Sundance: Filmmakers and Neuroscientists Talk Predictive Data and Marketing at THR, Viacom Panel

Panelists included directors Crystal Moselle, who is premiering her latest film, 'Skate Kitchen,' at the fest, and Matt Tyrnauer, who debuted his doc about the famed Studio 54 nightclub.

At The Hollywood Reporter’s Sundance lounge, the panel "Inside the Mind of Audiences: New Approaches to Movie Marketing," presented in partnership with Viacom, saw a lively discussion that spanned marketing tactics in the digital age and the prediction of audience tastes.

Moderated by THR deputy editorial director Alison Brower, the panel included Viacom senior vp data strategy Kodi Foster and neuroscience professor at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management Moran Cerf.

Rounding out the panel were directors Crystal Moselle, who is premiering her latest film, Skate Kitchen, at the fest, and Matt Tyrnauer, who is at the fest with his doc about the famed Studio 54 nightclub. Ashley Judd was among those in the audience.

“When my team and I are asked to start looking at what is going on around trailer strategy, we see that there are a ton of variables. Why are some teasers coming out a year before the film and others coming out around a few months before?” said Foster, who added that Hollywood should look to Wall Street and retail to understand how data can be applied to audience strategy.

He explained: “There are tons of predictive stuff done in retail. Target can predict a woman who will be pregnant in nine months based on their purchasing behavior. It’s real. You can Google it. And the movie industry is just starting to use this technology.”

Tyrnauer was wary of predictive technologies as a means to lure audiences into theaters.

“Everyone is trying to second-guess what audiences want, rather than letting people just make their movies,” said the director. “The idea of tricking people into seeing movies is scary to me.”

Moselle spoke about a grassroots marketing campaign started before Skate Kitchen was even completely edited.

“I think we were running a guerrilla social media campaign since the film was made, without realizing it,” she said, explaining that many of the young actors in her film had built-in social media followings that they reached during the filming process — a type of inadvertent advertising. “I think my film will speak to young people, which is a hard market to hit right now.”

“Every time science has come into it, there has been a pushback. But the metric that we use to understand what people like is what their brains look like when they watch the movie,” said Cerf, making the point that his research is rooted in human emotion and reaction to the filmmaker’s work.

Foster made the overall point that scientific research, as well as data aggregation and synthesis, can be used practically in Hollywood.

“Anything 45 seconds and under is [likely] a waste of your time and a waste of your budget,” concluded Foster. “When you start looking at the studios putting out trailers that are above 45 seconds compared to those who are putting out trailers that are below 45 seconds, while not there yet, the box-office returns are getting close to confirming causation.”