An edited version of this article was published February 11, 2008 on! Movies under the title “A Specious Odyssey.” This is the original version of that article.

A few years back, when I was trying to find a studio to buy one of my screenplays, a producer working with me submitted my script to a major studio, and told me the studio’s buy/no buy decision would be based on a scientific analysis of how well the movie was projected to do in domestic and foreign markets. When I asked this producer how such a projection could possibly be made “scientifically” I was told that the method was considered a trade secret but almost all the studios had started using it.

The answer came back: the “scientific” analysis reported that my script would produce a movie that would do well at the box office domestically but fall short in foreign sales; and comparing the scientifically projected revenues to the film and distribution budgets, the studio decided not to buy my script.

In other words – using an image common in 1960’s Twilight Zone‘s – Univac had been loaded up with punch cards and spit out one saying, “Rejected.”

It wasn’t until May 2007, however, that I began discovering what exactly these scientific claims were, and what was behind them.

They’re based on claims in the field of neurophysiology that neurofeedback can measure viewer responses to stimuli, and proper analysis of this data can be used to accurately predict future consumer behavior.

More simply: these guys are claiming that by hooking you up to the equivalent of a lie detector while you’re looking at — for example — a movie trailer, they can accurately predict whether you’ll buy a ticket to see the movie when it hits your local theater.

I discovered a company named Cinematic Forecasts and Investor Assurance, LLC, whose website promises film acquisition executives and producers that they can predict as early as a script submitted to them — based on correct or incorrect use of what they call “archetypes” — whether a movie will make money, lose money, or break even.

As an example, they use factors such as whether an actor who’s known for playing a hero has been miscast in the role of an anti-hero, or even whether an actor has the wrong type of face to play a role. Don’t even bother telling these geniuses that actors change their appearances all the time with make-up and wardrobe. Charles Laughton didn’t have to be a hunchback in real life to play the role of Quasimodo.

Full disclosure requires me to admit some prejudice regarding this company and how dumb I think they are. I wrote them a check to do an analysis of the box-office potential of my new suspense-comedy feature, Lady Magdalene’s (which won a film-festival award last Saturday for “best cutting edge film”), and their “scientific” analysis reported to me that I did every single thing wrong and there was no possibility whatsoever that anyone, anywhere, anytime would ever buy a theater ticket or a DVD to watch my movie, even if I re-cut it. I was informed that all of the “archetypes” I used in telling my story were “contrary to the programming of the mass audience.”

Well, I guess it was just a boneheaded mistake to have cast Laurence Olivier as a Nazi in 1976’s Marathon Man then cast him as a Nazi-hunter in 1978’s The Boys from Brazil. I don’t know what they did at the box office, but I loved him in both pictures.

An article in the Hollywood Reporter informs me that even the Reporter’s own corporate parent, the Nielsen Company – long known for rating TV shows – is getting into the act by becoming the exclusive outlet for NeuroFocus, a Berkeley, CA, based research firm that “covers eye-tracking and skin-conductivity measurements, to film studios and TV networks to monitor audience responses to content as well as promos, trailers and other marketing materials.”

If right about now you can’t get out of your head the image of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange — being strapped down with his eyelids taped open, and being forced to watch violent images while being given a drug that simulates a near-death experience – you’re on the same page I am. That’s only one step beyond.

One of the pioneers of using neurophysiology to measure audience responses—in fact he wrote his doctoral thesis on that topic at UCLA –- is David Kaiser, who writes perceptively in an article titled “Applied Social Psychophysiology” that this technology is “the end stage of deconstructionism, a movement in literary criticism in which an author’s point of view is completely eliminated from her work of art; voided, creation divorced from creator intent.”

Again, speaking less academically, Dr. Kaiser is saying that by letting audience reactions be the sole measurement of the success of a work of literature or drama, the author’s intent or viewpoint becomes less than zero.

Dr. Kaiser further understands a theory of art I, myself, propounded over twenty years ago. In this same article Kaiser writes, “When we process narratives, we seek release. Engagement is a reasonable mix of containment and release, as Shakespeare and wordsmiths realized long ago. Narratives consist of arousal-release cycles, nothing more, emotional and cognitive tension building to unbearability …. to be released. The more thorough, expansive, and all-encompassing the tension, the greater the release when it is all resolved. A story bangs our head against the wall because it feels so good to us when it stops.”

