Uncharted Territory: The Relationship Between Brain Waves and Blockbuster Movies | V by Viacom

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Uncharted Territory: The Relationship Between Brain Waves and Blockbuster Movies

What happened when neuroscientist and business professor Moran Cerf applied the principles of science to the art of film marketing.

Jan 16, 2018

Uncharted Territory is a series dedicated to spotlighting the people who use science and technology to design the future of TV. Our first subject, Moran Cerf, is partnering with Viacom to better understand audience behaviors from a neuroscience perspective. 

Moran Cerf knows what captivates an audience.

This may be due to his time on the speaking circuit, presenting his research to audiences at conferences like TED, SxSW, and Pop Tech. It’s also likely due to his work as a neuroscientist. He’s studied whether we can record our dreams, if decisions can be predicted, and whether we can ‘hack’ our way to happiness.

Thanks to his recent research on what makes people engage with content (specifically movies and movie trailers), he’s also familiar with how audiences react to stories on-screen. Working with other neuroscientists from Northwestern University, he devised an experiment to measure the effectiveness of content and movie trailers based on changes in the audience’s brain activity.

Cerf and his co-researchers used portable electroencephalography (EEG) systems to track what parts of viewers’ brains were activated when they watched trailers to find how well trailers caused viewers’ brains to sync. They dubbed the phenomenon “Cross-Brain Correlation.” To explain what this means, he gives two extreme examples: Viewers watching Andy Warhol’s 8-hour, slow-motion film Empire—which lacks characters and a narrative—will likely start to think about what they’re going to eat for dinner or the work they need to finish; Play a fight scene from The Matrix, and everyone in the audience is locked in a cinematic battle.

“Good trailers make all brains look alike,” Moran explains. “A good filmmaker can create an experience that will take over your brain. It is so powerful that it is actually working the same way on every other person that watches the movie. It is as if a content creator—whether a filmmaker, composer, or painter—is able to tap into the brains of multiple people (young, old, men, women, etc.) and recruit their brains in a similar fashion, regardless of idiosyncrasies. That is the magic talent of Hitchcock, Mozart, and Cézanne. They were able to, metaphorically, understand everyone’s brainwaves, and align their creation with their audiences. That is a key component of genius.”

“A good filmmaker can create an experience that will take over your brain.”

In the study that focused on matching viewer’s neural data to box office performance, Cerf found that the brain activity of the audience was a predictor of ticket sales. In other words, Cross-Brain Correlation is a mark of how memorable and exciting a piece of content is, as well as a predictor of consumer behavior and persuasion. For the film industry—or really any industry built around getting consumers to tune into video—this is incredibly valuable insight. It means that trailers, movies, shows, and even ads can be tested and tweaked for optimal persuadability.

This turns the traditional process of creating a film trailer on its head. Since movie trailers were invented more than a century ago, they were created, edited, and projected based mostly on instinct. Despite the financial importance of attracting future audiences, it was an art untouched by the rigor of science. In many ways, this isn’t unique to the film industry.

“The world of business doesn’t really do experiments,” says Cerf, who teaches business and neuroscience at the Kellogg School of Management. “Most businesses cannot afford to try to launch a product in blue and in red to see if the red package is better. They’ll do a focus group, try some things, have internal debates, and rely on intuitions. Now, scientists can tap into the brains of audiences and essentially assess options directly from the customers’ brains.”

The neural data that Cerf tracked turned the subjective—whether or not a movie trailer engaged viewers—into the objective. But it also revealed the classic tension between the worlds of creativity and data, between science and art: what makes something good? Whether it’s a movie, a painting, or a designer dress, for creations that exist at least in part to communicate emotions, critical success and commercial success don’t have an intrinsic correlation. A classic film example is It’s a Wonderful Life, on which RKO Pictures lost over half a million dollars in 1947 (a sum that equates to nearly $6 million today), but which is now part of the American cultural vernacular.

Says Cerf, “in the movie business, because success has so many meanings, it’s still partly a world of intuition.”