Prefigurative engagements within The Hobbit’s global audience

TitlePrefigurative engagements within The Hobbit’s global audience
Publication TypeConference Paper
Author(s)Davis, C. H., C. Michelle, A. Hardy, and C. Hight
Affiliation (1st Author)Ryerson University, Canada
Section or WGAudience Section
DateThurs 27 June
Slot CodeAUDT4a
Slot Code (Keyword)AUDT4a
Time of Session16:00-17:30
Session TitleGlobal Audiences for Cinema
Submission ID5141

Audiences encounter cultural texts in prior possession of a diverse set of discursive resources.  In the case of mainstream ‘blockbuster’ films, audiences usually develop expectations, motivations, knowledges and opinions well in advance of viewing.  In part, these expectations and understandings may be framed by official marketing and promotion efforts seeking to generate a wide audience and ensure a positive or ‘preferred’ reception (Grainge, 2008).  But they also reflect the influence of broader discussion, speculation and debate occurring within mainstream news media, via social media, and among friends, family, fans, and colleagues, much of which falls outside the control of film producers and publicists.  Here, expressions of enthusiastic anticipation as well as concern, ambivalence, and outright opposition are often freely expressed.  While this implies that audiencing for blockbuster movies often begins well before a film’s release, there exists surprisingly little research on the prefigurative expectations, hopes, and fears of audiences (although see Biltereyst, Mathijus and Meers, 2008; Luthar, 2008; Barker and Mathijs, 2008).  Yet prefiguration clearly constitutes a potentially fruitful source of insight into the nature and varieties of audience engagement and response.In this paper, we discuss varieties of prefigurative understanding, expectation, and motivation among the international audience for Peter Jackson’s feature film, The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey (2012).  We draw on results from the first phase of a much larger cross-national comparative study of film reception exploring the potential applications of Q methodology for audience research.  Our study of prefiguration combined Q methodology with an extended online survey, and generated rich qualitative and quantitative data reflecting the perspectives of a diverse group of 1,000 individuals located in 59 different countries.  Q methodology is a qualitative-quantitative methodological hybrid which offers greater structure and replicability than focus groups, interviews or ethnographic observations, whilst providing rich insight into audience subjectivities by uncovering similarities and differences in viewpoints, attitudes, beliefs, and experiences (Davis & Michelle, 2011; Brown, 1994; Watts & Stenner, 2005; Schroder et al., 2003).  In our research, respondents were invited to chart their own subjective viewpoints by situating themselves within the larger field of discussion and debate about The Hobbit in the weeks prior to its international release in December, 2012.  Analysis identifies several distinct groups within this sample of the film’s global audience, including ‘die-hard Lord of the Rings fans’ eagerly anticipating another instalment from a celebrated director, ‘Tolkien purists’ concerned about the fidelity of the screen adaptation, ‘celebrity worshippers’ eagerly anticipating their favourite star’s performance, and ‘worried investors’ concerned the film’s failure might threaten local economic benefits.  Our findings also reveal the range of meanings ascribed to The Hobbit by differently-located audience members, and the film’s relative importance in their lives – or lack thereof.  Finally, our study reveals some of the extra-textual factors that appear to have informed prefigurative dispositions toward this much-anticipated Hollywood blockbuster.

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