Spectatorship and Audiences

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Spectatorship and Audiences


The film audience remains a central area of interest for both film studies and film industry professionals alike. Understanding how and why films connect with certain film viewers and not others can reveal a great deal about how film functions both as an art form and as entertainment. However, academic film studies and the film industry have very different motivations underlying their interest in the film viewer and therefore engage in different types of inquiry into the ways in which that viewer participates in the process of film going.

A straightforward way to distinguish between these two models is to think about film studies as interested in how film language constructs a film spectator, and the film industry as focused on why a film appeals to audiences. In other words, academic film studies is concerned with how film produces a larger system of meaning in which the hypothetical film viewer—referred to as the spectator—is enveloped. On the other hand, because the film industry is a moneymaking enterprise, the more it learns about individual film viewers, their tastes, likes, and dislikes, the better chance it has of ensuring the profitability of its investment.


The film industry is interested in studying the tastes and opinions of actual audiences through empirical studies, such as surveys, focus groups, and interviews. Because the film industry is a moneymaking enterprise, it remains successful only by producing films that make a profit over and above their (increasingly sizable) budget and marketing costs. The industry needs to bring in as many viewers as possible and therefore must keep close tabs on what types of stories will appeal to the greatest number of viewers at any given moment. The industry cannot afford to bank on hypothetical concepts of the film viewer but must seek out real audiences, both through research and through marketing in order to ensure that financial investments pay off. However, audiences shift over time in accordance with cultural tastes and trends.

The composition of film audiences has changed significantly over the course of American film history. Film content has largely mirrored the tastes of its audiences, which is a direct result of the industry's increasing proficiency in adapting to changing audience preferences. Film first emerged as a popular medium within the context of working-class and immigrant audiences who could afford the ticket prices at nickelodeon theaters. Despite the disdain of the middle and upper classes, who still preferred the entertainment of the legitimate theater, films during this period were attended by 26 million people a week. However, the evolution of film from short kinescopes to feature films in the mid-1910s significantly narrowed economic gaps, with film becoming a form of entertainment that slowly but effectively brought the working and middle classes together as one audience, increasing attendance significantly. Once film gained this wide audience, the newly established studio system targeted certain segments of the population over others; these demographic groups tended to be conceived along lines of age and gender rather than class. By 1922, 40 million film tickets were sold per week. By 1929 this number had increased to 90 million tickets per week.

However, historical events took their toll on film attendance. For instance, the economic repercussions of the Great Depression ate into film industry profits. In 1931 theater admissions dropped off by 12 percent to 70 million per week, and just one year later to 55 million per week. Over the course of these two years 4,000 theaters went out of business. And with the onset of World War II, audience composition changed dramatically: with a significant segment of the male population off at war, Hollywood films targeted a predominantly female audience. This contributed to the rise in the 1940s of female film genres such as woman's pictures, which appealed to the female audience of wives, girlfriends, daughters, and mothers of men who were deployed.

When the war ended and the troops returned home, the film industry was forced to compete with the increasingly prevalent new medium of television. Many middle-class American families were moving to the suburbs; along with the newfound emphasis on the domestic sphere of home and family, the flight away from urban centers, in which movie theaters were traditionally located, forced Hollywood to struggle to find its audience. Hollywood reached its peak in attendance in 1946, with some 100 million tickets sold per week, but by 1955 this number decreased by more than half to 46 million. Along with this trend away from the urban theaters was the rise of a new suburban audience of teenagers who were passionate about rock 'n' roll. The film industry recognized this new audience and acknowledged its spending power, making films such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Blackboard Jungle (1955) specifically for them.

In the 1960s a series of studio flops and vast overproduction drove the industry into a deep recession. Because of the breakdown of the classical studio system, Hollywood grew increasingly out of touch with the changing nature of its audience. As the threat of deregulation and the growing popularity of television grew even more powerful, the new teenage audience was not enough to sustain the film industry in the 1960s. The success of Easy Rider in 1969 was dramatic evidence of the changing makeup of the film audience, which was now younger and at the same time more sophisticated, showing interest in films that more accurately reflected their own lives. A survey sponsored by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in 1968 revealed that 48 percent of the audience for that year were between sixteen and twenty-four years old. As a result of the popularity of youth-oriented and more experimental films in the late 1960s, such as Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and The Graduate (1967), the 1970s was one of Hollywood's most artistically promising but fiscally inconsistent eras, with more independent, European-influenced films produced. It was only with the success of blockbuster films like Jaws (1976), Star Wars (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which led to the Indiana Jones franchise, that Hollywood was lifted out of one of the most financially challenged periods in its history. As a result of these box-office successes, since the 1980s the film industry has relied on consistent formulas and franchises to bring in audiences.

