Rise of Neurocinema: How Hollywood Studios Harness Your Brainwaves to Win Oscars

One thing you aren't likely to hear Sunday night from the Oscar-winning producer after accepting the trophy for Best Picture: "I'd like to thank my neuroscience partners who helped us enhance the film's script, characters, and scenes."

It's not that far-fetched, though.

A sizable number of neuromarketing companies already brain test movie trailers for the major studios through fMRI, EEG, galvanic skin response, eye-tracking and other biometric approaches. For now, the test data helps the studios and distributors better market the movie.

But what about using brain feedback to help make the movie?

A trailblazing few firms and studios have delved into the upstart practice of "neurocinema," the method of using neurofeedback to help moviemakers vet and refine film elements such as scripts, characters, plots, scenes, and effects. Princeton University psychology professor Uri Hasson coined the term "neurocinematics" based on an fMRI study, in which he concluded that certain types of films (e.g. horror, action, sci-fi) produced high activation scores in the amygdala region of viewer subjects' brains, the part that controls disgust, anger, lust, and fear. Hasson asserted that horror filmmakers can potentially control audiences' brains by precisely editing films to maximize amygdalic excitement and thus "control for" buzz and success at the theater.

Stephen Susco, who wrote the $187 million grossing horror movie Grudge, is not a practitioner of neurocinema. But he tells Fast Company that he sees its growth as part of the "natural evolution of major studios trying to maximize profit while making the early creative development, script and storytelling process more scientific as opposed to just based on experience and instinct."

Other filmmakers seem divided.

Independent filmmaker and neurocinema pioneer Peter Katz told Fast Company about the studios' frustration with sketchy focus groups full of viewer respondents who "don't really know or can't articulate or even remember how they feel about a movie or scene." On the other hand, Morgan Spurlock's upcoming film, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, makes fun of studios' growing reliance on marketing, including trailer testing via fMRI brain scans, as a way to supposedly flop-proof films and bolster the odds of a blockbuster.

The first time "Academy Awards" appeared in the same sentence with "neuromarketing" was probably a little over a year ago.

Last year's Oscar-decorated director James Cameron had told Variety magazine during the making of the epic hit Avatar that "a functional-MRI study of brain activity would show that more neurons are actively engaged in processing a 3-D movie than the same film seen in 2-D."

(It is no coincidence that a scanner-like "chamber" plays a starring role in Avatar. The story explores and potentially foreshadows the mind-blowing possibilities of hooking up our brain to an MRI machine... and neurocinema.)

The neuromarketing firm MindSign was so excited by Cameron's reference they offered him "exhibition" (free) services including fMRI brain scans of subjects exposed to Avatar trailers (see below). And Avatar, like many modern big-budget films, appears to have been strongly fortified by neuromarketing trailer testing, which uses EEG and biometric techniques to measure and record viewer brain responses to different trailer scenes and sequences.

Unlike mainstream neuromarketing companies, MindSign has a niche focus on movies and trailer testing. Its founders used to work for Dreamworks and Sony and own one of the few fMRI machines used in the neuromarketing field. There is plenty of debate and rhetoric among competing firms about the best technologies for brain measurement. fMRI is considered reliable and brain in-depth but the machines are bulky, expensive, and preclude a real-world shopping context. NeuroFocus, which bills itself as the world leader in neuromarketing, employs EEG devices that are worn as headsets by viewers in the theater for movie and trailer screenings (see below). EmSense distributes a "lighter" version of these headsets to panels of respondents which results in a larger sample of test subjects.

Still and all, neurocinema does not seem to be widely practiced by the major Hollywood studios. When Fast Company inquired for this story, marketing executives from five production companies behind films nominated in the Best Picture category declined comment or claimed no use or knowledge of neurocinema. 20th Century Fox, which distributed Avatar, declined to participate in this story. MindSign was reticent to reveal client names in our interview but did disclose they have been providing neurocinematic services to the Dowdle Brothers (Quarantine). The neuromarketing consultants and Hollywood filmmakers we did speak with also acknowledged that the studios are intensely competitive and notoriously tight-lipped, even about trailer marketing. Sands Research, which conducts neuromarketing studies on TV pilots and trailers, confirmed work on Paramount's new Johnny Depp animated film Rango. "Often animation can be more engaging for the brain than real actors. Look at the strong response to Avatar," says Steve Sands, the firm's chief science officer. 

While he refused to discuss specific clients with Fast Company, NeuroFocus CEO A. K. Pradeep shared, "as a sneak peak," some observations based on commercial neurocinema projects. They currently leverage neurocinematics for script vetting and character development, even cast selection. He's animated in talking about the budding field as a film industry "game-changer" in the next few years. Pradeep works with leading studios in both the US and India and thinks Hollywood is chasing prolific Bollywood on neurocinema. (Susco believes tech-savvy Korea may also be ahead and more ripe for this approach).

Pradeep foresees convergence between games (some of whose makers are long-time NeuroFocus clients) and neurocinematic films. Multiple if not infinite versions of one film with myriad story twists and endings will be produced and consumed. Netflix and Facebook will play a big part in film "personalization." "Real-time instant consumer brain response-based personalization will create true dynamic modifications of the same movie and afford endless delight to consumers."

(The trend of rapid-fire versioning films to indulge movie fans was highlighted recently when Paramount's Insurge Pictures announced they were releasing a second, extended version of Justin Bieber's Never Say Never 3-D concert documentary just two weeks after the first. "The narrative doesn't begin or end in the movie theater anymore," John M. Chu, the film's director, told The New York Times.)

