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Why Filmmaker’s Need to Embrace Science to Create Engaging Stories for 21st Century Audiences

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


Today we are living in a consumer data driven society. Digital technology has enabled hi-tech companies Netflix and Amazon to revolutionise the movie industry in two main ways: firstly, by streaming movies and television programmes online across a variety of digital devices, smart televisions, laptop, tablet and smartphone. Secondly, using audience data driven content to meet consumer expectations (StarTribune 2016). This also enables Amazon and Netflix to target the most frequent moviegoer age group 18-24, of which 79% own four different types of digital devices compared to 60% of the total adult population (MPAA, 2016); with the tablet being the leading mobile device for watching movies (Accenture, 2013).

Amazon and Netflix have a distinct advantage over their Hollywood movie studio rivals because their business model is based on audience data driven content. Their digital infrastructure and in-depth experience enables them to capture and analyse consumer viewing patterns and behaviours, so they can match content to viewer expectations (StarTribune 2016). Even so, since 2010 Hollywood film studios have used neuromarketing companies to capture and analyse real-time data of moviegoers', by measuring brain activity and emotional responses to movies (Randall 2011 & 2013). However, data is only used for short-form marketing and promotion and no attempt has been made by the film industry to generate engaging stories by synthesising the DNA of audience engagement with the art of cinematic storytelling.

The main reason is that many filmmakers perceive a scientific approach to storytelling would act as a barrier to their creativity and creative decision making. Another problem is that neuroscientists have little understanding of storytelling, such as story structure cause and effect paradigms and their relationships to each other and how they impact audience engagement. Although neuroscientists decide where low engagement occurs at a specific moments during a movie they cannot explain what exactly has caused the decline in terms of narrative features, cinematic techniques and story structure cause and effect paradigms.  So, the film director must guess what needs to be altered to improve the engagement level, which is less likely to be successful because the decision will be a based-on assumption rather than supported by data.

Neuro-marketing companies have also been criticised by other neuroscientists because they can easily misinterpret brain activity. For example, a region of the brain may be responsible for more than one activity (working memory, physical pain, disgust, anger, visual perception, motor sequencing, and memory retrieval) so it’s quite challenging for a neuroscientist to isolate a specific activity to a stimulus (themindlab.co.uk 2015). However, most neuroscientists now combine different psychophysiological measures (physiological responses that trigger psychological outputs) such as measuring brain waves, electrodermal activity (emotional sweating) and eye tracking to gain an accurate picture of viewer psychological and emotional responses and what captures their attention. However, the main challenge now is for the film and media industry to use scientific data to support filmmakers’ creative decision making through a creative process rather than a computer algorithm.

For example, in a 5-year scientific research study (PhD 2011-2016) I measured audience engagement to movies, in terms of durability and intensity using electrodermal activity and identified that filmmakers have ‘narrative blind spots’ they are unaware of.  There were two main reasons why these occurred, first, some traditional storytelling conventions are based on purely creative intuition rather than supported by a psychological evidence-based model of how viewers engage with a story. Also, advances in digital technology has enabled filmmakers to enhance the viewing experience but can often do the opposite. For example, filmmakers can create a high frequency of very short camera shots in fast action scenes to make action scenes more exciting. While research has found that shorter camera shots capture our attention quickly through faster movement, and more motion than longer shots, the study found that when viewers watched a succession of rapid short camera shots during fast action scenes viewers became disoriented, confused and reduced engagement.

The study also revealed how different specific narrative structures, cinematography, sound (diegetic and non-diegetic), stage props, visual and audio narrative patterns either increased or decreased audience engagement. It was discovered that the right balance between revealing, concealing and delaying story information had a very big impact on engagement and how the viewer empathises with fictional characters. The key research output is a scientific model of audience engagement which when synthesised with the art of cinematic storytelling though a creative process, it is possible to design narratives that will consistently engage an audience and maximise returns. Through a collaborative process with an inter-disciplinary team, the creative process of bringing together science and storytelling does not create barriers to filmmakers’ creativity, instead it resolves the filmmakers’ narrative blind spots and expands the filmmakers’ language.

For more information about creating an inter-disciplinary approach to synthesising audience driven data with the art of cinematic storytelling contact Dr Keith Bound at [email protected]

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

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