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Movie Trailers

Predict box office hits

Main question

Does brain activity predict the next box office hit?

When you say ‘neuromarketing research’, most people imagine brain scans aimed at predicting sales from advertising. But besides advertising, there’s another industry that similarly uses short videos to entice people to act: movies.

Movie trailers provide a particularly fruitful research avenue. While sales data of brands often isn’t readily available, movie ticket sales are just one click to IMDB away. This sparked us to peek into people’s brain activity while they watching movie trailers.

"There's a negative correlation between revenue and self report. The more often people say they'd want to watch the movie, the lower the revenue."

Toolkit Movie Trailer Research


Eye Tracking
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What a good trailer looks like in the brain

64 participants visited the Unravel Research living room lab to sit back, relax and enjoy some movie trailers – all the while their eye gaze and brain activity was being recorded every millisecond. Our trailer set spanned across many different genres and included both box office hits and flops.

Our collection of trailers (16 in total), consisted of sneak peeks from movies of all genres, from hits to flops. Each participant viewed 6 randomly assigned trailers

Afterwards, we analyzed the predictive power of brain activity on movie sales through a regression analysis. Interestingly, successful trailers spark a very specific pattern of brain activity.

First of all, we found a strong and significant correlation (r = .55) between opening weekend ticket sales and pre-frontal asymmetry, which is a common brain measure of desire. Secondly, we found a strong negative correlation (r = - .63) with cognitive workload. This means that the harder the trailer is to process, the less likely people are to buy a ticket.

Simply put, good movie trailers evoke desire, but don’t make people think too much.

What is the predictive value of self reports?

After viewing the trailer, each participant was asked if they would want to visit the movie. As psychologist, we know that people aren't reliable in predicting their future behavior, but this outcome even suprised us!

We saw a negative correlation (R=-.20) between their answer and revenue of the movie. In other words, the more often people said they'd want to visit the movie, the smaller the chance of them actually buying a ticket is. 

People don't do as they say, and don't say as they do. Which is why we want to look at their brains for truthful answers

Correlatie Survey (-.49) en EEG (.57) met weekendomzet film

Predict box office sales

So… what’s in it for the film industry?

First and foremost, these new insights validate it’s possible to predict box office sales based on neuro trailer research. After controlling for film budget as a variable, brain activity alone is capable of providing a surprisingly precise estimate of opening weekend sales.

This research has uncovered that good trailers evoke desire and are easy to process. EEG brain scans allow us to pinpoint exactly how well future trailers measure on these metrics.

How to make better trailers

In addition to predicting a movie’s box office success, neuro metrics also paint a clear picture of which scenes within the trailer actually work, and which ones don’t. This makes EEG research an interesting tool for production companies that wish to test and optimize their trailers before actually showing them to the public.

For instance, take a look at this video excerpt from the climactic final seconds of the trailer of ‘The Accountant’. De line chart shows the amount of left-frontal alpha asymmetry, a measure of positive approach motivation predictive of sales. Note the clear drop in positive emotion during the “Who are you?” segment, an indicator this particularly shot could better be discarded for something else.

On the positive side, when the rousing music swells into a climax, we see the brain experiences the same pleasant emotion. The trailer closes in silence, while the brain cheers.

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