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Researching movie audiences
- the armchair method

David Gauntlett

This article was written in September 1999, and appears in Framework, vol 41, issue 1. Reproduced here by kind permission of Framework.

The article is copyright © David Gauntlett, 1999. Not to be republished without permission. May be used for educational purposes, provided that the author and source are acknowledged.


For a conference this summer, I had been asked to talk about The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998) to round out a panel of people talking about films about television. The Truman Show stars Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, a man who has spent his life unknowingly trapped in a prefabricated world which is televised, 24 hours a day, for the entertainment of the masses in the real world outside.

As with all film studies, one could either say the really obvious things about this film, which all members of the audience should have noticed ("it's an extension of the fly-on-the-wall TV shows popular today... the producers exploit Truman in the name of entertainment"), or invent some pseudo-theoretical interpretation which almost no-one else will have considered ("Truman's journey parallels that of the beleaguered hero in 16th century Italian poetry, and represents a meta-Jungian quest for self-determination in a pre-millennial, post-Diana society"). Since the first is banal and the second is pointless, I quickly realised that a Plan B was needed. How could I tell a conference audience what The Truman Show 'said' about the world of contemporary television, without it being something they knew already, or something they didn't know only because I'd just made it up?

Happily, I remembered the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), where everyday (ahem) moviegoers, and video-renters, review and rate movies. The site also contains a wealth of factual information about cast, crew, marketing, quotes, soundtrack details, and so on, for most English-language films. (It's best on recent films, and less good, unsurprisingly, on older films except for known 'classics').

For The Truman Show the site had 236 reviews written by IMDb users. (That was in July 1999; there will be more, inevitably, by the time you read this). In sociological terms it seems a poor sample, being a self-selected bunch of internet users who have the time and inclination to share their views with other IMDb visitors. However, the people who posted reviews were not, say, visitors to a Jim Carrey fan site, although some may be Jim Carrey fans. (Of course, views posted at a fan site would be great for a study of fan culture, but not good for sampling the views of 'the general audience'). Most of the reviewers appeared to be people who regularly watched movies, and liked to stick their thoughts up at this website.

The 236 reviews came to about 45,000 words, which I printed out, read, and annotated. It's not a perfect cross-section of the audience for the film, but it's infinitely better than the singular, subjective, usually obscure 'reading' of a film by a film studies 'expert'. In fact the sample is as good as most used in qualitative research (funnily enough), and the data they presented is what they had chosen to write, unprompted, about the movie.

So what did they say? It has to be noted that most respondents loved The Truman Show. A small number had heard the hype and then found it disappointing. Some people just thought it wasn't very good, and, of those, a lot felt that it didn't really explore the possibilities presented by its premise, and wasn't as clever as it thought it was. The complexities of their responses could only really be done justice in a longer article than this one, but I'll mention a few of the comments here. Some rejected the idea that the movie was 'deep': "It's as sinister as a choc chip cookie," said one. But others felt that this "delicately beautiful" film "should be applauded for bravery" for sending up the Hollywood media industries. Some liked the "sly digs at product placement", and seemed to feel pleased that they had detected the "important moral message" of this "thinking person's movie". But others resented this simple satire on an obvious target. One wrote: "Can it be possible that the message of this movie is that we watch too much TV? That many of us have trouble distinguishing entertainment from reality? That everything in life is an illusion? If it isn't one of these hoary platitudes, what is it?". Someone else said: "This film is a smug, simplistic, self-congratulatory exercise in Hollywood telling us what's wrong with Hollywood - and us. Go write your own screenplay on this theme. Anyone could do it better."

Other people had different agendas altogether. "There were no particular funny scenes," complained one, "Dumb and Dumber is so much more entertaining".

The Truman Show wasn't necessarily the ideal subject for this kind of armchair research, though, since (as some people complained) it was a pretty straightforward film that some people would like and some would not. I was actually more interested to see what IMDb respondents made of Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven's expensive 1997 effects bonanza based on Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 novel. Almost all of the professional movie reviewers had read the film as a more or less enjoyable satire upon Heinlein's fascist utopia. But since Starship Troopers looks, in large part, like a typical sci-fi action movie, with only a sprinkling of overt satire, plus (arguably) some other levels of more subtle social comment, I was interested to see how it had played with the 'ordinary viewer'. (The professional critics' reason for liking it - because it subtly made fun of the book which it was based on - seemed, in particular, like a potentially unusual response).

First we should note that a number of respondents found the movie to be awful. One remarked, "I have seen many bad films over the years. This is by far the worst film I have ever tried to sit through. In fact, to call this movie bad would be an insult to bad movies". Another wrote: "Like a message written in blood by a man taking his dying breath, I scrawl on the hallowed walls of the internet these words: Don't ever see this movie if you value your intelligence". These were responses to what was seen as wooden acting, duff script and a stupid plot.

Others took the Nazi overtones at face value, and rejected the film for that reason: "It is very difficult to express how greatly I loathe this film [which] should be re-named 'Fascists in Space'". Several other respondents who admired Heinlein's "excellent, serious" novel felt that Verhoeven had failed to take the book seriously (!) and had produced a moronic Hollywood version.

Most interestingly, a larger number of other people loved it for this very reason. "If you think this film is shallow, you're watching it in a shallow way," cautions one. "It works on at least two levels at one and the same time; it's both an extravagantly gory, nasty action horror sci-fi flick, and a critique on modern American gung-ho attitudes to the rest of the world". Another person adds, "The proximity of this film to the ra-ra homecoming of American troops from the Gulf War should also not be ignored". Someone else says, "You will never see a better movie at explaining what it was like for World War II era Germans".

Whilst those who disliked the movie would say that it lost what little political point it had because the acting and direction was so hammy, those who enjoyed it argued that the cheesy style was self-conscious and deliberate: "Someone said that to make a good parody you either get very good actors, and tell them it's a parody, or save some money, get budget actors, and don't tell them anything. You can tell the director here has used the money he saved on actors for special effects. Very canny".

In this interpretation, Denise Richards smiles throughout the movie, and the other characters show so few emotions, not because the director has failed to spot that they are useless actors, but because this is part of his cunning plan. Another person, for example, said that there was "so much to enjoy" in the "acting and directing choices", such as the lack of grief shown by the leads - even when their families and friends have been brutally slaughtered - and their eagerness to flirt with each other at funerals.

Personally, it had not occurred to me that competent-but-weak acting might be part of a director's strategy, or that audiences would appreciate such an approach. But I'm very much in favour of researchers being taken by surprise by their 'subjects'.

These 'ordinary viewers' had found much pleasure in the film, and for many this was closely connected to a feeling that the film had serious intentions. "By choosing an enemy that's unknown and traditionally considered dangerous, the film tricks us into accepting and even applauding the meaningless and sadistic scenes of violence, where essentially harmless aliens are being tortured and viciously murdered". Another person noted, "I suspect Verhoeven is challenging us to ask ourselves the question: would we have enjoyed the holocaust too - suitably presented, of course?"

Unsurprisingly, some people enjoyed the film on a simpler level: "Some people like to consider the statements about society and war that the director is making. If you want to get all academic about this flick, fine, but I prefer to just enjoy all the guns, nukes, and flying body parts".

Nevertheless, the range of responses - even along the simple love/hate divide - was extraordinary, and rather uplifting. If anyone ever tries to tell you that media audiences generally have similar responses to texts, send them to the Internet Movie Database for some corrective instruction.

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