good reactions at table reads, and it was felt to be "well trod territory" and distracted from the story (there were disagreements as to whether they should joke about Simmons). To their surprise, the scene caused audiences at conventions and colleges to "erupt with laughter", so they put in the "138th Episode Spectacular" and Season 5 DVD.