How movie-makers read your mind


When a film like Disney’s The Lone Ranger reportedly lost $200 million at the box office last year, investors are understandably keen to increase their odds of backing a commercial success – which is where new technology can help.

Some are pinning their hopes on emotion-sensing software, such as Affectiva, a company with roots in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

These firms use computer programs to analyse video feeds of a focus groups’ faces to judge their reactions: every subtle facial flicker can reveal whether they are amused, afraid, engaged or bored. So the next time a Hollywood studio previews a movie at a test screening, cameras in the auditorium might be viewing the audience just as intently as the moviegoers are watching the screen.

With a moment-by-moment breakdown of their emotional state, Hollywood studies should get a much better sense of the parts of a new film that moved an audience – and the parts that made them want to move towards the exit.

There’s an inevitable concern that this sort of software might be misused – particularly given that its observational powers are so strong that it can reportedly read our heart rate and, perhaps, help diagnose health problems. But Affectiva’s founders, including MIT’s Rosalind Picard, stress they will only offer their technology in “opt-in” scenarios where people have consented to be watched – although Picard has reportedly had to decline working with companies that wanted to covertly monitor customers without their permission.

Subscribers to services like Netflix are a data goldmine. Whenever they stream a TV show or movie, whenever they pause the playback, whenever they skip or replay a scene – Netflix knows. All of that information helps the company create a very detailed profile of each of its 44 million customers.

Netflix also used this personalised data to shape how it marketed the show. Netflix users who stream movies featuring Kevin Spacey were presented with a trailer featuring the actor – star of the drama. Users with a history of streaming shows with strong female leads saw a trailer emphasising the drama’s female characters. And users who had streamed David Fincher’s films saw a trailer highlighting the director’s involvement in the new show.

All this suggests viewer data might play an important role in deciding which new TV shows and movies get made in future.

Technology may also offer benefits for film-makers in a different way: it means some movies happen that might otherwise not be funded by traditional means. The movies Veronica Mars and Wish I Was Here, for example, were both funded by Kickstarter campaigns, where fans pledged money to get the films made.



3 thoughts on “How movie-makers read your mind

  1. Great article. That’s crazy about the test screenings and their monitoring systems… Sounds like motion capture technology for Gollum etc! And Netflix info is cool too… So many online media distributors have advantages in terms of information they can use or sell. It reminds me of how Facebook monitor their users. I have a post about Netflix entering film production on my site, but the film their making isn’t very obvious so it doesn’t seem to be using their research!


    1. Thanks for the comment! Yes, they recently secured a deal with Adam Sandler for a 4-film deal, since they see a huge viewer database for Adam Sandler movies. They are also partnering up with Leonardo DiCaprio for a documentary called “Virunga”.


      1. Adam Sandler, not a fan of his recent movies but it’s interesting their covering two opposite audiences with that and the Crouching Tiger sequel. The Leo documentary … Way out of left field!!


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