Or translated again: the hype that a movie is a thrill ride is good marketing: audiences like excitement and surprises. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure that one that.

Dr. Kaiser and his compatriots attempt to do with moment-by-moment physiological measurements of audience engagement what any stand-up comic does in between jokes: listening to whether the audience is laughing, booing, or taking out a crossword puzzle.

Anyone in theater knows you can measure how well a play is going by how much the audience is coughing or getting up to go to the bathroom. That’s why plays open out of town, not on Broadway.

Movies go through the same sort of evolution. Scripts get rewritten. Actors try out different line readings and sometimes improvise bits of business. A standard director’s request to an actor is, “Try it a different way this take.”

Movies will be test-screened, and re-cut based on the audience reactions. Jokes that don’t play will be cut; scenes that slow down getting to the plot will be shortened or eliminated.

Nothing’s wrong with any of this. If we’re in the entertainment business, we need to know when we’re not being entertaining.

The problem starts when someone comes along and starts telling the guys who buy scripts from writers like me, or buy finished independent films from producer/writer/directors like me, that they can scientifically predict how much money a script or movie will make or lose. This is entering into the realm of the racetrack tout, the stock-market tipster, or the storefront psychic Reader/Advisor.

Here’s one way I know that the idea of measuring an audience’s physiological reaction is of no use in figuring out whether a movie will be a blockbuster or a bomb.

The Fugitive is a thriller. It has a suspense plot based on action and surprises. I think I’ve watched it two dozen times, if not more, and enjoyed it every time. Now, how is it that the movie is as enjoyable to me when I know what every surprise is in advance as it was the first time I saw it?

My Cousin Vinny is a comedy. I’ve watched it so many times I can deliver the lines before the actors. Yet, when it comes on TV, I’m more likely to watch it for the umpteenth time than I am to flip to a movie I haven’t seen.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Star Wars or Casablanca or North by Northwest. I think I’ve watched 2001: A Space Odyssey well over three hundred times … and that has to be one of the slowest-paced movies ever made.

How the heck is measuring my eye movement and galvanic skin response to see how excited I am going to tell a distribution executive whether a movie with a budget of $5 million, an unknown in the lead and no A-list stars even in cameos, that has an opening weekend of $597 thousand, won’t still be playing in movie theaters 51 weeks later and gross $356 million worldwide … which doesn’t even count revenues from video rentals, DVD sales, cable, and a TV spin-off?

Yes, if you’re in the business you already know I’m talking about My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Look. If Woody Allen uses a gag in one of his movies that depends on an audience member knowing a Yiddish word, it’s going to play better in Brooklyn or Miami Beach than it will in Killeen, Texas or Boise, Idaho.

My 16-year-old daughter is going to react more positively to a song by The Moldy Peaches on the Juno soundtrack than will my 83-year-old mother, who regards any music more recent than Brahms as noise.

A string of F-bombs in movie dialogue will barely be noticed by a typical audience in Berkeley, California; in Ogden, Utah, some audience members will get up and walk out.

Some jokes are topical and depend on knowing what Hollywood celebrity is divorced from another Hollywood celebrity.

Then there’s the following joke William Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet four centuries ago:

HORATIO: My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral.

HAMLET: I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student;
I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.

HORATIO: Indeed, my lord, it follow’d hard upon.

HAMLET: Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.

Or, as Jay Leno might deliver this joke any night in a Tonight Show monologue,

“Hey, Kevin, did you hear about that royal wedding in Denmark last week? The Queen remarried so fast after the King died, they were able to use the same food at her wedding that they used at the king’s funeral.” (Smitty gives Jay a rim-shot.)

The point is, some jokes have the shelf life of a piece of salmon; other jokes have a shelf-life as long as fruit cake.

It takes a filmmaker, not a scientist, to tell a movie executive which is which.

Postscript January 11, 2010: After hearing that both former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former George W. Bush White House Press Secretary Dana Perino stated in the past few days that there had been no domestic terrorist attacks during George W. Bush’s administration, I have to wonder what the role of neuroscience-based political consulting — or maybe I should say “ventriloquism” — is in the talking points being handed out to political avatars these days.

My comic thriller Lady Magdalene’s — a movie I wrote, produced, directed, and acted in it — is now available for sale or rental on Video On Demand. If you like the way I think, I think you’ll like this movie. Check it out!

Bookmark and Share