11.19.2012

Can Neuroscience Help Target Your Audience Better?


One thing the creatives and the suits in the industry can agree on is that they want their movie as art and/or product to catch and hold the eyes of as wide an audience as possible for artistic and financial reasons.  To do this, they rely on their education (learning filmmaking techniques or entertainment business concepts),  their experience, various hollywood "formulas" and blockbuster concepts, merchandising tie-ins, traditional and social media marketing and non-traditional methods like leveraging piracy to create a buzz for a film.    Needless to say it's in an entertainment industry type's best interest to try whatever they can to get their stuff seen and loved.  So why not try neuroscience?

Norman Hollan discusses neuroscientist Uri Hasson's experiments to ascertain how viewers process a movie when they watch it.  

From an early experiment in 2004, Hasson's findings showed that:
...the experiment says something about film form: form has a widely shared effect on viewers, but the total aesthetic experience will vary considerably from individual to individual.
Essentially, although we might process the film similarly in the way it travels and sparks parts of our brain, we still experience it differently.  
In one of their subsequent experiments, Hasson had his subjects watch [a] Sergio Leone film and an unedited 10-minute clip of people at a concert in Washington Square, a New York park, just people milling around. The experimenters compared viewers' brains as they watched these two very different films. The clip had no editing, no camera movement, nothing of the sophisticated film techniques of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Holland's take: 
First, Hasson's group found that viewers' brain activity was "time-locked" to events on screen. That's not surprising. Our brains are designed, as all animals' brains are designed, to turn our attention to whatever is new in our environment.... 
Second, with both films, viewers' brains behaved alike in some visual and auditory areas and in a region (lateral occipital cortex) active in object recognition. As with the earlier experiment, we viewers all process the basic sounds and sights of a film (even the unedited Washgton Square film) the same way. But there was a lot more intersubject correlation with the directed and edited film. Conclusion: in order to control viewers' responses, you have to construct the film's sequence of images. 

The first finding suggests that we are hardwired to stare at the "shiny object" aka the screen regardless of how qualitatively good or bad it is.  The second supports the idea that the complexity of the shots and edits engage us more.

Those two findings alone do not solve the problem of how to get more eyes on the screen  BUT what I find interesting is the idea that an audience needs to be convinced of the importance of what they are watching to have the interest and patience to sit through it.  To understand my point, first, consider the experiment again; the test subjects had to watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, an iconic classic that is easy on the eyes and ears with a built-in reputation and tons of directorial style, and a one-take 10-minute clip of a concert in a park.  We don't know who the test subjects were but we can safely assume the majority would enjoy or at least stand to watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly whereas most would probably be bored by the concert in the park (especially if it's not their genre of music or they don't enjoy one-take experimental films).  Secondly, if the test subjects were faced with the choice of watching a boring concert they had no interest in they would either change the channel or walk out of the theater.  So how did they end up watching a boring video all the way through?  They were doing it for an experiment they deemed important (either for scientific or financial reason) and so they watched the video in full.   If it's important, they will come.

Seems like common sense but it's not common practice.  When was the last time you saw a film advertised with any mention of it's importance that compels you to watch it?  It was probably a documentary or Spielberg's Lincoln.  Granted not every film can be marketed as if it were "important" because not all films can carry that weight, especially, if you're thinking of "important" message films or "important" political films.  But important doesn't have to only mean those kinds of films.  The boring 10 minute video was only important because it was part of an experiment, so it's possible that a creative marketer or passionate director can figure out an angle that can reveal the importance of her film.  The importance of the film doesn't have to be marketed on a grand scale; it can cater to a sub-group's notion of important or be important for how it connects to something else in the world.  Convince a viewer it's important to watch what you're showing and they will have the patience to watch just about anything.  At least, that's what one study shows.

For more on Hasson's research, read Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film.

If you find these studies interesting and want to stay on top of the latest findings then Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind is for you.

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