Movie investors could have a lot more certainty with this new technology. Movie investors could have a lot more certainty with this new technology. Movie investors could have a lot more certainty with this new technology, which looks almost as cool as this tin foil hat. (Photo: Peshkova / Shutterstock)

How brain scans are predicting box office success

Scientists found a way to predict box office sales by seeing which moments our brains pay attention to.

Movie makers have been trying to predict box office success for a long time – that's pretty much the whole business. Right now, they use focus groups, which are often inaccurate. But two scientists from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management have figured out how to cut to the chase: they directly scanned viewers' brains.

"We can use this method to measure the effectiveness of any advertisement, speech, lecture, song – anything you can think of where memory and engagement matter," explained Moran Cerf, the Israeli neuroscience professor and Tel Aviv University alum who led the study. "And we can do it more accurately than traditional methods."

The experimenters had participants watch movie trailers, and the scientists measured their brain activity. They found that when the participants' brains looked the same, they were paying close attention. By keeping track of these moments, the scientists figured out which trailers were the most engaging.

scientists use headset to test movie success Cerf and Barnett test out their machine. (Courtesy Northwestern)

"It turns out, when our brains are truly engaged with the content we are watching, they essentially look the same as one another," explained Sam Barnett, an American neuroscience researcher who worked on the study. (He tested out the brain scanning machines at the AMC theater in Northbrook, Illinois, which also happens to be the theater I worked at in high school. Weird.)

It sounds pretty sci-fi movie like, but apparently this technique helped predict movie success with 20 percent more accuracy than focus groups. For instance, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" got the best brain scan scores and also had the best box office sales. In particular, hitting on one of those engaged moments in the first 16 seconds of the trailer was key to box office success. The scientists think this kind of brain scanning could be used for a bunch of things, from sports games to political results.

"We can use this method to measure the effectiveness of any advertisement, speech, lecture, song – anything you can think of where memory and engagement matter," said the Israeli-born Cerf, who in addition to teaching a class in screenwriting is also working on a happiness pill.

So there you go: companies can now figure out what you'll watch by scanning your brain. Unless they, you know, change the trailers.

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How brain scans are predicting box office success
Scientists at Northwestern found a way to predict box office movie sales by using brain scans.