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How Consumer Insights Transforms Filmmaking To Exceed Movie Audience Expectations

Dr Keith Bound , Receptive Cinema
09 Oct, 2017
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Dr Keith Bound, Narrative & Viewer Engagement Consultant (Film, Media & Video Games), Receptive Cinema.


To many filmmakers, the thought of consumer insights influencing creative storytelling decisions will frightened them more than any horror film. This is because they fear their creativity is being limited or replaced by a logical process of data capture, analysis and computer algorithms, which they believe cannot offer any serious contribution to creating engaging movies. This article discusses the following: the challenges of integrating consumer insights in cinematic storytelling to maximise engagement and returns, a novel mixed methods approach to defining audience engagement that reveals the filmmakers narrative blind spots and how they can be resolved using an evidence based model of audience engagement and finally how an innovative interdisciplinary research approach to consumer insights can lead to creating engaging movies more consistently than if produced from purely a creative perspective.

Interestingly filmmakers have not been averse to loosening control of their creativity by using technology driven data to engage audiences, such as the audio-visual aesthetics of VFX special effects artists and filming in 3D. Software development has also transformed film production processes e.g. realistic animated storyboards. Although filmmakers may argue these digital technologies expand their creative tool box and support them in developing their story vision, global box office ticket sales in 2016 ($38.8 billion) only increased by 1% (MPAA, 2017) and Variety magazine reported a 10% decline in blockbuster ticket sales. Brent Long and James Rainey from Variety said “…even Spielberg's magic touch couldn’t save “The BFG” at the box office.’ (Lang & Rainey, 2016). The decline in blockbuster ticket sales in recent years has created considerable losses for the major movie studios, with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Ritchie, 2017) predicted loss being $150million.

Obviously, there are many factors why blockbuster ticket sales have declined over the years, however, to exceed 21st century consumer expectations filmmakers cannot rely anymore on storytelling conventions that are based on just creative intuition. With sophisticated audiences no longer confined to the cinema, more viewers are now watching movies on small screens, the tablet, and smartphone. This creates new storytelling challenges for filmmakers to produce content that maintains audience engagement because viewers are more likely to be distracted by notifications and social media on tablets and smartphones, even when watching a movie in the cinema or on television. Therefore, it is crucial that the film industry embraces the integration of consumer insights with filmmaking to maximise engagement and returns. For example, in a recent five-year scientific research study, we found that filmmakers’ produce ‘narrative blind spots’ they are unaware of. This is not a criticism of filmmakers’ talent, instead, it demonstrates that without having an evidence based model of audience engagement to support creative decisions, filmmakers are more likely to produce ‘narrative blind spots’ that disengage audiences. Moreover, having an in-depth understanding of audiences’ behavioural responses would enable filmmakers to produce engaging content more consistently than from a purely creative perspective.

However, when consumer insights (audience feedback) had been applied in the creative filmmaking process in the movie Snakes on a Plane (2006) it proved to be a disaster, even though the film production company New Line Cinema built up a large internet fan base. New Line Cinema invited fans to make story suggestions so the movie met their expectations and added five extra days of film production to accommodate fans ideas, which included more violence and profanities, leading to the movie rating being changed from PG-13 to R rated. Although Snakes on a Plane was an internet sensation and expected to deliver high returns the movie failed abysmally at the box office, with its opening weekend producing $15.2 million (USA domestic). This demonstrates the type of consumer suggestions captured and implemented to influence the story/plot was ineffective and failed to produce a commercially successful movie. Moreover, film production companies who seek to synthesise consumer insights with storytelling must test hypotheses thoroughly to ensure they improve audience engagement and maximise returns or they become a high-risk strategy and likely to fail. With New Line Cinema’s approach being problematic raises the following question. What approach is required that can utilise consumer insights to influence filmmaking that will maximise audience engagement and returns consistently? In our research study, we answered this question by defining specific parameters in movies that reflects audience engagement and how to measure them. Although we took a mixed methods approach to understand how audiences engage with specific story structure cause and effect paradigms, our focus was capturing audience instinctive behavioural characteristics by measuring audience involuntary responses, which I call the ‘invisible data channel’.


Invisible Data Channel.