An ongoing debate throughout film history concerns the degree to which film content can influence its audiences' thoughts and behavior. In response to accusations of immorality and depravity, primarily owing to its depictions of sex and violence, Hollywood early on developed a system of self-regulation to fend off government pressure and threats of censorship. The result of this self-regulation was a system of self-censorship known as the Production Code that influenced film content from 1922 to the mid-1950s. The Production Code technically remained in effect until 1966 but became increasingly difficult to enforce in the 1950s. In 1968 the MPAA established a ratings system that categorized films based on their age-appropriateness and that remains the current system of regulating audiences. As in the 1950s, preteen and teen audiences have proved to be extremely important as a target audience with disposable income to spend on entertainment. The introduction of the PG-13 rating in 1983 forced the film industry to make films that appeal to audiences of multiple ages in order to realize the biggest profit on their investment. R-rated films have been seen as riskier investments because their restricted age group eliminates this young audience, one of the most lucrative segments of the population.

Leaving nothing to chance, the film industry does its best to ensure a film's popularity and success by incorporating the audience into the production process. As a result of the blockbuster successes of the 1970s during an otherwise gloomy financial period, studios implemented pre-production market research to ensure a film's audience before its production. This was a significant change from the classical Hollywood model, in which an audience was found after a film's production. In addition, once a film has finished principal photography and a rough cut of the film is edited together, it is screened for a test audience who provide both quantitative and qualitative evaluations. Film studios go to great lengths to ensure that test screening audiences are made up of the widest possible range of the population so that they are able to assess what demographics the film appeals to and why. After the test screening, the studio evaluates the responses to the film and often will alter it considerably to eliminate overwhelmingly unpopular parts or to change the film's emphasis. The studio may even order reshoots to achieve what production executives think will be a more appealing movie.

There are many examples of films that were dramatically transformed after test audiences did not respond well to a particular aspect of a film. One of the more well-known and interesting examples is Fatal Attraction (1987). In the original ending, Alex Forest (Glenn Close) committed suicide while listening to the opera Madame Butterfly. But this did not sit well with test audiences: because Alex was a menacing character whom they saw as crossing the line into unacceptable behavior, the test audience wanted to see her punished for her crimes against Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) and his family. For a cost of $1.7 million, the studio reshot the ending according to the test audience's wishes, with Alex being shot to death (after appearing to have drowned) by Dan's wife, Beth (Anne Archer). This ending proved box-office gold for Paramount Studios, as Fatal Attraction went on to gross over $100 million in four months.

Marketing departments of film studios have found new and creative ways, often unrelated to a film's content or quality, to attract audiences. Merchandising inspired by the film, such as action figures based on a film's characters or the licensing of film concepts to fast food chains, increases the public's awareness of a film. In addition, promotional tie-ins with television shows, radio stations, and magazines as well as popular-music sound-tracks (with accompanying music videos featuring scenes from the film) create a "buzz" around a particular film that can attract audiences who might otherwise not know about it. With the rising influence of the Internet and movie-related Web sites, audiences can learn about the type of reception a film is getting at test screenings or, in the case of smaller, independent films, on the festival circuit before it is even released in theaters.


When film studies began to establish itself as an academic discipline in the 1970s, film theorists looked to other fields, most importantly semiotics and psychoanalysis, for cues on how to best articulate the ways in which film functions as a system of language. Both semiotics and psychoanalysis are based on the understanding that larger structures or systems govern the ways in which individuals engage with the world. These structures are inescapable; individuals have no control over their position within them and are subject to their processes. Film theorists saw many parallels between the pleasurable experience of watching a film in a darkened theater and psychoanalytic discussions of unconscious states of being.

