Neurocinema: The Study of How Films Control The Brain

We all know that movies are great. A good film can make us feel a range of emotions, cry from sadness or laughter – sometimes in the same film! People often say there is nothing like sitting in a cinema, waiting for the lights to go down, but does watching films actually have an effect on our brains? The science of Neurocinema aims to find out!

What is Neurocinema?

A few examples of the experiments and effects of Neurocinema // Credit: Braincraft, 2015

Neurocinema is the study of how movies affect our brains. Different parts of the brain react to various stimuli, so one part will react to a loved one, while another to a papercut. By scanning brain activity during certain scenes or films, we can see which parts of the brain react to the film. Films that we are more engaged in show a bigger reaction, while less engaged have only small ones. Film is unique as an art form because of the amount of sensory input. Every image and sound is controlled and intended to create a specific response. Not only does the science explore what makes a good film, but also learn more about how our brains work

Alfred Hitchcock is famously referred to as “The Master of Suspense” with films like Psycho, Vertigo and Rear Window often cited as some of the greatest thrillers of all time. His films still have influence today, decades after their original release. It’s not really a surprise then that some of his works are used in many experiments. Especially the iconic shower scene. Despite films often offering various depictions of mental disorders, neurocinema is focused on how brains react to the film, rather than how the films depict things, although results from studies could lead to films finding the “scientifically ideal” way to show them.

What could it mean?

Horror films such as IT are often used in studies // Credit: Warner Brothers, 2019

At a basic level, these studies can tell us which parts of a movie are “good” ie, engaging, causing the right emotional response and “bad”. Directors can then re-edit or reshoot scenes to create the most engaging version. Linger on a shot of the love interest glancing back, or cut the boring villain origin story. Marketing executives can push these scenes in the trailers. The tension between the Avengers, or the iconic soundtrack of Star Wars.

Although this information is often gathered by focus groups, results can be unreliable. If test audiences are shown several trailers over the course of 30 minutes, it’s likely they’ll have forgotten the first one by the end. They also can often change their opinions because they want to give the “correct” answers. By scanning brain activity, they can look at responses in the moment, as well as collect thoughts after they’ve had time to think. Focus groups can be invaluable, but there is a lot of room for error or fudged results.

An MRI scan of a subject viewing the trailer for Avatar // Credit: MindSign, 20th Century Fox, 2009

James Cameron, always one to harness new technologies, actually referenced the technology during the development of Avatar, stating his belief that a scan would show that audiences enjoyed 3D more than 2D. Although he may have been wrong (it’s really hard to find any information about something he said 10 years ago), he did use the technology on one of the trailers. With a test audience viewing the trailer in a modified MRI scanner, Cameron and his team were able to pinpoint the most engaging bits of the film to use in the trailer

Another genre that has been heavily influenced by science is horror. With studies showing that some films like IT are able to tap into audiences primal fears. When people jump or scream in the audience, it’s because the brain has “forgotten” they’re watching a film, and reacting on instinct. This works especially well with films that rely on actual phobias, like clowns.

Neurocinema is an exciting and new field, with a lot of potential to enhance the way we enjoy new movies, as well as offer fresh insights into old favourites. The brain is such an interesting thing to study, and the fact that films can stimulate it so could lead to some interesting discoveries. Who knows what this could lead to?

Also Read: Research Shows How Cinematherapy Can Help Reduce Anxiety

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Did High-End TV Replace The Mid-Budget Indie Film?

In recent years, TV has come to rival films, not only in scope but also in budgets. With blockbuster TV shows like Game of Thrones and The Mandalorian costing around $15 million an episode, a whole season of these can cost more than some blockbusters, never mind a low budget film.

But what about films that fall in the middle? After all, not every director can get hundreds of millions to make their film. When studios have to decide between one small film or a whole season of television, the series seems like much better value for that money. So could this be the end of mid-budget films?

The Mid Budget Movie

Seven - Morgan Freeman & Bradd Pitt
Fincher’s Seven is a perfect example of a successful mid-budget movie // Credit: New Line Cinema, 1995

A mid-budget film can often be hard to define. As things like inflation and marketing costs can make them hard to determine. While there is no hard rule for what counts as mid-budget, it’s usually something around $5 million to $50 million. The lower range of these tends to be debut indies, films like American Psycho, 28 Days Later, The Blair Witch Project and Christopher Nolan’s Memento all had budgets of under $10 million.

At the upper end of this scale, can be a whole range of things. Many low brow comedies and rom-coms are often hugely profitable. With most of the budget being spent on the cast and a few set pieces, such as The Hangover, Bridesmaids, Zombieland and 21 Jump Street.

Other films that made in this range are often thrillers, often with a big name attached or a simple hook, a lot of mid-budget sci-fi tends to do well at the box office, with films like Seven, Looper, District 9 and Limitless being good examples. There are also occasional adaptations of books, however, these tend not to be franchises. Some Oscar contenders and winners have been produced with less than $50 million, including The Help, Straight Outta Compton, American Hustle and Bridge of Spies.

The Rise of High-End TV

The Mandalorian
The Mandalorian costs around $15 million per episode // Credit: Lucasfilm, 2020

It’s a common complaint that most of the big films that come out are franchise films. Either a sequel, prequel, spin-off, or a reboot, it seems rare that a totally original film makes an impact. Because audiences are familiar with the Avengers or Fast and Furious franchises (Understandably so, they’re great), they are a safer bet for a studio. If they have the option of investing $30 million into a one-off thriller, like Seven, and making $80 million, or investing $200 million in the next Bond and making a billion, the latter usually wins.

