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ARU Research Projects

A TRANSNATIONAL COMPARATIVE STUDY OF AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENTS WITH THE HOBBIT

The Hobbit Audience Project is a transnational mixed-method study of audience responses to Sir Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. The research explores the complex relationships between modes of reception of spectacular blockbusters and viewers’ cultural, linguistic, social and discursive affiliations. It asks a number of important questions arising from the increasingly transnational nature of blockbuster film production and reception.

Research Collaborators:

Research Contributors:

Our research questions:

  • To what extent does prefigurative discussion, debate, marketing and promotion of a spectacular blockbuster event film shape subsequent responses to it?
  • How are mainstream blockbuster fantasy films understood, engaged with, and made sense of by differently-located audiences?
  • Are there significant patterns in the nature of audience receptions based on nationality, language, and culture?
  • Is fragmentation within the global audience mainly a reflection of linguistic affiliations, cultural proximity, and the ‘cultural discount’?
  • To what extent are supra-national and seemingly homogeneous ‘taste cultures’ and related modes of response evident among viewers of these films globally?
  • In what ways do differences within national audiences contribute to interpretive divergence? Are there significant patterns in the nature of local and/or global receptions based on gender, age, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, political views, religious beliefs, existing fan affiliations, and level of education?
  • Which particular aspects of social positioning/ combination of factors are most relevant in the adoption of different modes of audience engagement with major international film productions like The Hobbit?
  • To what extent does transnational film production create spaces for glocalised interpretations, forms of engagement and response among audiences, and how are these expressed in terms of reception modalities?
  • How does New Zealand’s involvement in the production of these two film trilogies inform perceptions of New Zealand as a sovereign nation within the global marketplace?

In the process of answering these and other questions, the research promises to shed further light on the nature and limits of media power and audience ’activity’, the meaning of interpretive ’resistance’, the bases for diverse audience responses to screen media, and the relationship between modes of audience engagement and aspects of cultural and social location.

Our innovative methodology:

This research seeks to illuminate the underlying processes involved in the transcultural reception of spectacular blockbuster films, whilst radically extending Q methodology as an effective online research tool. While Q methodology is relatively new to most audience researchers, it offers an effective and robust means of measuring people’s subjective and multi-dimensional responses in a holistic manner that preserves the integrity of each individual response (Davis and Michelle, 2011; Michelle, Davis and Vladica, 2012). These individual responses can then be compared to identify major clusters of opinion within a larger sample.

The study uses a mixed-method research design, combining multi-language Q surveys within a standard questionnaire to garner insight into aspects of viewers’ responses and social positionings. By combining Q methodology with a conventional survey capturing socioeconomic data from large numbers of individuals, we are able to glean powerful new insights into the relationship between different responses to film and relevant aspects of viewers’ subjectivities. Our research is quite possibly the largest and most complex online Q study of audiences ever conducted, with over 5,000 responses to date. Therefore, aside from providing a means to explore some important issues relating to the global reception of transnational blockbuster film productions, the research should offer insight into some important methodological questions as audience researchers seek approaches that go beyond the traditional qualitative/ quantitative ’divide’. In particular, our study aims to explore two key questions relating to the potential uses of Q methodology for comparative audience research:

  1. Can Q methodology produce reliable, accurate data on audience receptions of screen media that can be reasonably compared across countries, languages, and cultures? If so, how? What is best practice? What works, and what doesn’t?
  2. How might Q methodology be combined with standard variable-based surveys to estimate the distribution of different responses to the same screen media texts within wider populations (national, regional, global)?

An ongoing project:

In a preliminary phase of the research, we surveyed potential viewers immediately before the release of the first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (December 2012), and gained very interesting insights into the perspectives of 1,000 respondents located in 59 different countries. A summary of key findings can be found here (Summary 1: Prefigurative expectations), and a fuller discussion is presented in these published journal articles (Framing audience prefigurations of The Hobbit, An unexpected controversy in Middle-earth).

In February 2013 we launched the main English language audience reception survey of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Over the following few months, we worked with our research collaborators in Denmark, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Spain to develop surveys in other languages, making this the first multilingual, cross-national online Q methodology study of film audiences. In this phase, we aimed to identify whether there were any significant patterns in the responses of different audience members based on their pre-existing fandoms as well as other factors such as nationality, gender, age, education, occupation, and political and religious affiliations. Over 3,000 respondents from around the world participated in this multilingual survey. Drawing on this data, we have been able to explore many of the core research questions outlined above and are currently working on a series of journal articles presenting our key findings. Summaries relating to forthcoming publications can be found here: (Summary 3: Pleasure, disaffection, ‘conversion’ or rejection?, Summary 4: The Hobbit hyper-reality paradox).

In February 2014 we launched a follow-up survey of audience responses to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and received over 1,000 responses. We are currently analysing this data, some of which has already informed our forthcoming analysis of polarised audience reactions to the trilogy’s pioneering use of HFR 3D (see Summary 4: The Hobbit hyper-reality paradox).

Our final survey explores audience reactions to the third and final film in The Hobbit trilogy: The Battle of The Five Armies.

Once the project is complete, we hope to have compiled a unique data set tracing the evolution of audience responses to a spectacular blockbuster event film trilogy over time.

Findings to Date:

Summaries: Published articles

Related Publications from the ARU: