Real-time Audience Feedback

(I co-wrote this blog with Jessica Richman)

Remember the choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) books? Those old childhood standbys are being recycled in the form of audience participation in movies, theatres, and online. Does she or doesn’t she? You get to decide…

In movies, CYOA has taken several forms. In 2006, Lean Forward Media, a company started by two Harvard Business School grads, created The Abominable Snowman, a CYOA-based DVD designed for children. In 2008, SilkTricky created the online movie Survive the Outbreak, a zombie flick that lets you CYOA. (A heist movie – Bank Run – is in the works.) Survive the Outbreak has a total of 21 scenes, with 10 total decision points: six options lead to death, and two lead to survival. (h/ More recently, creators have linked YouTube videos based on user clicks, a kind of DIY CYOA (examples). And just a couple of weeks ago? The web series Spade.

Some obstacles to uptake of this new format are familiar: audience familiarity with the medium, new ways of thinking by designers and filmmakers, technical issues with managing clicks. Moreover, these experiments raise some interesting artistic questions: what is the ideal ratio of decision points to scenes? Where should those decision points be placed? Does it differ for adults vs. children? One terrific feature of new media is that its easy to gather data to learn more about what works best – but it also means that there is still a lot of experimentation is left to do.

From a business perspective, the question, as always, is monetization. SilkTricky solves this problem by simultaneously formatting the online movies as iPhone games (which I couldn’t find in the online store for some reason); Lean Forward Media is selling children’s DVDs to parents (but they haven’t produced a movie since 2006, so I’m not sure how well that’s going). An interview with Lynn Lund of SilkTricky noted that they spent $35k on their movie, not including pre- or post-production, which they did themselves. These movies are not cheap.

But audiences really seem to like them. Web reviews of Survive the Outbreak were quite positive, with many lamenting only that the movie wasn’t longer (and some that the acting was bad – but that’s not exactly new for a zombie flick). That’s another possible problem with these new technique – they must stand on their own as movies and cannot rely on exclusively on a gimmick. So a filmmaker has to make 21 scenes to get to 8 endings, instead of (if we assume a similar ratio) three scenes to get to one. Making more scenes is more expensive, and demand will have to justify that cost.

What hasn’t been done on a wide scale are CYOA movies in movie theatres. CYOA has been used in live theatre productions (for example, the 2007 run of Intimate Exchanges, reviewed in the NYT) and in screenings at SXSW (The Weathered Underground, 2010). The question, though, is whether this technique could be used to bring people back to the theatres from their Netflix and their online gaming. And no one has yet put up the money to resolve that question. If audiences like it (as they seem to so far, at least on their own computer screens), this could lead to greater participation and engagement and perhaps a boost to the theatre-going experience.

There’s a reason why we all remember the CYOA books – they’re lots of fun. The next few years will undoubtedly see more attempts to transfer that sense of power and enjoyment to the big screen.

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