Movie studios spend large amounts of time and money trying to figure out how to get people into theaters to see movies. Now, a new study says that they can tell how successful a film will be by scanning your brain. Theoretically, a studio could tell how well their trailer was engaging an audience if they could see how the audience members' brains were reacting to it.
The study was conducted by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern who hooked up 120 participants to EEG machines and watched their brain activity while showing them movie trailers. The researchers discovered that many of the test subjects' brains responded to the same movie trailers in the same way and that this similarity corresponded to box office success. The trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past saw the greatest similarity, while the trailer for Mr. Peabody and Sherman saw the least. This response accurately matched both films' box office performance as well.
While this data is certainly interesting, I can't help but wonder if the results would be the same if the audience was shown brand new trailers rather than older ones. The fact that X-Men: Days of Future Past is a "good" movie, and Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a "bad" one is the sort of thing that has already been agreed upon by popular culture. Without knowing more about the methodology it's impossible to know if this sort of information could have had an effect on the result. We don't know whether test subjects actually saw any of the movies they were shown trailers for. If a bunch of people have already seen a movie, it's maybe not shocking that their brains would react to the trailer for it in a similar fashion. Perhaps a future test showing an audience new trailers, then waiting to see how the movies perform, would be useful. That way test subjects aren't being influenced by having already seen the movie.
Focus groups are one of the most important parts of the filmmaking process for studios. If test audiences don't like a film it can result in the movie being completely retooled in order to make it more intro something that audiences are expected to like. Movies like the upcoming disaster film Geostorm have seen significant delays and reshoots following negative responses from test audiences. While it's unlikely we'll see all future focus groups hooked up to EEG machines, it won't be surprising at all if studios look for some way to use information like this to fine tune the focus group process.
If creating a successful movie at the box office can be reduced to numbers, you can bet that studios will work hard to figure out what those numbers are, there's simply too much money riding on it.