Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Everybody in California has been to a test screening once. Very few have been twice.

It's exciting to the unsuspecting: you're invited to a free screening of an unreleased Hollywood movie. Then a plasticized marketing executive gets up in front and asks very sincerely for your opinion. You get a questionnaire and one of those little golf pencil, and you dutifully report if you liked Tobey Maguire, whether the climax was bloody enough, whether the trace remainders of a character's liberal political views were off-putting or enlivening. And so on.

Based on your responses, the studio may well re-edit the ending, add back in the scene where Tobey pets the dog, or lose the fat chick. In short, studios use the marketing data to make the movie as palatable to the broadest audience range possible. Characters become more like characters we've seen before. Plot twists that excite 70% but confuse 20% are cut out. Bad guys explode more frequently. And the movie joins the rest of the pack, bobbing in the murky water around the lowest common denominator.

Like I said, few people make it to a second test screening. Even if you don't know what's going on you leave feeling a little dirty.

You'll be pleased to know that marketing is losing its golf pencils. Instead, it's putting the audience into an MRI! The new thing is neurocinema.

The idea is that you can scan the brain of the audience member and watch what parts light up as the scene progresses. The reactions are most testable in horror. You watch for the amygdala, the "fight or flight" center of the brain, to light up like a Christmas tree.

I imagine watching almost any movie -- say, Air Bud -- while trapped in a giant humming magnetic brain probe might light up my amygdala, but enough about me.

The idea that you can make a movie better by stimulating one area of the brain is disturbing to me. The amygdala isn't the horror-genre center of the brain. Yes, it controls fear. It also controls rage and disgust. Your amygdala lights up when you see a car accident. Your amygdala lights up when a drunk hits on your girlfriend. But the film industry is investing serious money in this technology just so it can tickle this part of the brain.

But what bothers me most about this technology is that it just might work. Maybe movies can boil down to a lower common denominator. I suspect that many moviegoers already equate a good movie with a vigorous amygdala rub. And maybe, like with video games, the effect is addictive.

Check out this interview in Wired for more.

You can see the test clip from the horror movie they tested. And they'll need a little more than an MRI to fix that one. Sorry, couldn't help myself.