Since 2010 Hollywood movie studios have been capturing and analysing audiences ‘invisible data channel’(Randall, 2011), with neuroscientists defining audience engagement by measuring behavioural characteristics based on viewers brain activity and other psychophysiological (capturing physiological responses that determine psychological traits/emotions) recording techniques. Data analysis outputs determine audience engagement by psychophysiological signals/patterns at specific times during a movie. However, neuroscientists are unlikely to explain to the filmmaker what causes high or low engagement in terms of plot, narrative features, cinematic techniques and story structure cause and effect paradigms.  This means filmmakers must guess what narrative features and/or cinematic techniques need to change e.g. lighting or pacing (editing) to increase or sustain audience engagement. This is very challenging for the filmmaker because they are unlikely to know precisely what narrative features and cinematic techniques to change, bearing in mind our research study found filmmakers’ produce ‘narrative blind spots’ they are unware of and that these blind spots disengage audiences.

Neuroscientists strategically use a combination of popular psychophysiological techniques to measure audience engagement such as electroencephalogram (EEG) that measures brain wave activity, facial recognition that measures facial expressions, electrodermal activity (EDA) that measures electrical changes in the skin and emotional sweating and eye tracking, which detects what stimuli attracts our attention on screen. However, it is not always necessary or cost effective to use a combination of psychophysiological techniques, for example in our five-year research study we used the psychophysiological recording technique electrodermal activity because it was the most appropriate technique to deliver accurate results. It also allowed us to gain in-depth knowledge about electrodermal activity which enabled us to make a contribution to knowledge (film studies, media psychology, psychophysiology) concerning the measurement of audience engagement and emotion. This breakthrough led to an innovation step change in how to define and measure audience engagement in terms of durability (time) and intensity to specific story cause and effect paradigms in different narrative structures, cinematography (camera shot frame, angle, duration, movement, lighting), sound (diegetic and non-diegetic), stage props, editing (e.g. Pacing) and acting, and identify which ones increased or decreased audience engagement. Although electrodermal activity was a crucial part of the study that measured the ‘invisible data channel’, we took a mixed methods approach by triangulating three data sets: textual analysis of the filmmakers’ intentions to engage the audience, measuring behavioural traits (invisible data channel) and viewer self-reports to contextualise their subjective experience.

To summarise, we discovered that the right balance between revealing, concealing and delaying story information increased audience engagement and enabled viewers to empathise with fictional characters. However, when the balance of information was out of sync we discovered filmmakers’ ‘narrative blind spots’ that decreased audience engagement. Moreover, the outcomes of the study act as a foundation to resolve these blind spots by aligning the DNA of audience engagement with the art of cinematic storytelling. This can be achieved by selecting the most effective narrative structure cause and effect paradigms in combination with different cinematic techniques (camera shot frame, angle, duration, and movement), sound (non-diegetic and diegetic), lighting, mise-en-scène, editing (pacing) and acting that will have the most impact on increasing and maintaining audience engagement. Therefore, our study not only discovered the filmmakers’ ‘narrative blind spots’ but also how our research offers a process in which they can be resolved.

The research outcomes are very promising and provide a strategic approach to synthesise consumer insights with storytelling/filmmaking to maximise audience engagement in movies. We believe the next innovation step change for consumer insights will involve an interdisciplinary research team approach to defining audience experiences to movies and TV programmes and include: screenwriters, filmmakers, neuroscientists, physiologists, media psychologists, data scientists, marketers and consumer insights specialists. This holistic approach to consumer insights will bridge the gap between storyteller/filmmaker and audiences, providing the filmmaker with in-depth insight into audience expectations. The research will also deliver an evidence based model of audience engagement that will contribute to filmmakers’ creative tool box, enabling them to create and adopt new storytelling conventions and processes to engage audiences consistently. This is essential with the growing trend of mobile viewing on tablets and smartphones that create fragmented narrative viewing experiences. Therefore, companies investing in this innovative interdisciplinary approach to consumer insights and filmmaking offers a solution to resolving filmmakers’ ‘narrative blind spots’ so filmmaker’s can produce engaging content across digital platforms from the big screen of the cinema to tablet and smart phone more consistently than from a purely creative perspective.

For more information about creating an interdisciplinary approach to synthesising audience driven data with storytelling/filmmaking contact:

Dr. Keith Bound at [email protected]  www.receptivecinema.com

Keith is a pioneer in the science of cinematic storytelling, narrative design, audience engagement research consultant. An award-winning designer, he has a substantial background in innovation, design and the creative industries and specialises in leading inter-disciplinary consumer insights teams: screenwriters' filmmakers, data scientists/analysts, physiologists, neuroscientists and audience researchers. To deliver new forms of storytelling that exceed 21st century consumer expectations, maximising returns and shareholder value.

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