The audience test screening has long been used as a gauge of a film or TV pilot’s likelihood of success. Now, neurocinema relieves viewers of the chore of putting their comments on cards by directly tapping into their minds.
Neurocinema is an extension of neuromarketing research, in which the brain’s activity and engagement is measured during visual stimulation. Until recently, these measurements — generally done with an fMRI or an EEG monitor, and sometimes also involving tracking of eye movements — were used mostly in service of commercials or movie trailers. But lately, these techniques have spread to monitor the reactions of viewers to everything from specific scenes of a film to TV pilots, storyboards and animatics.
Neuromarketers believe their research removes the social pressures that surround written responses to a test screening, and leads to more honest, direct sorts of feedback.
“You can’t really argue with what we read on the brain scan,” says Philip Carlsen of MindSign Neuromarketing in San Diego. “Either you’ve stimulated the mind or you haven’t, so you aren’t going to have a situation where comments from someone at a test screening are based on someone trying agree with the other people in their group.”
It’s a position also held by El Paso, Texas-based Sands Research. The company recently did testing on a reality show pilot that had two hosts. Though the researchers would not identify the company behind the program, they say their results had an impact on the show’s eventual direction.
“It was very clear which one of the hosts was more engaging, and the pilot overall didn’t hold people’s interest,” says Stephen Sands, chairman and chief science officer for the company. “Based on those things, they decided not to proceed with the show.”
Some filmmakers aren’t entirely certain this kind of brain monitoring can replace the group experience of watching a film in a theater, though.
Drew Dowdle, co-writer and executive producer of “Quarantine” and “Devil,” ran a small testing sample at MindSign on selected scenes of his pic “The Poughkeepsie Tapes.” The horror film became less frightening to audiences — based on fMRI measurements — when certain colors were drained out of the frame in order to try to make the footage look older.
It’s something Dowdle never expected but the findings didn’t prompt him to change many of the creative decisions that were made on that project. While Dowdle says he sees value in neurocinema research at the editing stage, he adds that he will also continue to value test screenings because they’re the only way to get an audience’s reaction to a film in a theatrical setting.
“In the wrong hands, this could be very dangerous, because you’re talking about fine-tuning a film to be the perfect movie as rated by this measurement of brain activity, and I don’t know if I believe there’s a perfect movie,” Dowdle says. “But in the right hands, it could be helpful to get a better understanding of which version of a scene is working for the audience.”