In accounting for the process of how a spectator experiences a film, theorists drew on Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan's theories of early childhood development, suggesting that the process of watching a film recreates a similar dynamic between what Lacan called the imaginary and symbolic worlds. Because film language works so effectively to make the viewer feel as though he or she were enmeshed in its world, the spectator is able to relive the pleasurable state of being in the imaginary stage again. Psychoanalytic theories of spectatorship make several assumptions that raise doubts about its ability to serve as a suitable model for understanding film viewing. First, in this model the spectator is always rendered a passive subject of the film text, subject to its meaning system. This suggests that film spectators do not have control over the ways in which they view films and the meaning they take from them—that, in fact, every spectator receives the same meaning from a film. Also, because Lacan's notion of Oedipal development is experienced only by the male child, psychoanalytic theories of spectatorship are pertinent only when applied to (hetero-sexual) male spectators. Furthermore, these theories do not take into consideration cultural and historical variants, implying that all (male) film viewers will respond to film language in the same way regardless of their historical, cultural, and political context.

Although the psychoanalytic model remains important within academic film studies and continues to produce active debates, its assumptions have been challenged by several theoretical positions that pose alternative ways of thinking about the film spectator. In her influential essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1975), Laura Mulvey takes a feminist stance toward the implicit gender dynamics of psychoanalytic theories of spectator-ship by further interrogating the male specificity on which the entire framework rests. Like the development process, in which only the male child can enter into the symbolic world where language has meaning, she argues that film language is dictated by a male-controlled system. Film language is both controlled by men and designed for the benefit of male pleasure, which is inextricably linked with looking, voyeurism, and the objectification of the female image. Mulvey argues that, because the language of narrative cinema mimics aspects of the stage, film only serves to perpetuate a type of male-driven patriarchal language that facilitates male visual pleasure. As a result, female spectators have no access to it other than through the male gaze that consistently objectifies the female spectator's onscreen counterpart. Therefore the only pleasure that female spectators derive from it is masochistic (the pleasure in one's own pain). Mulvey argues that female spectators will be able to find true pleasure from films only by inventing a new type of film language that is not driven by narrative.

Mulvey's article posited a comprehensive paradigm that was difficult to overcome. Yet the work that followed succeeded in posing alternatives to her argument or expanding its framework. One of the main paths of research in this area focused on the potential for female film spectators to establish a different type of relationship with films specifically made to appeal to them—referred to as women's pictures, weepies, or melodramas. Because these films feature female characters and focus on female issues, theorists raised compelling questions as to whether this more feminine mode has the potential to challenge male-oriented film language. Following the lead of feminist theorists who debated (to varying degrees) the assumption that the subject or spectator implied by psychoanalysis is male, other film theorists responded to the psychoanalytic model by contesting its inherent dismissal of historical and cultural conditions, specifically those of race and sexual orientation. The emphasis of these alternative readings was both to argue for an active spectator-ship informed by one's cultural and social position and to suggest the possibility for oppositional or alternative readings that deviate from the dominant (Caucasian, heterosexual, male) one set forth by mainstream cinema.

For instance, Manthia Diawara argues that psychoanalytic theories of spectatorship ignore the impact race has on a spectator's reading of films, contending that viewers have the potential to resist dominant readings and establish oppositional perspectives. He argues that it is therefore possible for African American spectators to identify with and resist Hollywood's often limited image of blacks, which Caucasian spectators do as well. In other words, a spectator's race does not determine his or her response to a given film. The feminist film theorists bell hooks and Jacqueline Bobo augmented this discussion of race and spectatorship by arguing that even more complex readings arise for African American female spectators because of their double exclusion on the grounds of gender and race.

Gay and lesbian theorists have also made significant contributions to the "rereading" of film spectatorship. Teresa de Lauretis, Andrea Weiss, and Patricia White, among others, suggest that lesbian spectatorial desire challenges the traditional heterosexist paradigm, creating a dynamic of desire outside of previously theorized notions of spectatorship. If lesbian spectators are outside of the traditional heterosexual system of desire, then they pose a significant threat to previous theories of spectatorship.

Signifying a departure from psychoanalytic concepts, an increasingly prevalent discussion within film studies of spectatorship focuses on the historical development of audiences in the early film industry. By unearthing archival documents such as box-office records, studio files, and periodicals of this era, film historians have pieced together accounts not only of how audiences responded to early films, but also of how changing audience expectations affected the evolution of the film industry and film language.

SEE ALSO Censorship;Fans and Fandom;Feminism;Film History;Psychoanalysis;Reception Theory;Star System


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Michele Schreiber