At the same time, shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos have proven that viewers enjoy those types of stories. Not only is a season of a tv show cheaper (Breaking Bad cost around $3 million per episode at its peak), it also builds a larger audience the longer it goes. When a show is released weekly, like Game of Thrones or The Mandalorian it becomes a talking point every week.

For creators, writers often have much more say in TV, rather than film. Matthew Weiner had total freedom on Mad Men, and that story could not have been told in the span of one film. The Streaming Wars seem to be focused on series rather than films, with Netflix investing in shows such as The Crown, Stranger Things and The Witcher, for it’s biggest numbers. This in turn has left other studios trying to catch up. Disney recently announced that two of it’s biggest franchises, The MCU and Star Wars, were both going to be focused on TV for the foreseeable future.

Are Mid Budget Movies Dead?

Knives Out
Could Knives Out have renewed interest in this type of film? // Credit: Lionsgate

While it certainly seems that a lot of things are heading towards TV, it doesn’t seem like it’s over yet. Spielberg has relaunched Amblin Entertainment, which almost exclusively focuses on these types of films, and has found success. Recent films from established, indie directors that have found success often occupy this space, such as Taika Waiti with JoJo Rabbit.

Some of the genres mentioned previously simply don’t need a huge budget to be profitable, such as comedies, and films like the upcoming The Little Things are telling stories like True Detective on the big screen. Crime films especially seem to do exceptionally well in this range, with the recent Knives Out and Murder On The Orient Express proving surprise hits. Likewise, many Oscar contenders are often made for a more modest budget, so while the future might be changing, it doesn’t look like these mid-budget successes are going anywhere just quite yet.

Also Read: Fast & Furious: The Making of a Billion Dollar Franchise

Read More: The Mandalorian – A New Hope For Star Wars

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Fast & Furious: The Story of A Multi-Billion Dollar Film Franchise

It’s hard to believe, but when Fast 9 releases next year, it will have been 20 years since we first met Dominic Toretto and Brian O’Connor in The Fast and the Furious. In that time the series has transitioned from street racing to globe-trotting spy action, while still maintaining the core of being about “Family”.

The franchise now sits as the 10th highest-franchise of all time. With 9 films released, and several others in development. While the main story is set to end with part 11, it’s unlikely “la familia” will be driving off into the sunset for good. It’s fair to say that the series has lasted longer than anyone anticipated.

“A Quarter-Mile at a Time”

Vin Diesel and Paul Walker weren’t big names in 2001 (Universal, 2001)

Inspired by an article about street racing, the original film “The Fast and The Furious” wasn’t trying to be the next billion-dollar franchise. On a modest budget of around $38 million and relative unknowns starring (Diesel’s biggest credit was Pitch Black). The film did much better than the studio expected, opening at number one and quickly earning over $200 million. A sequel was quickly greenlit.

While Paul Walker returned, Diesel decided to work Chronicles of Riddick instead. This led to Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris being cast as Roman and Tej, who would later rejoin the series in bigger roles. While 2 Fast, 2 Furious wasn’t reviewed as highly as the original, it managed to knock Finding Nemo off the number one spot at the box office, and greenlight another sequel.

The third film The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, has no actors from the previous films returning, despite a brief cameo from Vin Diesel at the end. The original script actually followed Toretto learning to drift while solving a murder but was rewritten to focus on new characters. Introducing us to Sung Kang’s Han, an instant fan-favourite, as well as Justin Lin, who will direct several other entries. The film did well at the box office, but was the least successful of the trilogy, leaving the series future uncertain…

“From Misson: Impossible to Mission: In- freaking-sanity!”

The introduction of Dwanye Johnson’s character Lucas Hobbs was part of the series’ transformation (Univeral 2011)

Vin Diesel’s cameo at the end of Tokyo Drift renewed his interest in the series and managed to reunite the main cast of the original film for the first “true” sequel. Lin directed again, and Kang reprised his role as Han, shifting the timeline to resurrect him. The car culture elements were toned down, giving the series more general appeal. It was a huge commercial success and renewed interest in the series.

The real change came with Fast Five. Featuring only one actual race, focusing on action and heists, as well as introducing Dwayne Johnson to the series. This is where the series becomes how we recognise it today. Considered by many to be the best in the series, it was a huge critical and commercial success, and perhaps the first instance of a trailer being revealed on a star’s Facebook Page. The films continued to be massive hits onwards, during press for Furious 7 Diesel announced spin-offs were being discussed, the first of these, Hobbs & Shaw was released in 2019.

“Let’s make some money”

 Hobbs & Shaw
The first spin off, Hobbs & Shaw was a huge success (Universal, 2019)

After the release of Tokyo Drift, theme park attractions based on the franchise started. While starting as just vehicle stunt shows, they have gradually expanded into full experiences and rides, with characters from the films “appearing”.

Several videogames based on the franchise have also been released, mostly mobile games but several console games. The highest-profile games are arguably the expansion for Forza Horizon 2 and the Dodge Charger in Rocket League. Several replicas of the cars used in the films have been produced by Hot Wheels and in 2020, a LEGO model of the Dom’s Dodge Charger was announced. In 2019 Fast and Furious Spy Racers, an animated series focusing on Toretto’s cousin aired on Netflix.

Against all odds, The Fast Saga has not only survived but it has gotten stronger than ever. Even the tragic death of co-lead Paul Walker hasn’t been able to stop it, with Furious 7 going on to gross $1.5 Billion (£1.1 Billion) worldwide alone and the entire film franchise grossing more than $5.8 Billion (£4.4 Billion) in cinemas worldwide. With the main series set to end with number 11, it seems like there is nothing that can stop it.

Also Read: How To Revive A Franchise After Many Years

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