Talk to any filmmaker worth their artistic salt about what it's like making a movie within the Hollywood system these days and chances are good you'll get an earful about how focus groups have become the bane of their craft. Films aren't simply made by a director working with a group of producers these days; they're molded into a theatrical cut only after being ground through a marketing-driven committee process wherein the film is shown to a group of test subjects who then essentially give a thumbs up, thumbs down to every aspect of the movie.
If enough people in a test focus group say they don't like something in a film, chances are a studio is going to retool it (either by reshoots, re-edits or simply dropping the element from a film entirely) until it passes committee muster. And as terrible as that can be for a filmmaker, incorporating feedback from a focus group is just part of regular business that most have come to, if not respect, at least tolerate. We're curious, then, how filmmakers feel about the newest trend in focus group testing: Neurocinema.
Normal focus group testing involves a marketer preparing a questionaire for audiences and then leading said group in a discussion of what they liked and didn't like about a film. Neurocinema testing, however, is a bit different. It doesn't involve a person trying to verbally express why they didn't think a particular scene was funny. It doesn't involve communicating to a trained marketer why you'd recommend the film to a friend. It doesn't involve opinions at all, in fact. Neurocinema involves hooking an audience member up to a variety of brain scanning devices and determining what elements of a film elicit the most brain activity.
From FastCompany's article Rise of Neurocinema: How Hollywood Studios Harness Your Brainwaves to Win Oscars:
This new marketing trend is hardly confined to the horror genre, of course, but the most interesting revelation in FastCompany's look at the burgeoning new field isn't that it can be used for any film genre, but that neurotesting is being used on movies before they're even made. Does the average person's neurons fire off faster when thinking about Scarlett Johansson or Jessica Alba? No idea, but whoever wins, that's who the neuromarketers will recommend casting. The same process can be used on everything from script readings to trailer watchings-- whatever elicits the most positive brain activity will get the marketing seal of approval.
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 viewers' brains by precisely editing their films to maximize amygdalic excitement and thus "control for" buzz and success at the theater.
But if all this talk of creative expression being killed off by the impartial measurement of synaptic response has you feeling suddenly very depressed about the current state of Hollywood, you can take comfort in knowing that neurocinema is still just a trend. It's far from the industry norm and most likely is only being used by the marketing departments of the biggest blockbusters in town (the service providers FastCompany spoke to were unwilling to say specifically who their clients were), but it's certainly a technology to keep a discerning eye on. Who knows, maybe some day movie trailers will no longer feature pull quotes from film critics, but simply boast that the film's action scenes put its neurocinema testers into a blissful state of brain activity.