While Spurlock, for one, is fascinated by the ascending influence of neuromarketing, his film is all about (and funded by) product placement. NeuroFocus claims a more scientific form of the craft—"product integration—measured to pinpoint moments of maximal attention, emotional engagement, and memory movement. Products and services are then integrated into the movie at these precise points of highest neurological engagement. There is measurable and justifiable value to the marketer, and clear defined value to the movie maker."

NeuroFocus is also ratcheting up work in Bollywood on a new business model for the film industry that is about—more than getting butts in the seats—doing some societal good. "Every paid-for product placement sponsorship has an accompanying pro-bono social message placement. The end client teams up with their charity or social message of choice and convinces the studio that both must be done to underwrite the effort," according to Pradeep. MindSign co-founder Philip Carlsen thinks the business side of Hollywood is excited about the potential of neurocinema. "The producers love it. I mean, spending $100,000 on a scientific, neurological method to help make their $350 million investment pay out is a no-brainer," he says. Katz hopes "neurocinema will give filmmakers a better understanding of their viewers' experiences and ultimately lead to better viewing experiences."

But just as with the neuromarketing of soup or cars, there are challenges to the effectiveness and acceptance of neurocinema. Neuroscientists cannot create ads or make movies. And the debate continues over conflicting technologies and standards, from Madison Avenue to Hollywood. The equipment and studies tend to be costly and can't really replicate the real buyer and viewer world. There is the predictable backlash from consumer advocates over "brandwashing" and mind control. In the case of Hollywood, many writers may feel that neurocinema is writing them out of the script ("I get hate mail from the writers," says MindSign's Carlsen). Neurocinema projects may in fact be more viable for some genres (action/adventure/sci-fi: Avatar) over others (drama: The King's Speech).

So while it's highly unlikely on Sunday night that the Oscar-winning producer will thank a neuromarketer or will have employed neurocinematics (at least publicly) to make this year's Best Picture, it does appear that neuromarketing is creeping further into movie-making. Pradeep's vision that "brainbusters become blockbusters" may not be that far-off.

Read more of our 2011 Academy Awards coverage

Read more from Kevin Randall's blog

Brain scans of someone viewing the Rango trailer.

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  • Brain Molecule Marketing

    We are marketers and complete brain geeks.  We love to watch the stimulus response stuff like the video.  However, none of this is ready for prime-time.

    No one has any idea how the pictures can predict buying behavior.  A simple GSR measure of physiological response is likely more predictive.  

    NeuroFocus has a history of just saying silly things.  They a charlatan's selling cartoonish pop psychology -- but they are just responding to demand in the market place. 

    The "eye tracking "heat map" just shows our brains a naturally keyed to mouths and eyes.  Any HS psych course teaches that.

    Do brain processes drive buying behavior?  Of course.  duh  Does anything that we currently can measure predict buying behavior -- probably not.  Some day.  It may take decades however.

    In the mean time - "A fool and his money are invited everywhere."  Including to see see pop science neuromarketing stuff.  Ho hum.  

  • Andre

    Looool and what about the 'weaknesses' of evaluating results from brain scanning: 'We cannot tell whether the activation indicates excitatory processes or inhibitory processes. We cannot tell whether the activation arises in a location or is an indirect consequence of another location, which releases inhibition.' ;) They might be designing films with 'wrong' premises...and their designs surely will affect the way aesthetics and culture are shaped!?

  • biju dominic

    Since the brain is the source of all human actions and thoughts, it is only natural to believe that the thought of liking or disliking a movie too emanates in the human brain. But the belief that an fmri scan or a EEG printout can completely capture all the nuances of a human thought that occurs at a neuron level in a matter of milliseconds in different parts of the brain is far from the truth. These neuromarketing professionals are over simplifying the working of the most complex system in the whole universe- the human brain
    biju dominic

  • Roberto Marsalis

    And I'd like to add that once you're in the mindset of what this could do and consider it in full scope, it's hard not be a little chilled. The marriage of technology and creativity is one thing, but jacking the purported intent to maximize emotional response and 'satisfaction' by viewers/participants, with an ultimate intent to maximize profit and affect behaviour, buying or otherwise, is... well... it's not a bad idea for a good sci/fi thriller.

  • Barkingdog48

    I would expect then that an amusement park could fine-tune the roller-coaster and other experiences to offer a better experience for the rider. In fact, almost any event which depends on participant satisfaction could use a portable scanning device to fine tune any experience and increase the visual stimulation experience for people.
    A move made several years ago, Final Destination, used fine tuning including spending an additional million dollars for re-shooting and editing the story line to improve the viewer response and satisfaction.

  • Gawain Morrison

    Great to see some noise out there for this particular marriage of technology and creativity.

    It has equal amounts of 'wow' and 'not a chance' in terms of the reactions from potential audiences. But it's understandable that when so much money is involved in the film industry that every benchmark and measure that can be applied will be.

    But this can all feel a bit sinister when looked at from one direction, which is that audiences are merely guinea pigs to be tested on, and that studios will do anything to make the perfect genre product to recoup as much money as possible. And this is equally as creepy when applied to marketing, specifically when the intention is to read what you're feeling at that moment, and to give you the opportunity to satiate that feeling, in whatever marketing opporunity arises.

    We're a production company based in Belfast, N.Ireland, called Filmtrip, and we've been researching the area of capturing physiological data for a range of creative outputs, and are showcasing our emotional response short horror film as part of SXSW, in Austin, next month, and doing a panel on the subject of emotional response entertainment.

    We've created a film that depending on the audience's physiological state different audio & visual response will result, and we're developing a production methodology for film production using this kind of emotional engagement, for unique in-theatre experiences.

    You can check out more on that at http://www.unsound-the-film.co...

    Thanks for the article & I'd just like to add that once you're inside the mindset of what this could do, it's hard not to be very excited.