Get your hankies out... the weepies are coming
Hollywood studios have designs on young adults' tear ducts and they're using science to help them. By Harry Wallop
A three-hanky movie" is an old Hollywood phrase to describe a sure-fire tearjerker. If, during test screenings, the audiences got through three handkerchiefs each, then the film was almost certain to go on to produce a flood of tears - and profits - when it was released in cinemas.
The testing of films may have become more scientific, but the formula remains the same: make the audience cry and see box-office takings swell.
Using a series of tests developed at Stanford and Princeton universities, some have tapped into the "science of the weepie" - and claim to know exactly what it is that makes people's eyes well up, and brains light up, during certain scenes.
Over the next few months, one weepie will be released every week. A quick glance at the trailers for forthcoming releases suggests cinema aisles will be littered with handkerchiefs.
In the coming weeks, there is The Best of Me, about teenage sweethearts reuniting; Serena, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, charting the latter's descent into madness; and You're Not You, with Hilary Swank playing a woman determined to live life to the full despite suffering the ravages of motor neurone disease. The weepie is back with a vengeance.
Film experts point out that genres fall in and out of fashion on a cyclical basis; every generation goes through a glut of weepies - the Eighties were marked by Bette Midler warbling throughout Beaches, and the Seventies sobbed to Ali MacGraw dying in Love Story.
What marks out the current weepies is that they are aimed at what the publishing industry calls "young adults". The most notable one has been The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, a book narrated by a 16-year-old cancer patient, who falls in love with a 17-year-old amputee. Both are dying. The unremittingly bleak plot proved box-office gold when it was released this summer. It went to number one and made $266 million on its $12 million budget.
There are a number of possible reasons why these tissue-fests are proving so popular. The film critic Jason Solomons says: "I do think it's something to do with the zeitgeist - teenagers and young people feel uncertain about the world, and their faith in politics and religion has taken a beating over the last five years. Possibly, dystopia and death chime with their hormonal minds."
There is also the fact that these books have been read in their millions, providing a ready-made audience.
But even a bestselling novel is no guarantee that the project will translate into box-office gold. So how can Hollywood increase its chances? Princeton University psychologist Uri Hasson conducted a 2008 study that used magnetic resonance imaging to study brain activity while watching a weepie film.
Some key moments are pretty much guaranteed to make audiences well up: life-reflecting plotlines, such as a final dance between a father and his daughter at her wedding; a heroic death; or father-and-son scenes.
To find out more, I was rigged up with a galvanic skin response system by Sensum, a company that monitors audience reactions as scientifically as possible. Two electrical reactors were strapped to my fingers, which measured tiny changes in skin sweat. "It's been used in psychological research studies to measure arousal and engagement levels," says Sensum's Adam Booth.
I then sat down to watch The Notebook, a 2004 film that stars Ryan Gosling as Noah and Rachel McAdams as Allie. The late James Garner and Gena Rowlands play an older couple.
Within a few minutes of the film finishing, Booth was able to show me a graph of my reactions, second by second. Embarrassingly, I sobbed like a baby at the end. Booth was able to pinpoint the exact moments when there were spikes in my emotional engagement.
The key finding was that music was instrumental in prodding my tear ducts. Another trigger was when the characters showed a hidden side. There is a key moment when Allie's ice-blooded mother reveals her secret broken heart, and the graph of my emotions clearly spikes. Finally, and unsurprisingly, the graph goes off the scale when the old couple die, hand in hand, finally at peace.
In a bid to harness this technology, some film studios have started experimenting with testing audiences in the same way.
But Harry Ponsonby, who helps run First Movies, one of the biggest testing companies used by studios, is unconvinced. "In my view, a director, sitting in a test audience and hearing the laughs, the shuffles, the atmosphere, is more effective than any technology. You can sense when engagement drops and when they are gripped. If you are strapped up to a gizmo, you are not getting a natural reaction to a movie."
And no university or scientific study is needed to tell me that when a character I love dies, I will cry.