You're gonna need a bigger boat. Brody's deadpan observation in Jaws (1975) is one of cinema's most iconic lines, and one that you may have overlooked if it wasn't for a last-minute tweak that director Steven Spielberg made to the film. At a test screening, Spielberg noticed that the audience was still recovering from the scene before – the one in which the Great White rears its head out of the water – and the line got drowned out by their screams. He extended the scene by a few seconds, giving the audience time to gather their wits and therefore pay attention to the quip.
Test screenings are the litmus test of any film. They've been around since the 1920s. Earliest reports say actor Harold Lloyd observed what portions of his films got the most laughs and then edited the final cut accordingly. In 2004, filmmaker Edgar Wright added 15 seconds to Shaun of the Dead after initial reports called the ending "abrupt". In an interview with Film Companion earlier this year, director Aneesh Chaganty said he asked his audience 200 questions after each test screening to help him make the "best version" of his debut feature, Searching.
For producers who pay anywhere between Rs 3 lakh to Rs 4 lakh per test, the algorithm's word is final
Last week, I was invited to a test screening of a very different kind. The venue – my couch. No big screen, just my laptop. Clicking on an email link would give me access to an unreleased Hindi movie, to be watched anytime in the next 24 hours. The catch? While I watched the film, artificial intelligence would watch me through my webcam, picking up on my micro-expressions to decipher whether I was enjoying it or not. In the end, the allure of watching an unreleased film won over the discomfiting feeling of being spied on.
The green light of my webcam turned on 12 minutes in, making me hyper-aware of being watched. I may have sat up straighter and looked more attentive than I usually do. When it ended two hours later, I was redirected to a page with 9 generic multiple-choice questions. The unblinking webcam stayed on throughout. A message informed me that a report would be compiled and sent to the studio 48 hours later. It felt like something out of a Black Mirror episode.
What is seemingly a futuristic experience, I later learnt, is actually a booming business. Since 2016, studios such as Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures and 21st Century Fox have been testing unreleased movies online with Indee Scoop – a 12-member Bangalore-based firm that employs facial emotion coding technology to assess and tinker with high-profile and low-budget films. Star Plus, Hotstar, Ramanaidu Studios, Saregama Films and ROMP Pictures joined the group last year, when the platform went global.
What's in it for audiences? The chance to be the first to watch exciting new projects (though bragging rights may be limited by the non-disclosure agreement you're made to sign beforehand) and a renumeration fee that ranges between Rs 100 and Rs 200. Not bad for a few hours' 'work'.
For producers who pay anywhere between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 4 lakh per test, the algorithm's word is final. Developed by a six-member team, it took three years for Indee Scoop to build and can understand 33 types of micro-expressions. It's akin to someone sitting across from you at a coffee shop and interpreting your reactions in real-time, only it has eyes on 400 to 1,200 people simultaneously, depending on how many are selected to watch a screener.
"Nobody really wants to fill out questionnaires and join a focus group. They don't want to sit and answer questions. With FaceTrack, everything happens while you're watching the film. It knows exactly how you're feeling in that second itself. It notices your confusion or laughter, if something caught you off guard and then if you're smiling the next moment," says 36-year-old Sharan Reddy, the founder of Indee Scoop.
The platform has tested around 500 movies, including I, Tonya, Silence and Hacksaw Ridge, with 1.25 lakh members, 60% of whom are in India and about 40% in North America.
But how much information can one person's face possibly reveal? And will a big studio rework the edit of a film based on a frown or smile? Reddy says yes. He remembers a report that helped one Indian studio make its movie's protagonist more likeable. The film, about a young girl's life changing after a traumatic incident, featured a scene in which she begins drinking, which completely alienated audiences. "FaceTrack picked up a lot of disgust emotions. In India, if you have a child drinking, there's a segment of the audience who doesn't like that at all. We told the studio to keep the scenes in which she's not doing well in school, she's back-answering people, but to remove the drinking scene," says Reddy. The tweaked version of the film was shown to new sets of people and this time around, the audience warmed up to the girl much faster.
It's not a 'one size fits all' approach. The ingredients of a successful film differ depending on the genre. For comedies, the element of surprise before a joke is made is crucial. A character delivering a good line without the element of surprise will still elicit laughter, but for a shorter duration. "Then their facial expression will go back to being neutral," says Reddy. It's the opposite for a horror movie, where, to be effective, anxiety must be built up steadily and reach a peak before there is any kind of outlet. "There was this scary film which had these disgusting things quite early on – projectile vomiting and bodies being thrown everywhere. The audience was not yet ready for that level of gruesomeness. While it was still testing well on the fear scale, the audience was thrown off quite a bit. So we asked them to reconsider and tone it down a bit," he says.
Using facial mapping to test a movie is slowly gaining ground, but movies with major superstars are still tested in the traditional way in theatres
Indee Scoop marries two subjects Reddy knows a lot about – movies and engineering. His grandfather ran Chennai's oldest cinema hall, Liberty Theatre, in Kodambakkam. As a student at Sri Venkateshwara College of Engineering, he and a classmate developed a video streaming application as part of their undergraduate project, which Sify later acquired for its khel.com website. He later joined Deloitte as a consultant for Disney and that got him interested in filmmaking metrics.
Using facial mapping to test a movie is slowly gaining ground, but movies with major superstars are still tested in the traditional way in theatres. "If it has big stars attached to it, if it's a Shah Rukh starrer, if it's an Aamir starrer, there's no way we're putting an unreleased version of that online," says Reddy. About once every two months, select members are invited to a single-screen theatre, where cameras facing the audience record their facial expressions.
Like the screams that defined how Jaws came to be edited, a single twitch of the eyebrow or a grin can go a long way in determining how studios cut their next film. Go on, sign up at https://indee.tv/scoop. Your face could help shape the next big blockbuster.